Viet Thanh Nguyen (part 2 of 2): I really questioned that impulse

Anvi Hoàng: How has the narrative of the Vietnam War in the United States changed over time?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The way Americans remember the Vietnam War has changed a lot. In the 1980s, the Vietnam War was a horrible thing that happened to Americans and that America needed to get over the division and the wounds that they experienced. All the movies from that time period were about being the catharsis for Americans that allowed them to confront their version of the past. What changed since then is that Americans have basically retold the stories of that war – from the dominant version of the war as a horrible thing that happened to Americans and what Americans did to the Vietnamese, to now when it is remembered more as a misguided war, but American soldiers were simply doing what they were told to do, and we should honor and respect them. That allowed Americans to avoid dealing with other issues that were much more prominent from the 1960s through the 1980s which is that maybe Americans soldiers were not following orders but they were doing evil and horrible things. That part of history has been submerged beneath other narratives that honored and respected American soldiers. And that went hand in hand with the fact that by the 1990s the United States has been gradually rebuilding relationship with Việt Nam. So Việt Nam, instead of only being remembered as the horrible war-torn country, is now more and more seen as a tourist destination, a wonderful place to visit, but also a place where the United States has economic, political and military opportunities. Now Việt Nam is seen as the potential partner for U.S. efforts to contain China. That is another major way by which the American narrative about Việt Nam has totally changed – that with the rise of China and with the gradual forgetting of the American experience in the war, Việt Nam has become a place not so threatening.

AH: How about the narrative among Vietnamese American writers?

VTN: There have been changes as well. What was published in the 1970s and 1980s in English were all memoirs about Vietnamese who were adults during the war. They talked about how terrible the war was and how conflicted the country was and how difficult being a refugee was in the United States, and how Việt Nam was a place you could not go back to. But the same narrative of returning to Việt Nam, and seeing what the country is actually like, and revising memory of the country, as Americans have undergone, has also happened for Vietnamese Americans too. It began with the writer like Le Ly Hayslip, who a lot of Vietnamese don’t like, who went back to Vietnam and said, “Look, it’s not as terrible as you think it is, look at how much the Vietnamese people have suffered, and what they’re trying to deal with.” She did that in the early 1990s. Now all the younger Vietnamese American writers who are coming up, many of them go to Việt Nam and write about the changed landscape of the country, precisely from the viewpoint that, “Our parents remember the country in a certain way but we need to go back and we need to look at what it is like for us, and tell our own version of this history between the United States and Việt Nam, between the first and second generations of Vietnamese Americans, and also between Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese in Việt Nam.” That’s what the mutual story is about – all the changed expectations, and this need for Vietnamese with different background to converse with each other, to engage in this kind of dialogue that was not possible in the 1980s.

AH: In this context, what is the importance of homeland to the diaspora?

VTN: It is important for positive and negative reasons, differently for different generations and for people with different experiences of coming to the United States. Basically it is a negative space in a sense that it is a place where many people want to leave – for some, because the communists took over and they were forced to leave; or for some, it was a difficult place to live because of ethnicity, religion, or the lack of economic opportunities; for some, every time they go back to Việt Nam they enter into a very conflicted territory – going home is oftentimes not a pleasant experience for many Vietnamese Americans. On the other hand, even for these same people, the homeland is a positive thing because it becomes symbolic of all the things that make them Vietnamese – the language, the food, the culture, the weather, all the nostalgic memories of homeland form the basis of the diaspora. Even if Vietnamese Americans have been here for decades now, they have formed a very particular kind of diasporic community that looks nothing like Việt Nam itself. The reason for that community to exist is the idea of homeland that everybody came from or descended from. And even if they have a conflicted relationship with that homeland they still need that homeland in order to justify continuing to think of themselves as Vietnamese in the United States.

AH: How come we don’t have great war novels by Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans?

VTN: It depends on how you define war. If we talk about war the way we normally talk about as shooting and bullets and soldiers, I think we do have great war novels by writers like Dương Thu Hương or Bảo Ninh. I think their works do mean a lot to readers both in Vietnamese and in English.

We don’t have many, I think it may have something to do with the politics of the country and what it means to write about an experience that is so important to the state and the communist party. Obviously the state and the communist party want to control the meaning of this very long, extended war that the Vietnamese fought against the outsiders and against each other. It is difficult for writers to write about this topic. When they do, oftentimes they find themselves being censored or imprisoned and so on. That is probably the major reason why we don’t see many great war novels.

