For Viet Thanh Nguyen, Writing is an Act of Beauty and Justice
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t want to be a voice for the voiceless, he wants to abolish the conditions of voicelessness
Memory is a tricky thing. For one, not everyone will have the same memory of the same event. For another, you can do so many things with it—you can forget it, you can suppress it, you can warp it (intentionally or unintentionally) and so on.
In his memoir, A Man of Two Faces, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes that his attempts at keeping a journal were “fitful and fragmented, written inconsistently over a few years in high school and college.” But if there are gaps in his memories, Nguyen is less interested in the missing content than the meaning of those gaps, both on a personal scale and a larger societal one.
A Man of Two Faces is at its core a memoir about the education of a refugee. Nguyen starts with his early days in the United States. But as Nguyen experiences the world as an Asian American, an academic, a writer, and, eventually, a father, he becomes attuned to the conditions and contradictions that make his life (im)possible—war, displacement, the American dream, and more.
The process affords him the opportunity to dissect his coming of age and to excavate his memories, particularly of his mother’s time in a psychiatric ward. The task is easier said than done. “You cared for this memory,” he writes, “but you never ask.”
The memoir is Nguyen’s opportunity to ask: What do we remember and what do we forget? If we forget, why do we forget and for whom are we forgetting? Ourselves? Our loved ones? Our country? And what about cultural memory, which is to say history?
To me, memory is a stumbling block. To Nguyen, memory is fertile ground.
Over Zoom, Nguyen and I met to talk about the politics of remembering, the American discourse, and justice.
Eric Nguyen: You’re best known for your fiction and you’ve also written nonfiction but for an academic audience. This is your first memoir. Why a memoir this time around?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Hopefully, it’s my last memoir too. Why a memoir? This time around, I did not set out to write a memoir. My editor suggested that I do a nonfiction book composed of various essays that I published over the last few years. But as I set out to compile those essays, I felt that it would be much more interesting to write a book with a cohesive narrative.
I looked over all the many essays that I had written, but also the many speeches that I’d given over the last several years. As I toured the country, giving these talks to various audiences, the talks had taken on an increasingly autobiographical narrative about my life and the lives of my parents. The memoir aspect of those talks was interwoven with my takes on American culture and politics and the war in Vietnam and racism and colonialism and many other issues. So those talks along with the essays really then compelled me to feel that there was room for a book-length memoir, particularly because as I started to give those talks, I found myself exploring parts of my past that I had sealed off; I found myself shaken by what it was that I remembered. So, of course, as a writer, I felt that if I was being shaken by what I was recalling, this was a sign that I had to explore those things further.
EN: The problem with memoir is that it’s only as good as your memory. You write about forgetting memory, misremembering, the inability to remember, suppressing memory, the unwillingness to remember. How can memoirs deal with these issues?
VTN: I had read Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which is a great book. In reading that book, I felt that it was such a beautiful recreation of these times in Nabokov’s life as a young person. It was so streamlined of a narrative that I wondered how was he able to recreate in such great detail this distant period of his life.
While I admired that seamlessness of his narrative, it was not something that I wanted to recreate for myself because I felt that a seamless recreation of my life and my parents’ lives, which would be the convention in American memoir, would actually be more fictional than nonfictional. I wanted to write a memoir that actually dealt with the shape of memory itself, or at least my memory. It is not linear, it is not whole.
It is fractured, it is fleeting. It jumps around. There are tatters and holes. If I were to attempt to fully fill in all of those holes, would I actually give myself and the reader a more accurate sense of my own life and my own past and my perception of it? Or would it be actually more fictional? Even if I did fill in those holes, would that illusion of wholeness actually be accurate or would the patching up of those holes only obscure more holes? I wanted to give in to the very texture of my own memory in the writing of the book.
EN: The same question could be asked about history in regards to society. We forget or disremember things, a kind of collective forgetfulness. What is often the case is that we misremember and we actively do. So how does a nation or society deal with this? How does the individual deal with this kind of societal misremembering?
