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Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen on Cultural Authenticity

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2 months ago

Automatic TRANSCRIPT

You grew up in San Jose California. Your parents open a grocery store tells about that experience. What was that like in? What was their journey like what what brought them here. Why did they come to California? My family fled the Vietnam War. But I'm thirty thousand other Vietnamese refugees because we were on the losing side and my parents in particular. Were were hardcore Catholics and Hardcourt Catholics Communists. And so they fled from the communist twice in nineteen fifty four when the country was divided and they were in the north to the south and then they fled again in nineteen seventy five so the refugees twice and then they came resettled in Harrisburg Pennsylvania For few years And there you have to realize my parents have been very successful. In Vietnam. They'd been born. Peasants work their way up and became wealthy and then lost a lot of that coming to the United States arrived here as refugees and their American sponsors expected them to be poor refugees. Who would be satisfied with class or even menial jobs and that's what they did in Harrisburg for a few years. But they'd obviously we're not satisfied with that and a good friend in San Jose who said this is a promised. Land and weather's good. There are a lot of Asians out here and I just opened up a grocery store so they came out and worked with her at probably the first Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose in nineteen seventy eight and then opened the second Vietnamese grocery store right down the street for some reason. I don't have their friends all about that. But you know we live the Classic Refugee or immigrant American Success Story. Which meant you know? My parents climb the ladder yet again. Rebuilt their wealth and that exacted huge physical and emotional toll on them and emotional toll on me. I'm thankful they didn't make me work in the store because they didn't want me to do that. They wanted my brother to get an education but what I saw growing up. Was My parents working twelve to fourteen hour days almost every day of the year and working in a very dangerous environment you know there was shot in their store. We were robbed at gunpoint at home. My parents were always very paranoid about these kinds of issues. And I'm saying we had this class classic immigrant refugee story because they spent all their time working in order to support my brother and me and and and give a good life but of course what that meant. Is there no time to spend with us? So that's just the classic immigrant or refugee double bind and that's part of what it meant to be having this lonely traumatized childhood for me. Which in the positive sense gave me the requisite emotional damage necessarily become a writer thankful for that inherited trauma you mentioned earlier. And it's something that's really hard to explain to the everyday reader because it sounds a little bit academic you know but like when it comes down to is basically like what your parents went through and how it affected you. I don't know if you could kind of talk about the specifics of that any sort of characteristics that your parents might have passed down well. My parents were devout Catholics and Catholics. Like to suffer so in a sense we were very well equipped to deal with being refugees and immigrants because my parents suffered a lot Both in terms of just having to work really really hard and and also of course they. They survived thirty years of war in Vietnam from Nineteen forty-five to nineteen seventy five which which killed millions of people. So I have no what they had to go through to become the people that the Rx conceptual way. That's the consequences of that. Just in terms of their refugee shopkeeper lifestyle and even though they became very successful financially in the inheritor of that I also grew up feeling that we were poor made a lot of money but they were not spending it on anything and I think that watching them suffer in watching them work as much as they did. Made me not want to do what they did? But ironically I've turned into someone almost exactly like them in the sense that I work constantly now working very nice job being a professor and being writer but I'm always working and I suffer in my own way. Not Getting not in the grinding way that shopkeepers have to go through. But writing has kind of a a suffering for internal suffering journal suffering right but if you ask any writer will most writers. They're tormented by the struggle being a writer and as elite of a lifestyle as at as it is Nevertheless I think I've I've been quipped to deal with that. Based on what? I saw my parents go through and just absorbing the workaholic Catholics lifestyle. I think in my life own family. Like the way that my mom is very sort of pathological about saving money and maximizing it and that's because she grew up very poor now. I find myself thirty two earning enough money to buy a pair of shoes. The costs more than twenty dollars. Now that make you feel free. Can't do you really can't you know and and somebody told me that? I had the shoes of a restaurant worker a couple years ago now. I need to fix this and even my dad. You know when you go back home and they do your laundry for you. Here's looking at my clothes. You know it was like you need new clothes. Why don't you buy some new things you know so these things will leave a mark guy off of that what year work is in the kinds of writing that you do require so much self-knowledge as well you grew up in the bay area which is a diverse place. I also grew up in East Bay. Your south by East Bay But for me being Asian American as a kid in a very diverse place was great in some ways because it's diverse and I didn't stand out in the ways that frank for example in Tennessee has talked about very different but by the same token there are things that you've written about your experience growing up. I really relate to in that I was so intensely aware of the otherness other people perceived when they looked at me and it gave me a chip on my shoulder head a lot of like anger and resentment about the and it was really hard to know what to do with that for a long time so then to become a writer who writes about these things. You know. You're not running like fairy tales or SCI FI movies. You're you're writing is very close to these experiences in. I wonder how did you process what enabled you to get to that point? And and what was your experience like growing up. Well it's kind of interesting they'll give hearing about both of your life experiences because you could see where Franks experience would mean that. He would obviously feel like a complete other yet. We grew up in the multicultural bay area and I grew up in Vietnamese and Mexican neighborhood and so on but I still felt that that sense of otherness. And I think that's because even if we did live in a multicultural environment Dominant American culture is still was and still is dominated by white people inside like to say. I didn't really experienced that many direct episodes of racism experts if you've small ones but nevertheless I felt like we were all irradiated by racism. Just out there on the airwaves you know from. Tv Movies Radio Shock. Jocks this kind of stupid stuff that was going on. And so I felt that on absorbing that another hand also receiving support from the Vietnamese community and from an implicit Asian American community. So I went to this all white high school mostly. What High School Bunch of us? Who were of Asian descent? We knew we were different. We just didn't know how so. We've gathered a corner of the campus every day for lunch and we call ourselves. The Asian invasion reclaimed didn't have the language we knew her Asian. But we most of those guys never became political like I became political. So what happened. I think it was a combination of this Catholicism that I was raised with the suffering and the sense of sacrifice willing sacrifice I'm going to be a martyr and then I went to Berkeley and I was already an atheist. I couldn't be a Catholic martyr. Became an Asian American martyr. You know at Berkeley became immediately radicalized there and that was partly through political activism on the campus but also wanting to be writer in the context of the traditions of Asian American African American literature but also American literature I did a PhD in American literature. And I thought I'd I'm not going to refuse being Vietnamese or Asian American but I'm also at the same time going to claim my Americanised as well. I'm gonNA write stuff that goes in both directions. I did have big chip on my shoulder. Still do around about people just aren't angry enough. I came out of a Berkeley tradition. Where anger was good. Being radical was good. And then you look out at the landscape of Vietnamese and Asian literature. Sometimes you think well it's well written but maybe there's enough anger that's not enough politics in there. There has been in the past so I wanted to be someone who would incorporate both the politics of the Asian American tradition with what I imagined to be the highest levels of aesthetics and literature. That was my