Viet Thanh Nguyen (part 1 of 2): Some deal with it in a tangential way

Anvi Hoàng: In your book, Race and Resistance, you said that “criticism of Asian American literature reflects the relationship of Asian American intellectuals to Asian America.” What did you mean by that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When we talk about the term “Asian America” we’re talking about two things: a whole group of people who live in the United States who are Asian descents, and that’s about 5% of the population right now – that’s many millions of people. It also refers to a group of people who identify or call themselves Asian American. That is a different population because not all the people who are called by this term would think of themselves as Asian American.

Those who call themselves Asian American already had a change in their consciousness. They see themselves differently oftentimes than people who just came to the United States who would probably think of themselves as Vietnamese, for example, rather than Asian American. That change of consciousness is very crucial because what it means is that people who call themselves Asian Americans are more likely to subscribe to a certain cultural and political viewpoint about what it means to be Asian in the United States – oftentimes that’s a fairly liberal set of political perspectives that are rooted in the idea that Asian Americans have been historically discriminated against in the United States because of race, and that they should ally themselves with each other in order to mobilize themselves politically and culturally to overlook or ignore or reconcile national differences that might have been more important to immigrants or to people who are in Asia. So it is a very different kind of self-conscious population that calls themselves Asian American.

In the book, I talk about how this is a powerful but somehow limiting perspective. It is powerful because it allows Asian Americans to organize themselves and to do things that we would not be able to do otherwise. On the other hand, it means that Asian American intellectuals oftentimes, when they study Asian American populations or try to organize Asian American populations, will overlook or try to excuse those kinds of behaviors or incidents that might contradict this idea of a unified, progressive Asian American coalition. The book itself deals very specifically with literature because literature is one of the most important kinds of Asian American cultural creations. Asian American critics look at literature because it records all kinds of political, cultural, and historical circles Asian Americans have gone through and tried to overcome. By doing so, Asian American critics have often read the literature very selectively. They don’t read literature that contradicts these kinds of assumptions about the need for fighting back against racism, or when they read a specific book they might overlook the contradictions that don’t fit with this Asian American point of view. And I argue that this is a viewpoint or practice that’s not only unique to Asian American literature critics but it’s shared by other Asian American intellectuals in other kinds of arenas that they may work in. That’s why it’s important to read literature because it tells us something political about Asian American intellectuals and leadership as a whole as they try to create this thing called “Asian America.”

AH: So what is loaded in the concept of “Asian America”?

VTN: The most important thing about it is that despite all the incredible diversity of Asian populations in the United States we can somehow form a politically and culturally unified coalition out of it. That is the most important load and the most problematic one because there are two loading sides of it – one is the huge diversity and the other the innate of Asian American populations. If we think about all the diversity that characterizes Asian American populations  in the United States, you can think about things like language, religion, nationality, or generations. But the thing that Asian Americans have had the most difficult time, given the most difficult kind of diversity, is political or ideological diversity. If you look at Asian American populations you can see that they’re demographically republicans or they’re conservative or liberal or radical. They could hold a variety of different political viewpoints on any number of different kinds of positions and they can oftentimes come into conflict with each other. One basic example would be Affirmative Action. For the most part, Asian American political leadership is thrilled of Affirmative Action but a lot of Asian Americans oppose it because they think it works against their own interest when it comes to things like college admission. This is one basic example of where the political leadership of Asian America which is invested in a certain kind of ideology has overlooked or mismanaged ideological differences or problems within this Asian America population.

AH: When does the term “Asian America” become insulting to some people at some point?

VTN: First of all, I think a lot of people who are classified as Asian Americans don’t accept the term. They see themselves in other ways, usually through ethnicity or nationality – they call themselves Vietnamese or Taiwanese or Chinese or whatever. That’s the term they feel comfortable with so they reject the idea that they’re Asian American. The reasons are: they may not see themselves as Asian – they see themselves as coming from a particular country in Asia but they are not Asian; and/or they don’t see themselves as American. For example my parents, they did see themselves as Vietnamese people. When I was growing up they always said, “We’re Vietnamese.” When they said “American” they meant somebody else. It is a huge accomplishment when that population finally acknowledges that they are American. For my parents, they go to Việt Nam a few times, they come back and they say, “We’re American. We just didn’t realize we’re American.” I don’t think that is unusual. It is very common across all Asian American populations that this happens to them.