VTN: I quote the poet William Carlos Williams from his book In the American Grain, where he describes American history as—in his words—”an orgy of blood.” I think most white Americans would be taken aback by that characterization of their country and their history. Other Americans not of white background might be more sympathetic to this idea that this country’s origins and history and present are soaked in blood.
The United States is not unique in any way in the desire of the people who live here and who have come here to engage in selective memory about their history.
Now, if you are one of the victors or descended from the victors, you have an investment in selective memory that would justify your existence as a conqueror or the descendant of conquerors. If you are not, let’s say you’re an immigrant or a refugee, the power of the mythology of the country you’ve come to is such that you can internalize that mythology so that you too engage in a selective remembering and forgetting because society is rewarding you for that.
The book takes on these larger questions of American history in the American dream, which is the most powerful mythology of all and which I characterize as a euphemism for settler colonialism. That’s the history that most Americans don’t want to remember or to recognize. For most refugees and immigrants, when we say we come here for the American dream, we are also saying we’re coming here to be a part of settler colonialism, whether we know it or not. The book connects the experiences of refugees and immigrants aspiring to the American dream to the very bloody history of this country, which also extends to the way that the United States has interacted with many of the countries from which refugees and immigrants come including, in my case, Vietnam.
Those of us who come here as refugees may not see any connection between our history as Vietnamese people and the history of this country outside of the war in Vietnam. But I recall how, when we first came to this country, my family and I, our settlement was in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, a state that, Benjamin Franklin said in 1752, was a state for white people and by white people he meant the English. Pennsylvania was a state where the white people there almost completely exterminated the indigenous peoples of the land on which I literally settled. What I put out in the book is that my parents bought their first house in Paxton Township in Harrisburg, PA, and the last remnants of the indigenous people, the Susquehannock, were massacred there in 1700 by the Paxton Boys, a white vigilante gang. Our arrival as refugees in the United States was compelled by the history of American warfare in Vietnam, in which American soldiers called the land around their fire bases “Indian country.” When we arrived in the United States, we were settled in a country that had been taken from indigenous peoples. That’s the orgy of blood that William Carlos Williams is referring to and that is part of the history that the book deals with.
EN: Your memoir is also the story of your parents and their experience during the war. Something that I can relate to is writing that story of one’s parents, especially, in my case, a child of refugees, someone who didn’t go through that refugee experience. You tell the story of your parents, specifically your mother’s story. What right do we have as writers to tell the stories that are not ours to tell the stories, that are our parents?
VTN: I have no right. None of us have the right to tell the stories of other people. This is the age-old dilemma of anyone who desires to write an autobiography or a memoir that incorporates the lives of others besides themselves. This is the age-old dilemma of the so-called refugee and immigrant story. When the child or grandchild of the refugees or the immigrants decide to tell the story of their parents or their grandparents; we have no right. Anybody who tells these kinds of stories has to grapple with the ethics, the aesthetics, and the politics of what it means to tell this story.
There’s no getting around it. This book confronts that. It tells the story of my parents or part of the story of my parents. It tells about my mother’s going to a psychiatric hospital three times, a fact that my parents almost certainly would not want me to tell. Then it confronts what it means to say these things. I have no right. I have to live with that.
EN: Is it worth writing stories of one’s ancestors and parents, or would you say it’s an act of vanity, something you’re doing for yourself or your ego or your sense of self?
VTN: I think I have to leave it up to readers to decide that. I will say that one of the reasons why the book is subtitled “A Memoir, A History, A Memorial” is that I did not want to treat this story purely as the story of my parents and myself, which is the standard pattern of the memoir, especially the memoir in the United States, especially the memoir of those who are classified as refugees or immigrants or others so-called minorities. In a way, we’re expected to write about our trauma, we’re expected to betray other people, we’re expected to betray our communities—but only our communities, only our parents.
This book is also about the betrayals of the countries in which my parents and myself have been involved. That’s why it’s also a history, and that, I think, is how I assuage my own feelings about the dilemma that you described: I don’t think this book is only about me; I think this book isn’t even only about my parents.
