The USC professor and author shares about his recent work Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.
Professor & Author Viet Thanh Nguyen
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with award-winning bestselling author and USC professor, Viet Thanh Nguyen. His latest, “Nothing Ever Dies”, is a book on war, memory and identity.
Then Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, Ben Harper, returns to talk about his new album, “Call It What It Is”, which reunites him with his band after nearly nine years.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations coming up right now.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Viet Thanh Nguyen to this program. The USC professor’s critically acclaimed debut novel, “The Sympathizer”, examined the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature and film.
His latest, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War”, explores the different ways war is remembered and reveals how it is part of our identity as individuals and as citizens of a nation. Viet, good to have you back on this program.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Let me start by asking, one fiction?
Tavis: One nonfiction, both covering the same terrain, which is to say, you know, this war. Why two different ways to get at it?
Nguyen: Well, I’m a scholar and a novelist and I had to do both to try to make sense of this history, which is a very personal history for me because I was born in Vietnam in 1971, then fled as a refugee in 1975, and my memory begins as a refugee coming to Pennsylvania and being separated from my parents and sent to live with a white family.
And that was a trajectory for, you know, thinking that this war was so important. It shaped my entire life, and I needed to write both fiction to tell something entertaining and dramatic about that history and then nonfiction to try to figure out how this has been remembered by many different countries and why it’s still important to us today.
Tavis: Was one experience more difficult, more searing, than the other?
Nguyen: I think seeing what happened to my parents was a difficult part, you know, because they survived four decades of war and they rarely spoke of it. But they exuded the force of that memory just for the way that they lived and how they struggled.
That touched me so deeply and I could see so many other Vietnamese refugees like them being traumatized by the history of this war. And I understood that most Americans knew nothing of what had happened to the Vietnamese people. They understood what happened to Americans, but for the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, a complete blank.
Tavis: You write in this text powerfully and movingly, I should say, about the way that–I’m paraphrasing–the way that war is still present, still lingers with your parents even to this day up in Northern California.
Nguyen: Oh, yeah. When “Nothing Ever Dies” was about to come out, I went home and I talked to my dad and I said, “I want to dedicate the book to you guys because of what you’ve been through and how you’ve sacrificed for myself and my brother.” I asked them, “How should I write your names”, because their names are said differently where we come from than they are said here.
My dad said, “Don’t put our names in the book”, so that’s why it just says, “To my father and mother.” The reason why is because he’s still afraid that the history that turned him into a refugee is still alive, that there are people in Vietnam who still care about these kinds of things.
So that’s part of the reason–you know, nothing ever dies. The war hasn’t finished yet for those people who’ve lived through it, whether they’re Vietnamese refugees or American veterans. So many Americans I’ve talked to still are impacted deeply by this war that happened 50 years ago.
Tavis: You intimated this earlier. Let me go a little bit deeper now and ask how is this war viewed differently by those of us in this country as compared to those who are in Vietnam?
Nguyen: 58,000-plus Americans died in this war, which is a huge human tragedy, but Americans forget that three million Vietnamese people died in this war and they forget that three million other Southeast Asians from Laos and Cambodia died during this war and afterwards.
And if you go to Vietnam, it’s the reverse. They call it the American War there. And it’s important to acknowledge what the Vietnamese people went through.
But this book is also about what happened in Laos, what happened in Cambodia, and the fact that the Vietnamese don’t want to remember those countries because both Vietnam and the United States spilled the war over into neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and the whole world has basically forgotten that that happened.
Tavis: I wonder what you would say the lessons learned from Vietnam are for us and for Vietnam.
Nguyen: I think the lessons for Americans are dual. There’s a good lesson and a bad lesson, and the bad lesson is don’t do these kinds of wars. Don’t go into some country you’re not invited into because terrible things are going to happen.
But that lesson has sort of faded over time because everybody from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, Democrats and Republicans, have talked about this war now as a noble sacrifice.
So now there’s a good lesson to be taken from this war, which is, if we do this, we can do it better because of the lessons we learned in the Vietnam War. That’s a lesson that the Pentagon has taken, that the U.S. government has taken out of that.
And as for the Vietnamese, their lesson is, you know, the North Vietnamese who won this war sacrificed a million soldiers and two million civilians. Their lesson is let’s make sure that the Vietnamese people remember this as a heroic war and not as a bad war, even though there are a lot of Vietnamese people who actually think of it as a bad war too.
Tavis: I understand how–and I’ve had this experience any number of times–I understand how our Jewish brothers and sisters get offended when people even come close to comparing something contemporary to the holocaust.
And yet, from time to time, I can think of Iraq, I think of Afghanistan, where in the news we will say, “This is getting dangerously closer to another Vietnam.” When you hear those kinds of analogies, how does that strike you?
Nguyen: Ambivalently. It actually is important to remember that this happened in this country. But the problem for Vietnamese people is they keep saying, “This is a country, not a war.” And the rest of the world remembers Vietnam as a war and that just obliterates just the diversity of the country and how it’s struggling to move forward.