The next step to being Asian American is much more difficult because they see themselves as Vietnamese American but not Asian American. I think the Asian American step is more common for second generation who are born here in the United States; or what the sociologist call the 1.5 generation – people who came here as children and grew up in the United States. Even for the first generation, people who become politically involved in the community, they realize that it is not enough oftentimes to be just a Vietnamese American. If you really want to mobilize your community resources you also have to become Asian American and tap into this coalition and this network.

I think it becomes insulting when people may feel that they don’t have a choice. For example when you fill out a census form up until recently, you have to check off “Asian American,” for example. And people might think, “That is not who I am so why am I forced to call myself in that term.” And that could be insulting, the realization that bureaucracy or the state is categorizing in certain ways that you don’t agree with. If we take the example of the census and look at it historically over the past century, we’ll see how the state has tried to negotiate with the populations that are called Asian American because the terms that’s used for them keep changing almost decade to decade. In the early part of the century, “Oriental” or “Mongolian” was the term. After a decade of political struggles it became “Asian American” in the 80s. Now you don’t just have to check off “Asian American,” you have the subcategories that you can check off that are specific to your nationality.

AH: What is the dynamics between the concepts of resistance and accommodation for the Asian American population?

VTN: For Asian American intellectuals when they look back on the past, they tended to look back and see history as being oriented around these two possibilities: resistance to the racism that’s directed against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans; or accommodation to those kinds of racist practices. That viewpoint is based on the idea that Asian Americans have to ally themselves politically in opposition to all these forces that are used to subjugate or discriminate against Asian Americans. So resistance becomes really important. As so, in this viewpoint, resistance becomes the positive side of things. It is important that we fight back against anti-Asian violence, for example, or anti-Asian immigration legislation, or anti-Asian practices of various kinds. If we don’t do that, if we just give in, or accommodate ourselves to these kinds of racist practices, that is bad, because that means that we allow ourselves to be pushed around in various ways.

Being pushed around could range from very very minor things to important terrible things. Historically, if we look at the Chinese when they first came to the United States, they were discriminated against in various laws. They were not allowed to testify in legal cases because they were not citizens, even in cases where they were the victims. This gave Chinese immigrants the choice of whether they were going to fight back or whether they should be quiet and give in. The whole idea of the Asian American coalition is that it is important to organize ourselves to push back against discrimination, and it is important for us to look back into history and to see those incidents or examples where Asians in the United States say exactly that. Asian American history has been focused, up until recently, for the most part, in looking for history of Asian American resistance to discrimination, which means that all those other incidents in Asian American lives that didn’t fit into that don’t get studied. That’s the self-fulfilling way of looking back into the past.

AH: When American critics look at Asian American literature, what did they overlook and still do?

VTN: If by American critics you mean those who are not Asian American, for the most part, they were  ignoring it. So the first thing to say is that the Asian American movement has been very beneficial since the 1960s. It led to the moment where it is not only Asian Americans who are concerned about Asian Americans but other populations are concerned about Asian Americans as well. For example we just talked about literature, no one cared about what Asian Americans were writing. There was no Asian American literature before Asian American movement happened in the 1960s and 1970s. Then Asian American critics started to investigate and covered all the examples of Asian American writing in English since the late 19th century. They dealt with the idea that there was no Asian American signature literature. And then more and more Asian Americans started to write. There were a handful of Asian American writings that were published in English in the 1970s, more in the 1980s, a lot more in the 1990s. And today you have literally dozens of Asian American writings being published every year, whereas in the 60s or 70s you’re lucky to get a dozen published in a decade. There has been a radical transformation that has become the Asian American movement. It is becoming of the Asian American demographics – more and more Asian Americans have gone to college and have gone on to writing programs and have had this chance. The impact has been that now, yes, people who are not Asian American read Asian American books and write about Asian American literature.

If we talk about what happened in the 1990s until now when Asian American literature started to get more and more popular, what you see is that publishers and readers tend to look for certain kinds of Asian American stories. The most famous Asian American writers are people like Amy Tan who wrote Joy Luck Club. That’s one of the books that they think about when they think about Asian American literature. That means that subsequent to her, if you are a young Asian American writer trying to break into the market, you know that readers are looking for certain stories and you may attempt to write this kind of stories in order for you to get published. In general, what it means for Asian Americans is that stories about mother and daughter and their conflicts are popular; or stories about how horrible it was in Asia or whatever country that is, and how much better life is in the United States; or stories about how difficult immigrant life is; or stories about how horrible Asian men or Asian fathers are. These kinds of stories are very popular and very marketable, which means that people who are not Asian American, that is what they’re looking for, and they are overlooking all the other stories that Asian Americans are undergoing. Most specifically to your audience, if you are Vietnamese, then the pre-marketation for American readership is the Vietnam War. That means Americans expected, or you’d be more marketable if your story was about the Vietnam War in some way. Most Vietnamese American writers who got published want to, or find themselves having to, write stories about Vietnam – either the Vietnam War, or about life in Việt Nam, or about life of the Vietnamese refugees here in the United States. Those are three common kinds of stories that Vietnamese writers have been producing. Again, it is hard to tell whether because they want to or have to – because that is what American readers want to read.

