Interview: A Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen
By Ioannis Argiris
I had the privilege of connecting with Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Viet Thanh Nguyen to discuss his new literary spy thriller The Committed. In this sequel to The Sympathizer, the unnamed narrator travels to Paris, where he lives with his new handler—his aunt. Once a dedicated communist spy in America, the narrator is introduced to a new world of politicians and the French socialist elite. He integrates into a local mob, selling hashish and getting caught up in the Parisian underbelly’s free market. The narrator continues to struggle with identity as he endures tests from his new French network and surprises from the previous novel.
In speaking with Nguyen, we discussed his assimilation as a refugee in the Bay Area and living between two worlds, which can be felt of the protagonist in both novels. He shared insights into how setting shapes character, specifically crime’s impact on identity and mental health. Nguyen also discussed other genres he enjoys and where the third book in his trilogy may take us.
TCR: You spent the majority of your formative years in the Bay Area, right?
VTN: I was there from 1978 to 1997. My formative years in adolescence were 1978 to 1988. And then I stayed for school at Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley].
TCR: You’d previously mentioned that your parents owned a grocery store in the Bay Area.
VTN: It was in downtown San Jose, and they had just moved from Harrisburg. They opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose.
TCR: I grew up as a child of immigrants, and I know that you were a refugee. It’s interesting that a lot of people who try to assimilate into the country work from the ground up—in stores, blue-collar types of jobs, or like how my parents ran a restaurant. How did working in a store influence your approach to character development?
VTN: I was always an observer in that kind of environment. I thought it would be crucial, being a writer. I was also someone who felt out of place in that store, but also out of place generally in most aspects of my life, being a refugee who became Americanized. I felt different from my parents and most of the people who came to that store. [I felt] different from the Americans outside of this store, who I thought had no understanding of what life was like inside the refugee community that revolved around places like my parents’ store. I also watched my parents work very, very hard there and suffer a lot. I have a lot of empathy for refugees, or immigrants, for outsiders, for working-class people as a result. I think all of these concerns saturate my fiction and my nonfiction. And then the sense of outsiderness, I think, has been crucial to me in a lot of ways. Feeling like an outsider is, again, very important for being a writer. I don’t know what it would be like to be an insider and try to write. But being an outsider trying to write is good because you’re constantly observing, but you’re also able to detect the assumptions that people who aren’t inside take for granted. Being able to detect and criticize assumptions are very good [skills] for a writer—assumptions of all kinds. I also feel like I still carry the experience of being a refugee with me wherever I go. So I feel like an outsider in the hallowed halls of a university and in the world of American literature. I cultivate feeling like an outsider so I can seize what I think are the hypotheses, assumptions, and limitations of these worlds that I work in, including the forms of writing that I engage in.
TCR: You’ve recently talked about memory a lot and its unreliable nature. So outside of that grocery store, were there other areas in San Jose or Berkeley that you remember having a big impact on the way you think about setting and assimilating into American culture?
VTN: The first house where we lived in San Jose, where I spent about eight years or so, was actually a really formative moment. That was on South 10th Street in San Jose, a major artery going from downtown to the freeways. Being right next to the freeways, I could literally see life go by because of the traffic on the street. My bedroom window looked out onto the freeway ramp. I thought a lot about the people who were driving by and where they were going and why I was stuck here, literally behind bars, because we lived in a neighborhood that was prone to armed robberies. That was a house that my parents, as refugees, bought brand new, in cash, which not a lot of Americans can do. That sort of defined my life. We were not poor, but I felt poor because my parents were so intent on saving every penny. I certainly didn’t have the benefits of middle-class luxuries, but my necessities were taken care of. That sense of being both secure in one way but also fearful and desirous of other possibilities, I think it shaped my life. Then moving to Berkeley, I had a typical student lifestyle—crowded apartments packed full of energy and excitement because we were young, in our teens and early twenties, grappling with all kinds of new ideas found in our classes, or intellectual ideas that were about literature and politics and race, and then grappling with the ideas that my friends and I were engaged in as activists on campus.
TCR: It sounded like you were pretty young when you were looking out at the freeway through the bars. It reminded me of the notion of how constraints can unleash the imagination. Did you view it like that? Also, do you think the awareness of otherness as a child helped your imagination?