But the flip side of it is that there’s still reason to remember this particular past because the past isn’t finished yet. The kinds of wars that we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as Americans are repetitions of what’s happened before. And what I try to do in the book really is try to situate the Vietnam War in a much longer history, starting from 1898.
I think that what we’ve been doing in the United States has been going on for over a century. In 1898, we took the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, started going to the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam War, and now Iraq and Afghanistan is just a further extension of the same thing, the extension of American domination.
Tavis: You make reference to Dr. King who I have said many times, I regard Dr. King as the greatest American this country’s ever produced. It is hard to talk about King’s life and legacy and, by the way, earlier this week, we commemorated the 48th anniversary of his assassination one year to the day after he gave that “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York.
You make reference to Dr. King’s words from “Beyond Vietnam”. Tell me, as a refugee, how his words even all these years later resonate with you and your family.
Nguyen: Well, I think most Americans prefer “I Have a Dream” or they remember “I Have a Dream”. As a refugee, that’s what you’re supposed to think of too.
But when I read Dr. King’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam”, I thought this is a speech that all Americans need to read, even though it’s long and complicated and hard to listen to because it’s basically connecting the thing that happened in the United States in terms of racism and class warfare and the exploitation of poor people of color and poor white people to a racist war in Vietnam.
So for me as a Vietnamese refugee, what that speech does is it takes us out of our sense of our own victimization, going back to this Jewish example and other examples. Everybody elects to think of their suffering as unique, but in reality, sufferings are connected.
And if we want to overcome these histories of exploitation and warfare and so on, we can’t think of our own suffering. We have to be able to connect it to other people and that’s what I think Dr. King was trying to do in that speech, and it’s such a difficult reality for people to hear.
Tavis: I recognize that you don’t really close on the death of loved ones the way you close on a house or some other business deal. But has the U.S. closed this chapter in the way that we ought and, if not, what remains to be done?
Nguyen: I don’t think America has closed this chapter. That’s why, with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vietnam War example kept coming up, and I think it’s going to keep on coming up. And the reason why we will never close the door on this history is because how the United States got involved in Vietnam as an extension of its military industrial complex and this project of global expansion.
We’re still doing it, so we can’t close the door on something that we’re still doing, which is why Vietnam keeps returning as a war for Americans.
Tavis: You tell the story–you mentioned earlier how your parents didn’t want their names in the text, but you also tell the story of why you’ve gone back to visit Vietnam, as you mentioned where you were born and fled as a refugee.
But when you go back, you have yet to go back to the place of your birth because your father has basically told you that you are forbidden to go back to that place. Tell me more about your father’s laying down the law on that and what that’s all about.
Nguyen: I also mentioned the Jewish example in that particular example. Art Spiegelman, the graphic artist, he talks about the holocaust and he talks about how his father told him when Art Spiegelman was going to go back to Poland, “Don’t go there because they still kill Jews there.”
And my dad, we’re from this small town in the center of the country, said, “Don’t go back there because these people will remember that you’re my son and they’re going to persecute you for it”, which I don’t think is true.
But the point is, I’ve disobeyed my father in many things, including going back to Vietnam, but I can’t go back to where I was born simply because, I don’t know, maybe he’s right. That thought sticks in the back of my mind and part of it is terrifying to me too as much as it’s terrifying to him. So the past isn’t over. Nothing ever dies. It matters even to me.
Tavis: Do you think you might visit that place when you’re father is dead? I ask that because we just referenced–both you and I–referenced Dr. King a moment ago. His sister, who’s still living in her 90s now, Christine King Farris, the last remaining member of that immediate King family, has not gone back to Memphis all these years later.
Gotten close a couple of times, I’m told by her, but has never returned to Memphis where her brother was assassinated even after his death. So I wonder whether or not you think you might be pulled into…
Nguyen: That thought’s in my mind. I have to confront the fact of my parents passing on and then a new kind of history opens for me. But I’ll tell you something else that I didn’t talk about–well, I talked about it briefly in the book. We have an adopted sister and when we fled the country, we left her behind and she still lives in that town.
So for me to go back to that town means I also have to deal with that history of how the war divided my family too and how the path of my brother and myself took one direction and the path of my adopted sister took a radically different direction. So that’s hard for me to deal with.
Tavis: We just will see this in the text, but just give a little bit of how you and your family, in fact, your mother and father, did eventually get reconnected in this country.
Nguyen: What happened was, you know, we came to the United States as refugees, separated to live with different sponsor families, and we came back together after a few months, which to my four-year-old self felt like a really, really long time. You know, that was the reunification of the family. We moved to San Jose, California, built a life there, and that’s our version of the American dream.
Tavis: And now you’re a professor at USC.
Nguyen: Yeah, good or bad [laugh].
Tavis: The book that you recall that came out a while ago, “The Sympathizer: A Novel”, by Viet Thanh Nguyen went on to become a national bestseller, one of the 100 Notable Books by The New York Times in the year 2015. That was fiction.
And now he’s out with nonfiction. It’s called “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Viet, congratulations, man. Good to have you on the program.
Nguyen: Thank you so much.
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