AH: Can Vietnamese/Asian Americans do something to create new trends?

VTN: Yes, definitely. That is partially why, if we talk about this in the context of Asian America, Asian America has been very important to Vietnamese Americans whether they know it or not. When Vietnamese people started coming to the United States in large numbers in the 1970s, they stayed in a very different kind of United States than Asian Americans faced in the 1930s, 1940s or 50s because in between the Asian American movement and the Civil Rights movement happened in the 1960s and the 1970s. That meant that by the time the Vietnamese refugees started to come, they came to a suddenly more welcoming environment. There was not a whole lot of anti-Vietnamese discrimination or  anti-Vietnamese feelings. There is also a cultural setting where there were more possibilities for Vietnamese refugees that wouldn’t have existed a couple of decades before. So the Vietnamese American community forms and then they start to recognize that other Americans don’t understand or don’t recognize them. Then Vietnamese Americans start to feel a very common feeling which is, “It is time to organize ourselves and tell our stories because if we don’t other people will tell our stories for us, or ignore us” – the same pattern that other Asian immigrant groups have experienced before. When Vietnamese Americans start to feel this, they are not alone. They can look out there and they see that other Asian American populations have already started telling their own stories. So a model exists for Vietnamese Americans. What we start to see is Vietnamese Americans starting to tell their own stories. They do so first through Vietnamese language media – the newspapers, things like Paris By Night, even literature in Vietnamese but in the United States, and all things start to happen.

As the younger generation grow, get educated, go to college, they start to produce materials in English. That’s when you start to see in the 1990s and now more and more. There are different kinds of stories that are told in Vietnamese language media vs. English media by Vietnamese Americans, but they are both important because they are trying to move away from the trend of how Vietnamese stories have been told by Americans. These are very crucial moves by young Vietnamese American film makers, writers and so on. Their stories, unlike in Vietnamese media, are able to reach English speaking/reading Americans in a way that Vietnamese language media just can’t do.

Also, it is important to say that the kind of world now that Vietnamese Americans stay is different than the world that other Asian Americans stayed four decades ago. Now we live in a globalized age, transnational age. If you were Asian Americans back in the 1960s and the 1970s, it was important to tell stories set in the United States saying that Asian Americans were American because back then Americans saw Asian Americans as totally foreign, so Asian Americans had to say, “No, we’re American.” Today it’s very different. In this globalization, Americans still tend to see Asian Americans as foreign but they are also more receptive to foreign influences because of transnationalism and globalization. For example, Asian culture is increasingly more visible and important in the United States both in terms of material goods such as cars or appliances, but also in terms of popular culture like films and amines. It means that Asian Americans find themselves in a situation where they don’t only have to say, “We’re Americans” or “We’re Vietnamese Americans” which some of them do. Other Vietnamese Americans are saying, “No, we can do things bilingually, both in Vietnamese and in English.” So we have Vietnamese rap music in Vietnamese and English, Vietnamese films in Vietnamese and English. Or Vietnamese American filmmakers who say, “More opportunities exist in Việt Nam for us than they do here. We’re going back to Việt Nam and we’re going to write our films and shoot our films in Việt Nam with the mix of Vietnamese actors and Vietnamese American actors, with the mix of Vietnamese and American capitals. We produce films that are set in Việt Nam but are filmed in both Việt Nam and the United States.” A lot of what they do there has nothing to do with the war or communism. They are about love and music and dancing and martial arts and things like that. That is a very important way that this new generation of Vietnamese Americans, born here and grew up here, is doing something totally different than what other Asian Americans have done, totally different than what Americans think about Việt Nam, and totally different than what Vietnamese parents think.

AH: In all these new changes, could you define or describe the Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity in the United States?