Overseas, we don’t have great war novels in the conventional sense of bullets and shooting, but if we think about the war as something Vietnamese experienced differently than Americans then there is important literature about the war by Vietnamese refugees. Americans saw the war as a shooting war among the soldiers. Vietnamese people see the war as something that involves everybody – civilians, women and all people. So I’d argue that the literature by Vietnamese Americans, in English and in Vietnamese, is very much war literature because it is about how the war affected civilians and refugees – it affected everybody. That is one of the most important contributions that I think Vietnamese American literature can make, that unlike the way Americans experienced war, the way the rest of the world experienced the war involved civilians – very different.

AH: Other Asians and Latinos were affected by the Vietnam War as well. How are their stories different than the Americans?

VTN: Very different: for Americans, from my point of view, the war was a racial one. Americans came to Việt Nam and saw the Vietnamese as a racially different people. It meant two things: on one hand, it is benevolent racism in which the Americans thought they could teach the Vietnamese how to fight the war – they tried to equip the Southern army and so on. This is problematic because many scholars say this is how the South Vietnamese lost the war – by trying to fight the war in the American way. In a much more negative version of this racism, Americans saw Vietnamese as totally racially inferior. This justified the kinds of firepower that Americans unleashed on Vietnam, whether it was against North Vietnamese or Vietnamese communists, or whether against the Southern Vietnamese in the countryside – indiscriminate bombings that killed a lot of Vietnamese civilians.

Other Asians, Latinos and African Americans tended to see the war differently because they saw themselves as racially different already, as a racial minority, so when they went to Việt Nam they saw a similarity between themselves and the Vietnamese. They saw that white Americans are treating Vietnamese as a racially inferior population and they could recognize that this is similar to how, in the United States or even in the American army, white Americans treated minorities differently as well. In the writings of Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans we see that – they say, “We’re like the Vietnamese because we are not white.”

The results are different. Latinos and African Americans could sill identify themselves as American and also a lot of them gave in to anti-Vietnamese racism. But it was not the case for Asian American soldiers, it was much more personal. Many of them recorded the fact that other American soldiers thought they were the same as Vietnamese and used the same racial epithets against Asian American soldiers. So for some Asian American soldiers the experience of being a racial minority in Việt Nam was totally irreconcilable. There were many Asians in Việt Nam. Japanese journalists were very important to recording the war. Korean soldiers in Việt Nam were the largest allied army that fought with the United States – the United States paid South Korea a huge amount of money to fly these soldiers out. There is literature produced by these Korean soldiers that applied to both Japanese and Korean soldiers – they recognized that the war was a racially charged war, and that they occupied a very  ambivalent situation as Asians who could be mistaken for Vietnamese. Their writing showed a lot more sympathy for the Vietnamese because they felt this racial tension.

AH: For people previously colonized by countries other than America, Việt Nam is one, what does Americanization mean to them?

VTN: It means a contradictory set of things. I think anyone being colonized is very resentful of being colonized. So the reaction is, “Let’s get the Americans out of here.” We’re talking about Việt Nam, Japan, Korea, the Philippines – you see anti-American movements all the time when people want the American soldiers to leave. Obviously in Việt Nam where the war is going on, the reaction is very strong. In countries like Japan, Korea, the Philippines where the wars that were fought were in the past, now all you have are American bases, the reaction is more in medias – no violence but there are civil protests against the  American presence.

At the same time, what happens with colonization or occupation is that you develop an attachment to the colonizer or occupier. You develop an attraction to the things that the colonizer or occupier represent because they represent superiority. If you look at all these countries, despite the fact that there is anti-American sentiment in all of them, there is also a deep affection for and identification with American culture. In all those countries, historically, people listen to American music, they watch American movies, they learn English, they wear American fashion. That is the ambivalence that colonization represents: there is resentment on the one hand, identification on the other. This is true of not just Americanization in Vietnamese history but the French colonization as well.

AH: How is the Vietnam War remembered in Việt Nam?

VTN: It is remembered as one episode in a much longer war. For Americans they think of the Việt Nam War as unique and discreet and very important. But in Vietnam the American war is simply a number of years out of fifty years. So the war is remembered as a much longer struggle against the French and the Japanese and then the Americans, and then simply as the American war. If you go there and visit the historical museums, that is how the war is commemorated. If you visit the many martyrs cemeteries, you’ll see the war is also commemorated as a long episode of half a century of war. The graveyards are separated into historical episodes of soldiers who died fighting the French or the Americans in particular battles. This is the most common way the war is remembered. In villages the nghĩa trang liệt sĩ (martyr’s cemetery) is in a central location that is easily seen.

What is forgotten is that this is also the war that involved people who disagreed with the revolutionary mission. So the Southern Vietnamese are regarded as puppets of foreign colonizers or the French and the Americans. The presence of any South Vietnamese as a population is erased. The older South Vietnamese National Cemetery can’t be seen from the road, there is no sign or anything like that, even though during the war there was. You have to go around asking the local where it is. The cemetery is there but completely over-grown, while the revolutionary cemeteries are well-maintained and the lawns are cut. But the time is changing. The name was changed from National Cemetery of the South Vietnamese Government to People’s Cemetery of a particular district. So they [Vietnamese government] are trying to rehabilitate the memory of the cemetery. The cemetery remains as a potential place where, in the future, you can hope that the communist party will allow some kind of official recognition of Southern Vietnamese soldiers and Southern Vietnamese government.

AH: What brought you to short stories?

VTN: In college, I wrote essays and short stories. Then I continue to write stories in graduate school and as a professor. My feeling about it has changed. Initially I started off thinking, “Vietnamese American stories aren’t being told so we have to tell stories about Vietnamese Americans.” This is a very common impulse among ethnic minorities in the United States. When I finished my short stories collection, I really questioned that impulse. I think it is important, but it is also important to ask why is it that ethnic minorities usually are expected to tell only stories about themselves, whereas other Americans can tell stories about anybody including ethnic minorities. By the end of the collection, I was writing stories that are told from the point of view of people who were not Vietnamese Americans but who are dealing with Vietnamese people or with Vietnam.

AH: Could you talk about the main characters in your stories?

VTN: The short stories collection deals with Vietnamese refugees who came over to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, and the people who interacted with them in the United States – other Americans like African Americans, Latinos and white Americans and so on. It also deals with Vietnamese Americans and other Americans who eventually would return to Việt Nam. Those two stories are typical ethnic stories of refugees coming here and struggling with what it means to be Vietnamese in America.

The stories in the middle are about people who are not Vietnamese Americans who are dealing with Vietnamese people in their lives and have a destructive sense of who they are as individuals or as Americans.

In the last few stories I deal with Americans who return to Việt Nam to confront their past. The final story is about this Vietnamese girl in Việt Nam and what happens when her half sister in the United States comes back and meets her Vietnamese father and her Vietnamese half-sister for the first time in thirty years. It’s about the disappointment that happens as a result. Many Vietnamese Americans have an idealized and romanticized notion of what Việt Nam is. They structure their life, their identity around the idea of a homeland and Vietnamese culture in a particular way. When they go back to Việt Nam, it’s not that way at all. It’s as much a crisis problem for them as the experiences of Vietnamese refugees who came to America – their crisis of Americanization. I think when a lot of Vietnamese Americans go back to Việt Nam they have a crisis of Vietnamization. There is a lot of joy coming out from that but also a lot of disappointment that defines what it means to be a Vietnamese coming back to Việt Nam for both Vietnamese Americans and the Vietnamese who meet them as well.

AH: What is the genesis of your stories?

VTN: It is a mixture of what goes on in my head and what is going on in the world. I have come to Việt Nam many times in the past ten years. Going to Việt Nam and meeting the people and seeing the country give me ideas, it gives me a sense of people’s characters, it gives me a sense of the physical nature of the country so I can describe it. What is going on in my head is equally important because I have imagined so many other things that I can’t experience. So if I have to write a story of a Vietnamese girl growing up in Việt Nam I have no idea what it is like. I have to imagine that based on what I could see from the outside, based on what I could see what a Vietnamese home looks like or what people study in school. For example part of the story is inspired by the fact that I went to this fancy restaurant on Đồng Khởi and they serve you rau muống for $5. I said to the hostess, a 20-something girl wearing áo dài, that,  “Sài Gòn is very exciting, isn’t it?” and she said, “Sài Gòn is boring.” That is really important because as a tourist you find this place exciting but for this girl it is nothing. So this incident makes its way into the final story.

AH: What is your intended audience?

VTN: There are many intended audiences. My ideal audience is Vietnamese Americans, people who I grew up with and who share some of the experiences. I hope they like the book. Beyond that, I think of the audience as American readers, and as, ideally someday, many Vietnamese readers who can read the book in English or in translation. I hope the book speaks across different audiences.

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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.

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