VTN: At that young age I was seven to sixteen. So very formative years. I was spending a lot of time at the public library, borrowing books, doing a lot of reading, and watching a lot of TV. My imagination was being shaped by American culture and by the experiences of being a refugee and watching my parents do what they had to do. What I was writing back then, as a kid early on, had nothing to do with that. My first book was “Lester the Cat” in third grade, about a bored city cat that runs off to the countryside to find love with a country cat. There was this idea of escape. The other kind of writing that I did a little bit more toward the teenage years was journal writing. Unfortunately, I still have a copy of the journal, the diary that I kept. It’s horrifying. I’m going to burn it real soon because what I was meditating on was a lot of the typical teenage stuff. But I was also meditating on the very thing that we’re talking about, being the child of these two parents, who had a very hard time understanding [me]. They went from being two people who were all-important to me when I was very little to being two aliens as I became a teenager, separating myself from them and seeing them from the outside as an American looking at Vietnamese people and also as an adolescent looking at these strange people called my parents. That was what I was grappling with as a teenager. I was trying to shape myself. It still seems like what I feel within my fiction, but in a very different way. Those core concerns have never really been lost.
TCR: That’s interesting, this idea of how, as you grow, you start to see that difference—I’m starting to assimilate, but my parents are still kind of living in this old world and trying to adapt. That comes through not only in The Sympathizer but also in The Committed. In The Sympathizer you had the narrator live in Vietnam and Southern California, but in The Committed, you had him spend most of the book in Paris. Did you visit Paris while writing it?
VTN: Like many people, I love Paris. I’ve been there many times, starting with being a backpacker back in 1998, finishing my first academic book in 2002, and then spending my honeymoon for seven months there, in 2003. I had other visits too. I have very fond and romantic memories of Paris like many people do. So it was an easy decision to set this sequel, The Committed, in Paris, because of my experience. Also, because of the history of French colonization that I wanted to grapple with. I spent two summers there in 2017 and 2018, just to reabsorb the life of the city. I wanted to be there long enough to talk to French people, especially French people of Vietnamese descent. [I wanted] to live a life that was not the tourist experience, which I only got a taste of on our honeymoon, because we were there for seven months in a non-touristic area. The address I mentioned in The Committed, the apartment that his aunt lived in, is the address of the apartment we stayed in. You didn’t see very many tourists there, and you still don’t. The Paris I wanted to write about was the Paris of normal French people, especially immigrants and people of color, and the intelligentsia, who typically are going to be more white in the case of the book, not the romantic, touristic version but either the quotidian Paris or the gritty Paris that immigrants and working-class people found themselves in, refugees such as our narrator.
TCR: The Paris in The Committed seemed to be different from the romanticized version represented in a lot of traditional media. It felt gritty and real. I’m very curious about how you wanted to explore crime as it relates to Paris, and how that’s counter to what people usually write about it.
VTN: If you go back and read American modernist writers on Paris and their lives there, people like Hemingway, Henry Miller, or James Baldwin, they were all poor when they got there. Their accounts of how desperate life could be didn’t fully match up with romantic Paris. But because of the passage of time and the fact that these have become consecrated writers, it’s still romantic when we look at them. This version of Paris [speaks] a little bit to the kinds of poor conditions these young writers found themselves in. [They were] also the parts of Paris that I would get to see because of some of the people that I knew there who were of French, Vietnamese, or of Asian descent, or the fact that I spent a bit of time in the so-called Middle Asia District and the 13th arrondissement. These are places that are not like the Champs-Élysées or the Eiffel Tower, or the Latin Quarter. You can see a lot more people of color there. In the time that I spent in Paris, over many occasions, I witnessed crime and racism typically directed at people of color and the poor. There was an incident where two police officers beat up a homeless man. I saw that happening from my apartment window late one night, literally steps away from the museum of Pompidou. They spilled his own beer on him. A few blocks away from that, I saw police officers rob a young black man and just beat him in front of people on the sidewalk. But I was never subjected to violence. In all my life in the United States, I’ve never been called a racial epithet to my face; I’ve been subjected to long-distance racism through American pop culture, movies, the like, but in Paris, in the amount of time I’ve spent there, I’ve been called racial epithets many times to my face. Racism definitely exists in Paris, and the French have a very hard time dealing with it, just as much as Americans do, but in their own way. The book wants to grapple with the daily realities of this violence and racism in Paris, but also with a parallel system of racism compared to the United States, and how the French try to deal with it in their own way through their version of democracy and universalism. The novel wants to criticize and satirize the limitations of that system, as much as The Sympathizer does for the United States.
TCR: That definitely came across. Two moments in the novel really come to mind. One of them is how the narrator disguised himself as a tourist for the day and tried to explore Paris. The other was his struggle with language and realizing that there was a difference in how the Vietnamese there spoke French. Why was that so important to show in his character development? Does that relate to your experience with language in your formative years?