Part of the typical gesture of the immigrant or the refugee who writes the memoir of their parents, it’s to say, “Look at how astonishing my parents are, look at what they’ve accomplished,” as if my parents, their parents, our parents are unique. Part of the gesture of this book is to say, “Yes, my parents are unique as everyone’s parents are unique, but they’re also not unique.”
My mother went to the psychiatric hospital three times. But why? Was her experience so radically different than that of so many other Asian women who became immigrants and refugees? And if we ask that question, then we have to ask all the other questions about why there was such a thing as an Asian Pacific Psychiatric Ward at the hospital where she went to, that there were so many Asian Pacific people in dire need of psychiatric assistance that there was a whole ward created for them.
One way to cope with the dilemma is to say, that is precisely what American culture wants us to feel, to dwell in our own guilt when the real guilt are the historical circumstances and the warfare that has created our stories. That’s what the book draws attention to.
EN: Given the political dimension of your book, you also write that perhaps writing can be an act of justice. How do you see writing doing that?
VTN: Writing, for me, is an act of beauty. It’s an act of power, it’s an act of mourning, and it’s an act of justice. It’s all those things at the same time. So yes, writing is fighting for me, and I want to use my writing politically.
However, I also want to write politically at the highest level of beauty. For me, these goals are not irreconcilable. I think in dominate American culture, there’s an allergy to the idea that art and politics can be expressed simultaneously, which is rooted in dominant American culture’s assumption that if you bring art into politics or vice versa, you must be a communist. We as a country are deeply allergic to communism since capitalism is our fundamental religion. But I reject all of those assumptions. This book is born from this idea that the person and the political and the artistic and art and justice can all be expressed simultaneously.
EN: You write about decolonizing writing. What does this look like to you?
VTN: Colonization is a globalizing and totalizing process, so decolonizing has to be a totalizing and globalizing process. Decolonizing writing, if it is removed from the general act of total decolonization, is not going to work. I think that’s part of the problem of the conversation around when people say, “Oh, how do we decolonize writing? Well, we’ll change aesthetics.” Yes, you have to change aesthetics, but you’re not going to decolonize writing until you actually decolonize everything else. That’s part of our problem and our challenge. You have to decolonize by understanding how aesthetic assumptions operate.
For example, in the book, there’s a whole section of the book about immigrant writing where I talk about how, in fact, as an immigrant or a refugee or a so-called minority writer, one is expected to talk about American racism—but only within certain limits so that it’s totally expected that you’re going to tell what Anthony Veasna So calls the sob stories of immigrants. That’s our currency.
But you’re not expected to question the American Dream. Now, you could question it in the book, but you can’t question it as a dominant mythology that we can’t escape from, so that the typical immigrant memoir, for example, is going to show how terrible things were in the country of origin and how difficult it was for the immigrant in the United States. But in the end, lo and behold, we have the book. The book itself is proof of the success of the American Dream. Even if the book is critical of the American dream, if the author cannot see that in operation, then the author has not decolonized the aesthetics of their work.
The dominant ideology of American society, which is a settler colonial society, infiltrates many kinds of aesthetic assumptions from the formal shape of one’s book to other things, such as translating orienting one’s book towards white readers or towards people who are not of one’s own community.
Beyond that, the impulse to accept the logics of settler colonialism as a writer manifest itself in seeing oneself as an individual writer. Now, every writer’s an individual writer. We all just write our books in our own minds. But I don’t think that I would’ve been the writer that I am if there hadn’t been more than a century’s worth of Asian American writers who had been writing before me. I see myself as part of a genealogy and a collective that’s been in operation since at least the 19th century. If you’re a writer who doesn’t see yourself as also part of a larger group, then you probably haven’t decolonized yourself.
If you’re a writer who aspires to be a voice for the voiceless, you have definitely not decolonized yourself because you don’t understand what Arundhati Roy said, that there was really no such thing as the voiceless; they are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard. Any writer who doesn’t see that and thinks that their art is only a manifestation of their individual voice rather than their individual voice against the silencing of other people is still colonized.
I don’t believe in being a voice for the voiceless. I believe in abolishing the conditions of voicelessness, which is really a gesture at this larger project of decolonization, which is about the abolition of all the structures of colonization, of which corporate publishing is only one component.