VTN: One, it is a very diverse one. So any attempt to define it will tend to overlook some of the nuances. I would say that to define the Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity we have to talk about how it shares certain commonalities, but also is layered by differences. The commonality is that it shares a certain historical origins that those Vietnamese here in the United States came as a result of the war, either directly or indirectly. They came as refugees, or children of the refugees; or they came through various kinds of war-related immigration programs in the 1980s and 1990s, or any other programs that bring people here; or now they’re coming as immigrants who are sponsored by their relatives, or who come because they don’t want to live in Việt Nam, or who come as foreign students and who decide to stay. All of that is ripple effects from the history of the war, and that is why Vietnamese still come here because they have an intimate relationship with the United States through the history between the United States and Việt Nam. That is the backbone of what defines Vietnamese cultural identity in the United States. This does not mean everybody is talking about that or dealing with that, it is just the framework by which we understand all the differences that we begin to talk about, most important are the differences in generations – whether we talk about the first, second, or the third generation by now; or whether we talk about the differences in terms of experiences by the way people came here to the United States as refugees, as immigrants, or as foreign students – these are different points of views.

For my point of view, for a long time, the Vietnam War and the issue of communist politics did define the Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity. I don’t think it is that strong any more, but from the 70s through the 90s it was the dominant way to talk about diasporic cultural identity throughout the country where we found Vietnamese population. Nowadays, I think it is uneven. In some parts of the country it is still true that it is the case – it is true of places like Orange County, or Santa Clara County, maybe in some other pockets. But it is uneven now because Vietnamese people are more and more disperse across the country. The further Vietnamese people get away from Vietnamese communities or the ethnic enclaves like in California, the more flexibility you see in terms of their attitude towards what might define a diasporic cultural identity, the more individual their relationship becomes to Vietnamese identity or Vietnamese diasporic cultural identity. In literature, for example, certain writers write pretty much about the war or refugee experience; and some who, like Monique Truong, don’t deal with that at all or deal with it in a tangential way – Việt Nam is still important but not Việt Nam as defined by communism and war.

AH: Are you happy with the way Vietnamese communities are moving ahead?

VTN: I think for the most part Vietnamese American communities are moving ahead. There are Vietnamese Americans who separate themselves from the community, or at least from their family, and they go off and do individual things. I think that’s great because it means that Vietnamese Americans aren’t defined purely by their ethnicity or by the history of the war, and they go off and do remarkable things. Then there are Vietnamese Americans who stay within their ethnic enclaves and they shift the ethnic enclaves in particular ways. So there are Little Sài Gòns everywhere. Even though they’re called Little Sài Gòn they are not like Sài Gòn at all. They are very much American ethnic enclaves and they represent a very successful effort by Vietnamese people who speak literally and territorially in the United States for themselves. It is a very powerful and symbolic thing that these communities exist.

And while you could argue that some Vietnamese are living in the past or stuck in the past because their lives are defined purely by the war or by whatever happened back then, you can also argue that it is an important memory for certain groups of people to keep alive because if they didn’t do it, no one else would. The United States doesn’t care about what happened in South Việt Nam or about South Việt Nam as a country, Vietnamese government basically don’t care and erase South Việt Nam from the memory. Therefore I think one of the most important reasons for the Vietnamese American community to exist is precisely to keep alive this memory of this country. I have conflicted feelings about it myself because it can be a very negative thing, because anti-communism in the Vietnamese American community can be very repressive. But at the same time one thing it does do is to keep alive the memories of this country that is a rebuke to communist Việt Nam. It serves as a reminder to communist Việt Nam that there is something they still have to negotiate with – they still have to appease the diasporic community. That means that the Vietnamese diasporic community has some power, some leverage in terms of negotiating with Việt Nam. And I think that is a powerful thing in terms of the political, cultural, economic influences Vietnamese Americans can insert on Việt Nam.

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Viet-L

Photo courtesy from Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002). He has published numerous academic articles in books and journals including American Literary HistoryPMLA, and positions: east asia cultures critique. He has received residencies, fellowships, scholarships and grants from the Luce Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, among others. His short fiction has been published in a variety of venues, including Best New American Voices 2007Gulf Coast, and Narrative Magazine. His writing has been translated into Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Spanish, and he has given invited lectures in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany. He has finished a collection of short stories and is working on a comparative study of American and Vietnamese memories and representations of the American war in Viet Nam, focusing on the literary and visual arts. He also edits diacritics (www.diacritics.org), a blog on Vietnamese and diasporic Vietnamese arts and culture.

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Interview in English. The Vietnamese version of this interview has been published in print by Vien Dong Daily News and posted online  here.