VTN: Learning a different language is always a painful experience, but it can be an exhilarating experience. It can be a funny experience. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read on this was David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, about his efforts to learn French, which were pretty similar to what my efforts in French have been. Ironically, I’m a really poor language student, and I think one of the reasons is that the language I was really focused on was English. As a refugee, I felt that I had to master English, especially if I wanted to be a writer. I devoted all my attention to English and then learning how to be a writer in that language. Acquiring other languages fell by the wayside. But now I have children. My son’s French accent is getting better than mine. I work to keep ahead of him. I re-enrolled in French language classes, and I’m spending the time in Paris. I was embarrassing myself because I still couldn’t speak very good French. I became recommitted to learning. It’s much more fun for me now, at this time in my life, and [I’m] taking it much more seriously.
But for the novel, the question of language in both The Sympathizer and The Committed are obviously really crucial. In The Sympathizer he demonstrates that he’s so fluent in English that he could be mistaken for a native-born American. In The Committed the reality is that he was colonized by the French. He went through the French educational system all the way through high school. He should be pretty fluent in French, but I wanted to draw attention to where he’s still struggling with the language. And it’s possibly realistic that he stopped learning French when he was eighteen or so. Fifteen years later, he hasn’t had a chance to speak the language very much. He would be using this colonial-education version, and his French would be rusty. It wouldn’t be, obviously, a native French. Yet he also had to be good enough at French that he could still communicate so it wouldn’t be awkward to have him speak broken French in the book. That was the gray zone of his language acquisition that I wanted, that he could still have a conversation, but he still needed to learn more in terms of the highest level of French, like being able to read French philosophy.
TCR: The idea of learning a language while living in a multilingual household and getting the two mixed up, trying to understand the subtext of English. It was a barrier in the novel. Language plays a fascinating role in the identity and the mental health of someone when it comes to just trying to assimilate. Did you experience that as well?
VTN: Part of the problem assimilating into another culture and the language, especially if you have an immigrant or refugee background, and you grew up here, is that you, the child, grows up to be an adult, and your English is going to be much better than your parents’. When I was little, my dad’s English was better than mine. [He was] teaching me or tutoring me when I was like four or five, then lo and behold, by the time I was ten years old, I was much more fluent than either of my parents. The more I became fluent in English and became an American, the more distance grew between my parents and me. That is a very typical American refugee experience that I explore a lot more in The Refugees short story collection.
TCR: There are so many great passages, like where the narrator says, “I had a screw loose, the trusty screw that had, for years, held together my two minds. Sometimes I did not even notice that I had two minds, since that was my natural condition, even if it was unnatural. Now the threads of the screw were stripped, having been placed under a great degree of stress from my years of being a spy, a sleeper, and a spook. As long as the screw had remained tightly screwed, my two minds had worked together reasonably well. Now I was no longer screwed—humanity’s universal condition—but was instead unscrewed.”
This notion of mental health and this split personality seems very core to both The Sympathizer and The Committed. It’s fascinating to continue that experience of the narrator untangling, even more so than what we experienced in The Sympathizer. How did setting impact the narrator’s mental health?
VTN: I committed to writing from the interior of our character. In both books, he’s under great duress, torture, and re-education multiple times. The challenge in these two books, since they’re written only in his voice, or his confessions, was to inhabit his mindset and try to convey the fact that he is coming apart mentally, that he’s trying to hold himself together, and the way that he’s doing that is through rewriting his appearances. The novels are not meant to be realistic. Or they’re meant to be realistic in the sense of what they’re meant to convey. What this mental health problem is like for our narrator. The settings become crucial. My challenge in The Committed was how to write about certain settings with which I was not that familiar. For example, the aunt’s apartment is very familiar to me. I’ve been inside French people’s apartments. I think I have a very good sense of what they looked like in the classical Parisian sense, but there are other places I had to think about. I set part of the novel in an asylum. I’ve never been in one in France; I just made it up, or a warehouse where some of the activity takes place, in a district of Paris that I’ve never been to. I know these places exist, but I don’t know what they look like exactly. Oftentimes there’s a blurring that I engage in. I give enough detail, hopefully, to convey the atmosphere of the place, but I deliberately don’t explain exactly where these places are. Sometimes things are in very sharp focus because I had been there, like in his aunt’s apartment, or in the little park, where the sympathizer is set upon and assaulted by two young Algerian gangsters. Other times, I just want to evoke enough Parisian aspects but take away some of the details. I think that blurring effect works just as well too.
TCR: I’d like to talk about the scene toward the end of part one of the novel where the narrator is being attacked. I’m in awe of the way you break structural rules of traditional craft. You had a sentence go for about seven pages or so. And it was very engaging. After a page or two, I was like, I don’t think I’ve seen a period yet. What inspired you to approach that scene that way?
VTN: In The Committed I set out to write the book exactly like I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. When I felt like doing something, I did it. You’re in an MFA program. I’ve been in a few writing workshops earlier in my life. I feel that in the United States, we’re well equipped to train and teach writers how to follow the rules. I mean, you come out of an MFA program, you know what the rules are. You know what a well-crafted work of prose or poetry is supposed to look like. That is both good and bad. It does increase the baseline competence of American writers. But at the same time, for me, having read a lot of contemporary American fiction, I don’t find that very interesting. I like books that break the rules, that provoke me, that are memorable because they might be challenging in various ways. That’s what I try to do with The Committed. I was also inspired by other things that I’ve been reading, for example, poetry. There are parts of The Committed that do what poets do with playing with text: word arrangement, white spaces, blank spaces. I was inspired by what I read with my seven-year-old son. He reads children’s literature, comic books, these kinds of things, where the authors break the rules all the time. There are no boundaries when you’re a child, and apparently, when you’re an adult writing for children. I wanted to be inspired by that, by that capacity, and not to care about what adult conventions happen to be. The example you’re talking about, the long sentence, the multipage one sentence, that’s been done by other writers. I’ve seen it done. The purpose here is to convey just how traumatizing this experience was for him to be beaten and knifed as he has been. It felt to me that that was the right decision to make. The story is being told from inside his head. The story is not being told from outside, someone observing this action taking place, which might require a different kind of realistic take. I’m committed to doing things as the narrator experiences and feeds on them rather than how we might be oriented towards seeing the scene in realistic fiction.
TCR: I could feel the rhythm during that part and the poetry throughout. Would you say that crime has been your conduit for exploring identity and assimilation? I haven’t read The Refugees, but in The Sympathizer and The Committed, crime is an element throughout both. Have you thought about exploring these themes in other genres as well?
VTN: I’m a big fan of the so-called genre. I grew up reading science fiction, fantasy, and detective fiction. I still turn to all of those. But the ones that I spent a lot of time with are the spy and crime genres. We were talking earlier about my life growing up in San Jose. I was exposed to a lot of crime there: armed robberies, assaults, these kinds of things. That was a part of the fabric of immigrant reality. All of that makes its way into my fiction, but the other dimension of crime that becomes really crucial is that any good crime writer knows that the individual crime is just the manifestation of a systemic crime. That’s the crucial turn that I think makes so-called genre fiction so interesting.
Good genre writers working in spy and crime understand that what they’re doing is quite political. An individual crime could unfold, but really what’s being told is a story about a society that fosters these crimes and makes them possible. That’s a crucial insight for the narrator of my novels to have, that he’s being assaulted individually by these young gangsters, but he also understands that what’s really taking place is happening within the context of a larger crime of colonization. French colonization. That was the crime that affected Algeria and Vietnam. The French were the original drug runners in Indochina. They were the ones who monopolized opium production and forced natives to buy it from the French government. Anything that he does as an individual gangster is simply a manifestation of these larger issues. He’s very blunt in saying that a drug dealer is actually less evil than the capitalist. That is a manifestation of his understanding of what crime really is.
TCR: That was an interesting take on his interior struggle—trying to embrace that versus his past life. Are you looking forward to writing in other genres when it comes to identity and assimilation?
VTN: The Committed officially came out the same day as Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel [Klara and The Sun -March 2, 2021]. Of course, his chosen genres have often been science fiction and fantasy. Part of me thinks, maybe later in my life, I would like to venture down those roads. I wouldn’t do it now because science fiction and fantasy writers are reasonably annoyed whenever crime writers go and dabble in their genres. Ishiguro has been pretty good at it. I want to be better equipped before going there. I felt like I could do it with spy and crime because I’ve read so much of it. And I’m still reading it. A lot of the science fiction and fantasy stuff I read when I was a kid is not really up-to-date-with what’s happening recently. But in the spy and crime genres, I have to write at least one more of them because there’s going to be a third and final part of The Sympathizer trilogy, where he comes back to the United States. There will be a lot of crime and gangs, both of the individual and street-level variety, but also the systemic, corrupt, national capitalistic variety too.
Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the low residency program at UC, Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel.