The Sellout by Paul Beatty and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, both notable and well-received works, feature two narrators who are extremely different yet equally complex – a French Vietnamese man who has kept his identity a secret and a black American who is a foreigner in his own home.
In 2017, Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, hosted Beatty and Nguyen for a discussion.
The Institute asked the two authors to discuss the shared themes in their books and the questions and issues each of them have encountered.
The books are also incredibly humorous, though not in the typical way, but in a way that makes us shudder from the raw truthfulness of it all.
In The Sellout, Beatty recounts the story of a comedian, who was dark-skinned and unpaid-electricity-bill poor.
He was not simply humorous, but he was able to tap into a person’s subconscious and “beat them silly with it” until they were recognizable.
One night, a white couple came to the club, which was located in a predominantly black neighborhood in LA, and took a seat at the front. After a while, the comedian told them to “Get the fuck out.”
At first, they laughed, thinking that it was part of the act, but as the reality of the situation sunk in, their laughter became nervous and they got up and left.
Recalling that evening, when the African American comic followed the two people with assumed stories behind them, I don’t pass judgment, but rather reflect on my own silence.
That hush can be interpreted as either a demonstration of disagreement or agreement, however, in most cases it is an effect of dread.
The following is still taking place:
I was not in accordance with his declaration of, “Get out. This is our thing.” I admired his boldness. Yet, I regret that I was so intimidated that I could not oppose him.
Not to rebuke him for his action or to take the side of the wronged white people… but I wish I had the guts to confront this person and inquire, “What do you mean by ‘our thing’?”
In The Sympathizer, Beatty’s character’s inquiry about the meaning of “our” highlights one of many ties to Nguyen’s work.
Nguyen arrived in the US as a refugee at age four and developed a sense of his ancestral Vietnam as a place “both familiar and strange.”
Consequently, he created a character who introduces himself in the opening lines of the novel with the words: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.
Not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.” This is his skill, the narrator clarifies: “to see any issue from both sides.”
He later expressed:
I ponder whether I can accurately label whatever I possess as a talent. Indeed, a talent is something to be utilized, not manipulated by it.
Talent that you have no choice but to employ is__ _a potential danger, I must be honest.
Living through an ordinary hazard, yet benefiting literature. Beatty and Nguyen’s literature resides in a fascinating field of drastically different elements–keeping them nearby, where the powerful energy between them can be felt throughout the arm.
As they discussed identity and its complexities, their thoughts were made clear not only verbally, but also in the intellectual exploration of the exchange.
After UNLV scholar Mark Padoongpatt and Las Vegas writer, editor, and teacher Erica Vital-Lazare had made their introductions, Beatty and Nguyen presented a striking contrast.
Nguyen was dressed in an elegant dark blue velvet jacket, while Beatty wore jeans and a gray waffle-knit shirt.
Nguyen’s demeanor was that of a highly experienced public speaker, while Beatty, who was more reticent initially, seemed to gain confidence as the conversation grew more passionate.
— Compiled by the Editorial Staff
An image displaying a quote by George Washington is presented. It reads, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”
The words of the former president remind us that it is best to not provide a justification for our actions if the justification is weak or untrue.
- “EACH PERSON IS SUBJECT TO COMPROMISE FOR ANOTHER.”
Recently, I read The Sellout and I had been looking forward to it for a while, so it was great to finally have the chance. I enjoyed it a great deal.
We’re both tackling the same issues in our own ways. There’s a great line near the end of the book about nihilism: “Sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”
This sentence really captured the essence of the novel for me. It reminded me of the conclusion of my own novel, The Sympathizer, which ends with a very dark joke about the notion of nothingness.
Some readers have found it to be quite shocking.
Why is it that Paul Beatty finds himself in a state of unease?
VTN: It seems that people automatically equate “nothing” or “nothingness” with “nihilism” and assume the latter is a negative thing. But they overlook the fact that the book’s ending implies that there is in fact something even if it is not apparent.
PB asked if there was a certain type of reader that was being considered.
It is difficult to predict what a reader may think of the ending of VTN. Some may desire a more standard conclusion, one with a hopeful outcome, offering closure.
However, there is a different type of reader who may find the ending perplexing, with its lack of neatness and closure.
The novel’s conclusion leaves the reader pondering the meaning of nihilism and what makes life worth living. Could you explain the thought process behind the ending of the novel?
PB: Hmm, I’m not too sure. I’m not exactly an expert in restating ideas. However, I’m willing to discuss this with you. I’m intrigued by this idea of conventionality. Does your book align with any conventions?
When I wrote my novel, I was aware that I was drawing upon various literary genres.
People tend to have certain expectations when it comes to these genres, and while part of the satisfaction of these genres comes from familiarity, they can also be limiting. I wanted to challenge those expectations and throw readers off.
For example, with The Sympathizer, some readers may come in expecting that he would abandon communism and embrace the American dream, but that’s not what I wanted to give them.
I could tell that you were playing around with the genres, avoiding the tropes that some readers may expect. How have the reactions to the book been?
PB: I can’t say I’m a very social person. I’m not engaged in social media activities like tweeting or reading reviews. It still surprised me how much people appreciated the book, something I hadn’t expected.
VTN: Did you not have that reaction with The White Boy Shuffle?
PB commented that his book didn’t receive the same kind of recognition that he had hoped for, despite his two-week book tour. He also shared that he doesn’t enjoy discussing his work or himself in front of others and prefers to be open and trusting of the reader.
Although The Sellout is a novel that will remain pertinent for the next half-century, the social obligations of being an author are something that you do not enjoy.
However, it is through these obligations that you are seen as a figure of authority and people are interested in hearing your thoughts on various topics.
PB: Yeah. How do you manage all of that?
VTN: My wife would probably tell you I’m very irritable. Writing The Sympathizer was a great experience for me because I had two years without being obligated to teach.
I was anonymous at the time, and I would often find myself laughing or crying – I’m not sure which. When the novel became successful, I couldn’t complain but I was inundated with requests for interviews and lectures.
It was hard to refuse, but I understand the role of being a public figure as a writer. I was trained to think this way because of my education at Berkeley.
The idea of a public intellectual is rather pretentious, but I think there is some truth to it. It’s important to do interviews and lectures in order to reach people who would not be in my class or read my work.
But this takes away from writing, and that’s the problem. Was The White Boy Shuffle ahead of its time?
PB commented that he was uncertain if James Joyce was ahead of his time.
He noted that the content of the book he was discussing went beyond the traditional genres, and that he experienced something similar with his own book, White Boy Shuffle.
PB then mentioned that he was familiar with a book called Black No More, which he believed had some similarities. He then praised the sharpness of the research in the book, and remarked that it was similar to Ishmael Reed, but this was not the case.
Finally, PB praised the author’s ability to blend facts into the narrative in a smooth fashion, which he noted was difficult to accomplish.
Growing up, VTN was always interested in the Vietnam War and the things surrounding it, so they read books, watched movies and allowed it to become a part of their professional work.
Writing the book was like releasing emotions that had been bottled up for two decades.
To make the writing more accurate, they carried out specific research on the Fall of Saigon, as they knew about it but not to the level of a novelist.
PB: That is correct.
In order to restage the scene, I had to read approximately fifteen books to get the necessary, concrete details.
VTN: Did you have to do a similar thing when researching for the movie? What I had to do was to get ahold of information regarding the Vietnam’s secret police, as well as reading up on the production of Apocalypse Now.
PB: Yeah, I suppose so. I’m not really informed on the subject. I’m aware of some information regarding LA, but it took a lot of research to write that book.
There was a huge amount of it.
Do you have any knowledge regarding farming and satsuma oranges, or are you not familiar with them?
[ Chuckles ] No, not really. If you had been raised in California, you’d know more than you might suspect. My mother made a major emphasis, but for me it was attempting to comprehend the preoccupations of the character and how I could investigate them further.
VTN: Do you have any knowledge of the past of black people being represented on television? Was that something that you were familiar with?
PB responded with a firm “no.”
VTN: I thoroughly enjoyed that! I used to watch a lot of The Little Rascals when I was a kid.
PB: Yeah, The Little Rascals is something my sister and I often bring up. When I think about it, I’m constantly questioning how far I should go with the story in order to make it realistic.
I, as a writer, always have to be conscious of how my readership could attach themselves to me, my name, or my character’s names and backgrounds. Therefore, I carefully and intentionally select the aesthetics regarding these matters.
PB: In The Sellout, the protagonist discusses a transition in which his father changed his name, making life easier in some way and referencing certain Jewish American actors who also revised their monikers.
Is this the same for your character? Does your character not have any name whatsoever?
VTN said that the character in his story is known as The Captain, The Bastard, and The Sympathizer. Both authors want their characters to represent certain topics, so being called a “sellout” is a very negative thing.
PB: [ Laughs ] I’m not sure. It all depends who is doing the calling. It’s funny, the same day I won the Booker, someone from a dubious tabloid asked me if I thought Trump was a sellout. I wasn’t sure what they meant.
I simply said, “Eh, I don’t think so.” Then, it was taken to mean that I’m for Trump. In my opinion, Trump has nothing to give up. He’s not tied to anything, you know?
VTN: A powerful element of the accusation of sellout is that it is often used against those who have achieved success. Do you feel the burden of that sentiment or are you wary of being labeled as such as a writer?
I don’t really think about it that much. My experience with family and friends has shown me that the term is a bit fleeting.
I remember reading a book without a title that was about successful black people being deconstructed as sellouts and Uncle Toms. It made me realize that everybody’s a sellout to somebody else.
I’m trying to express my point – that’s what I’m getting at.
In my opinion, Lenin has betrayed the Trotskyites. It does not have any significance to me. If someone I respected said it, then I may feel differently.
VTN: Yes. It’s evident you don’t have an emotional attachment to the term, yet you portray people who do and display circumstances where this phrase carries some significance.
Do you utilize the term throughout your book?
I require a hunt for words.
I am quite convinced that you have the ability, although I may be mistaken since that is not an uncommon occurrence.
VTN: My novel also deals with the theme of authenticity as the protagonist is referred to as The Bastard, thus making him inauthentic.
The title of my work, The Sympathizer, is indicative of the anti-communist sentiment present in the context of my upbringing. In The Sellout, the protagonist is depicted as trying to debunk the dichotomy between black and white people.
Similarly, the title of my novel was chosen to connote the idea of sympathy and empathy. There is a chapter in The Sellout that speaks about ‘Unmitigated Blackness’, which goes through stages one to four of black identity.
Even people who are not necessarily black, such as Ichiro Suzuki and Bruce Lee, are included in the fourth stage. It is almost parodic, yet I am not sure if it is completely so.
PB: I do not believe that this is a satirical piece. A few individuals may be misled by that.
Do you consider The Sellout to be a representation of Unmitigated Blackness, if it is not meant to be a parody?
PB: Not necessarily, no. Is there a segment in your book where you include words that are Asian slurs but don’t actually have any actual meaning? They’re like dust, just words.
The people these words describe don’t exist. It’s a pejorative, but not an animal or a pet. I find that interesting, in terms of how we define these terms and how they exist.
I remember this kid coming up to me and saying, “There are white niggers too.” [Laughs] Such a strange concept. I don’t know, how old are you?
At 46 years old, that is my age.
OK, so you’re forty-six years old.
VTN: What is your age?
The speaker is fifty-five years old.
Yes, I sense I’m aging, and the same goes for you. It’s all relative of course, but I think it takes a certain amount of time before one is able to write books such as The Sellout, hopefully.
I’m not sure if what I wrote is accurate, but I’m certain that it was what I had in mind at the time I wrote it.
- HOLLYWOOD IS A LOCATION WHERE BOTH FICTIONAL STORIES ARE CREATED AND PRODUCED.
PB: Are you originally from Los Angeles?
I am an inhabitant of San Jose.
PB: I see. So you attended high school in San Jose?
VTN confirmed that they had completed the task.
PB: What is your current residence?
My residence is situated in Silver Lake.
PB commented that it seems like every person resides in Silver Lake.
VTN: There appears to be a strong consensus that all the New Yorkers who have moved to LA have ended up in Silver Lake.
This could be potentially used as comedic material in another LA-based novel. It is remarkable how [The Sellout] offers a detailed and vivid description of Los Angeles – its diverse neighborhoods, signs, and different societies.
This makes it feel as if one has explored the metropolis thoroughly. Are you also a native of LA?
PB: I was raised in West Los Angeles. Are you familiar with the roads of Beverlywood and Robertson? Are you acquainted with the crossing there?
VTN affirmed in the affirmative.
I was raised in a place that only had a doughnut store, so has living in Los Angeles impacted your writing in any way?
VTN: Indeed. I have been identified as a native of San Jose for a long time, but I’ve been living in LA for twenty years now, which is longer than I was anywhere else.
LA has certainly shaped me. When writing The Sympathizer, I could have chosen any number of places in the United States to set it, but I chose LA because I’m so familiar with it, and because I believe its rhetoric of being a global, Pacific Rim, and third world city.
New York City is a commonly used setting for stories, but I wanted to claim LA as a literary place. It also makes sense due to the Vietnamese refugees who ended up in Southern California, and Hollywood’s production and fantasies about itself.
Have you ever considered setting your novels elsewhere than LA?
PB mentioned his book Slumberland, which is primarily set in Berlin but begins in LA.
He noted he doesn’t know the city well, only his small section of the West Side, but that it’s a place that makes him feel lost, which he finds comforting. He then discussed my book, which is set in East Harlem, and it made him think of panic and this notion of the Pacific Rim.
He remembered a Richard Pryor line about the new immigrants in LA and questioned if I knew it.
VTN: [ Laughs ] I’ll need to investigate it further.
PB: He discussed the Vietnamese immigration to the United States, referring to the community as “new niggers.”
His analysis followed how a Vietnamese person would say the word and how the amorphous white structure taught them how to be American.
All this came to mind when reading the book, and it had to be set in Los Angeles for the film to be made in the same way.
VTN: When you mentioned Richard Pryor, it did make me recall the notion that one of the most straightforward methods for becoming “Americanized” was to learn how to be racially prejudiced against African Americans.
PB: Junot Diaz expresses that newcomers to the US do not necessarily get accepted by being prejudiced towards African Americans; rather, they could become citizens by recognizing and embracing African American culture.
It is a captivating contrast between the two concepts. [ Laughs ]
From my own observations, the Vietnamese American population in San Jose are engaged in both their heritage and American culture.
PB: It appears most people are guilty of this unconscious behavior. It’s like the movie Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee.
The character Mookie mentions how Pino, the Italian American son of the shop owner, loves African American athletes and music but hasn’t accepted African Americans in his life. There is a similarity to that.
III. “NO AUDIENCE EXISTS.”
I think we have a different approach. I don’t do opinion pieces, do you do book critiques?
VTN emphasizes the notion that he is an activist scholar, extending his career of twenty years. He claims that fiction is just one of the components of his beliefs, and that the critical perspectives he and others have are not always readily accepted.
As an example, he points to his novel The Sellout, which not only criticizes white people’s racism but also black middle-class and upper-class hypocrisy. He acknowledges that this may not be well-received by some audiences.
PB expressed that they find the idea of an op-ed intriguing, yet they don’t have any particular goal in mind.
VTN: It’s no secret that I’ve been toiling in relative anonymity for almost three decades as an academic.
It’s the typical experience of folks in our profession, where we work in seclusion with colleagues who share our same grievances and aspirations.
But then out of the blue, a single book of mine got noticed and I suddenly had a moment in the spotlight.
I feel a need to use it as an opportunity to speak out.
PB often writes about the concept of obligation and this was the focus of his first book White Boy Shuffle.
He expressed his distaste for obligation and recalled Amiri Baraka, a person he admired, who was at a memorial for a musician named Butch Morris. PB then discussed the term activist and argued that it is not something he would associate with himself.
Instead, he prefers to consider the inaction that can be found in activism. He acknowledged that hypocrisy and contradiction are inevitable when communicating, and questioned the meaning of words such as responsibility, which he is hesitant to use.
VTN was brought up in the Catholic religion, a religion that stresses obligation and guilt. Even though he is no longer religious, the values ingrained in him from his childhood faith remain with him.
He has transferred these values into his political beliefs and his writing. He views literature as sacred and important, yet he also recognizes the need to point out hypocrisies.
He takes his writing and teaching seriously, but he does not view himself as a writer or professor in a serious light.
He sees the importance of recognizing the ironies and hypocrisies of the world, and that if one doesn’t, they can find themselves in a dangerous situation.
When I began as a poet, there was a certain responsibility that came with it. Even though no one was reading my work at the time, I still felt obligated to do certain things.
This started to influence my writing in a negative way; I found myself trying to write what I thought others wanted to read instead of writing what I wanted to write.
So, I took a step back from poetry because the sense of obligation was too much.
VTN: Do you have a sense of duty to an audience or a certain community? Being an ethnic studies scholar in the 80s and 90s, I observed that there were not enough stories about Vietnamese people.
All that was present were stories about the Vietnam War, which were very racist. Therefore, I wanted to create stories about Vietnamese people and correct misrepresentations.
There were three audiences in my mind: Vietnamese people, Americans, and the people who could publish my work. With The Refugees, I had these obligations in mind. When I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided to not have any sense of responsibility and to just write for myself.
My wife told me it was a bad idea since the editors, agents, and publishers don’t want the writer to write for only one person.
They want their authors to write for thousands or millions. Despite that, I wondered if the book was going to sell. The trick was to think that there was no readership, just me.
- “IT’S NOT IN MY SKILL SET.”
Before, we had a discussion regarding the protagonist without a name. Could you explain more why your protagonist does not possess a title?
Wasn’t that connected to the expectations and responsibilities and how readers would interpret the novel and interpret the protagonist?
VTN: The reason why I chose to not give the narrator of The Sympathizer a Vietnamese name was to avoid any hang-ups that readers who weren’t Vietnamese may have.
Just today I experienced this same issue; should I use my Vietnamese name or my Catholic name when checking into the hotel or going to Starbucks? It is a minor detail, but names can be very significant as to whether or not we can relate to someone.
To make the story universal, so that my readers would not have to think about my Vietnamese identity, I opted to take out the name altogether. The protagonist has a nickname–Bon Bon–and is called The Sellout by his archenemy, Foy.
He also has the last name, Me, and goes to the Supreme Court in the case of Me v. the United States of America. Could you explain the thought process behind omitting the first name?
PB: In contrast to someone else’s opinion, the challenge for me was different. I remember being part of a conversation where the questions were about why I write and what I wanted to achieve.
A woman before me had said she wrote to welcome the reader in, but that’s not what I do. It’s more like how I am in life–I tend to push people away a bit, even if there is a door, I’ll leave it ajar.
The names I give my characters, I guess it wasn’t really about making the reader feel welcome or unwelcome.
It was more because I’m not very good at coming up with names.
I wanted to have a certain perception of the book, and the only reason a name came up is because I thought of Plessy v. Ferguson, Gore v. Whoever and then Me v. The United States of America and that was funny.
Then I tried to justify why the surname was Me, and that’s where the idea of his father changing his name came from.
VTN: I can relate to your idea about leaving the door open. My experience with African Americans in this country is different though.
People typically have some knowledge about African American history, even if it’s a prejudiced perspective. In my case, my connection with the American mental landscape is the Vietnam War.
People are less informed about it, so I had to invite them in, not exclude them with a name issue, and then surprise them with the information.
PB: The book does a good job of being direct in addressing “you”. It makes it clear who the intended audience is, and it is refreshing to see someone being straightforward about it.
I appreciate this, as opposed to the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which has a title that I didn’t like because it seemed to be limiting who it was talking to without acknowledging that in the movie.
The use of the yin and yang to symbolize the black and white/gray dichotomy in The Sympathizer was very smart and put a stamp on Asian American culture.
VTN: That is the reason why I do what I do. I have read almost all the Asian American literature since it was my major in dissertation.
Nonetheless, when you read all of it, you will understand that 80 to 90 percent of it is not very good. I’m not saying that Asian American literature is not great.
This is the same for any category of literature. A lot of the not-so-good Asian American literature is written for a white audience, even though it is not explicitly stated.
On the other hand, The Sympathizer is written for a Vietnamese reader and the intention of the book is to offend everyone. I get hate mail from white people regarding the book. Do you get any such kind of hate mail? Is there such a strong reaction to your work? Please tell me yes.
PB has not received much hate mail, if any at all. He recalls an experience in the past of writing a poem and having a student dislike it.
However, when he brought it to Allen Ginsberg’s class, the same student changed his mind and praised the poem. This taught him that people’s perspectives can shift and that he should trust himself and the reader.
He learned to not worry about how people might perceive his work, and that gave him a lot of freedom.
When the woman reacted like that, it was a combination of race, politics, language, and art. That’s why folks tend to get uneasy when they hear the term “activist” regarding themselves.
As an example, The Sympathizer was written in a very intentional style. I used a thesaurus in almost every sentence. It used to be that you had to open up an actual thesaurus, but with a Mac you can just hit a key and get a dozen different replacements.
However, it was a very deliberate choice because I wanted to prove that I can be a writer who many people assume doesn’t know English well but actually speaks it better than most Americans.
PB: To whom are you attempting to demonstrate this?
This is a message to me from me.
PB: All right.
VTN: Being a minority writer, there are a lot of demands made, expectations to perform, and difficulty in proving one’s worth.
In The Sympathizer, the main character’s relationship to language is a tortured one, which is a metaphor for how Asian Americans experience English in this country.
There is a lot of pressure on language in the current political environment, and this is true for any minority writer, regardless of race or other factors. This example shows that it is impossible to separate these experiences.
PB: Indeed, that is accurate. But, for me, there have been several moments where I thought, “Yeah, I really don’t care.” [ Laughs ] I’m growing older and I encounter authors in their forties that have read White Boy Shuffle.
They come up to me and say, “Oh, thank you,” and I’m like, “What did I do?” And they explain, “Well, you wrote without any sense of duty.” That was novel to them. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, it’s just who I am.
I’m a person who creates written works!
PB: For me, all of the various aspects of identity like race, class, gender, etc. can be found in everything. Yet, I don’t focus on what is expected; I’m looking for the unexpected.
Whenever I go to the movies, as I’m a major movie fan, I often come across pieces of art that make me feel something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s like my hair stands on end and something beyond my control is going on.
My challenge is to come up with an idea and find a way to do it.
VTN: Indeed. I, too, want to feel the sensation of my hair standing on end. It can occur because of something that’s entirely different, such as Birdman or when I’m reading a book like Me v. the United States of America – that also made my hair stand up!
All of these are related in some way, though.
- “The African-American Experience”
PB recounted the first time they heard the phrase “immigrant literature” from a Korean American student.
They discussed the concept further when they attended an event in Calcutta, where a young Indian woman stood up and referred to herself as an immigrant writer.
PB noted that, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t have the same kind of national ties that the young woman had, and so they were at a loss for words. However, they were able to tell her that she was “where she was, and that’s it, that’s all that matters”.
VTN: The Sympathizer has been described by multiple reviews as an “immigrant novel.”
This often infuriates me, as if being perceived as a foreigner in the US–like being Asian or Latino–automatically designates one as an immigrant writer, a categorization with lots of flaws. I’m sure you’ve had to confront this kind of labeling at times during your career as an author.
In The Sellout, Paul Beatty satirizes African Americans’ racial representations and slavery. People of all races have to come to terms with their own racial calamity.
The poet Bao Phi, author of Song I Sing, a Vietnamese refugee of the Vietnam War, wanted to write about Hurricane Katrina, yet was told he could not because minorities are only allowed one tragedy in the US.
Beatty and Phi’s works contend that these tragedies are all linked, even though others would rather not accept that, as it complicates their lives.
PB remarked that he didn’t have anything to add to the discussion. He discussed the concept of the “blank-hyphen-American” thing, noting that Black Americans are often seen as a “quintessential American” and are not typically required to explain their Americanness.
PB then shared an anecdote about how Black Africans in Japan were said to attempt to imitate Black Americans, implying that there was somehow a higher regard for Black Americans.
He then discussed how he was asked about his literary influences when he read at Rutgers and the head of the English Department commented that Black culture and Japanese culture were opposite.
He reflected on this later, asking himself what it meant. Finally, PB highlighted the authors to which others are compared, suggesting that this indicates something about the way in which literature is read and appreciated.
Notable authors such as Conrad, Graham Greene, and Kafka have all positively reviewed VTN prior to its release.
Nothing is amiss with any of that.
I’m often compared to writers, but this is likely due to the fact that not many people are familiar with Vietnamese authors.
PB mentioned that he has never seen a white author compared to Toni Morrison in any capacity. This gets one to ponder why the point of view is so often fixed in one way.
He then discussed how he is often asked to write op-eds about hurricanes or the Vietnam War, and that he is sometimes asked to write an obituary for a black person. He admitted that he gets angry enough to write something back on occasion.
VTN: When I was approached by The Times to comment on the presidential elections and given the chance to write about Donald Trump, I felt like I had accomplished something.
It is right to confront and challenge the standard assumptions of who we are and who we can talk about, and what is relevant to us. Even though I have written on the Vietnam War for my last three books, they are not strictly about this topic.
The war is a global experience, and the same is true of the African American experience. Authors like Toni Morison and Paul Beatty can be seen as universal writers, and the same should be said of emerging writers in the field.
- SUCCESSFUL TESTS
Experiments that have been successful are listed in this section.
Bringing up the word universal can be confusing, right? To me, it’s quite simple – either it’s all universal or none of it is. It’s that clear-cut.
VTN: I feel like sometimes, what is identifiable across cultures is the content, but other times, it is also the style, or even the art.
I can read something that is entirely foreign to me and still feel connected to it. I am a bit behind on reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but the first book has been captivating.
Even though it is very distant from me in many ways, I hope that my writing, and your writing, will be able to strike a chord with people in a variety of places, times, and contexts.
For me, the primary goal is to create something that is good, and that’s what I’m aiming for. It won’t work for everyone, but I still like to challenge myself and explore, broaden my horizons, and so on.
It’s all so individual, but that’s what makes it enjoyable. After travelling and hearing others speak about their craft, I noticed that many people have different ideas of what they want to achieve, and how they want to make people feel. Everyone’s definition of discomfort and risk varies.
VTN: So it seems that a lot of writers are doing this, but not many people are feeling uneasy about it?
PB could possibly be implying that.
VTN’s goal was to make people uncomfortable; however, he ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize, which may suggest he didn’t make many people uneasy.
PB: [Chuckles] Even though you have achieved the Pulitzer, that doesn’t necessarily mean your work will be easy. It’s not a guarantee.
It would be intriguing to know your thoughts on the Booker Prize, which is a worldwide award of the British-speaking world, compared to the Pulitzer, which is solely an American honor.
For me, being awarded the Pulitzer, no matter if the book merits it, is a demonstration that people of color can have success in America. Whereas, in other countries such as Rwanda, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, and China, this would not happen.
PB: It’s understandable that some individuals have this kind of mindset when someone from a minority background is honored for something, yet I think it’s more about a symbolic message being sent than the work itself.
What do you think of this notion?
VTN: It’s not my problem, as I didn’t set out to write to win a Pulitzer Prize. The discomfort caused by a book can be either due to the content or the style or art.
As I’m not an experimental writer, an average reader shouldn’t be that uncomfortable while reading it. But if they are, it’s likely because of the avant-garde poetry, which is off their radar. I couldn’t take up that challenge by myself, so that’s what I mean.
Writers like me usually end up in the festival circuit and usually don’t cause much discomfort for a general audience. You were in that band too, right?
PB: Is it more difficult for writers who are from marginalized demographics or identities, especially those who write abstract or experimental works, to find an audience or recognition?
VTN: The combination of style and content is a major factor in the appreciation of a writer of color. For example, Jose Garcia Villa wrote in an avant-garde fashion and was embraced in the New York avant-garde scene but did not discuss race.
Similarly, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was only accepted by Asian Americans after her death; although she was marginalized in terms of race and culture, her content did not reflect her ethnicity.
A minority writer who is formally experimental may not be embraced by an identity community if they do not address their race, but they could find acceptance in formal communities by default.
How does one see themselves fitting into such a context? Do they view themselves as formally experimental?
PB stated that they don’t consider themselves to be an experimental writer, instead they believe they just show the experiments that were successful.
This made them think of Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote plays that PB found to be oblique. Upon moving to New York, PB was amazed by Parks’ success and wondered if the change was due to her work not being as experimental, or if it was because the audience and/or PB had changed.
They didn’t know the answer.
I’m quite fond of the notion that we’re all part of an experiment, but the failed attempts are never shown. Scientists don’t usually share all the one hundred experiments they conducted before finding the successful one.
When I wrote The Sympathizer, there were certain segments I was pleased with, but the editor commented that I had to remove them for the novel to work.
I was disappointed, but the book didn’t suffer from the exclusion of the fifty pages or so. Those were experiments in the sense that I knew they were not going to work.
PB argued that there are various ways to evaluate success, and people tend to assume it’s about awards and commercial success, which is not always the case.
VII. INCREASING IRRITATION/ DEGREES OF FURY
This section looks at the various levels of anger, from a minor annoyance to full-blown exasperation.
PB: We didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the ideas of rage and amusement that appear in your work; would you be willing to talk about those?
I find the humor more remarkable than the anger; that’s what stands out to me.
PB: What kind of surprise are you referring to, one that you have or one that others have to your statement?
When I first arrived at Berkeley as an undergraduate, I felt like I had been struck by lightning due to the knowledge I was taking in, as well as my involvement in political activism.
It all came down to anger – understanding how unjust the U.S. is and how it contributes to the struggles of my family and I.
After obtaining my PhD and becoming an academic, I had to suppress these emotions since being an enraged person isn’t accepted in academia. As a result, I felt constrained.
Is there a difference between the ongoing anger that someone experiences in their daily life and the anger that is infused into their job?
VTN believes that every person employs a different coping strategy. In his case, he chose to repress his feelings and express his anger through his scholarship in ethnic studies and cultural studies.
This was not enough for him, prompting him to become a fiction writer in order to voice his opinions and beliefs from when he was a young adult.
His short-story collection, The Refugees , is not that angry, but his novel The Sympathizer is much more passionate because he finally allowed himself to tap into his true feelings.
Furthermore, VTN was surprised when he found out that people saw him as a humorous person, as he never thought of himself that way.
PB: Was the result of your action a surprise to you as well?
VTN: I recall reading Catch-22 in my youth, and never thought I could write a novel like that. Then, I started a blog and that gave me the freedom to write in a satirical tone.
This enabled me to make use of writing abilities I didn’t know I had. It’s like the anger inside me made me funnier while writing satire.
To write a novel, the main character had to be the one saying the things I thought, and so I created him, not expecting him to be funny. And then the writing took over, which was a surprise.
But with a situation as absurd as the Vietnam War, one has to be able to laugh. I was funny since the publication of The White Boy Shuffle, which was the first thing that I read of yours. Was being funny a part of who you were, since the beginning?
I don’t consider myself to be a particularly humorous individual, but I’m not completely humorless either.
When I write, I don’t actively attempt to be funny; I’m just trying to get my point across. Yet, oftentimes the words I use turn out to be funny.
Much like what was mentioned before, if you focus on the absurd, the humor is usually there. It’s a matter of being able to point it out, and once someone considers it from an outside perspective, it can become humorous.
Distance and lack of familiarity with a topic can provide a natural source of humor.
VTN: Is it always necessary for you to take the outside view when looking at absurdities? You highlight white people and white racism in your novel, but you also point out black hypocrisies as well.
I’m not sure if you can just observe one set of absurdities and not the other, without having a predisposition to do so. Is there a connection between the two?
PB does not see himself as a satirist. Rather, he is creating humor out of his standpoint and whatever comes with it.
It is not about the groups or circumstances he is making fun of, but how he perceives them. He is attempting to bring out the experience of navigating between the personal and the political and believes that this can be universally understood.
His goal is to make sense of it all.
Definitely, VTN concurs.
When I’m writing, I rarely think of anger, but it is there somewhere.
I wouldn’t consider it as anger, but more of a feeling of having reached a point where I don’t know what else I can do. I’m sure there must be a word for that, but I don’t know it.
The emotion of VTN could be characterized as exasperation.
PB reflected on a moment when he was in London before the Man Booker stuff. At the event, a woman moderating the writers onstage asked him why his book was so angry.
He became irritated because he didn’t think of his book as an angry one and in hindsight, he realized there was a ton of anger in the other books present as well.
He stated that words like ‘exasperation’ and ‘anger’ are common in a lot of good fiction, but people often don’t see the same type of anger in other fictions. He found this to be troubling and the lack of recognition made him angry.
I’m attempting to recall whether I’ve been mad at people for asserting that my novel is furious. But I find so much pleasure in it.
PB: [ Chuckling ] Yeah, that’s apparently the way to do it.
VTN:The context I’m coming from is that Asian Americans and Vietnamese Americans are not seen as particularly angry. So when my book came out, it was meant to challenge that notion. I take pleasure in seeing people unsettled by it.
When I see that reaction, I’m delighted. There’s a lot to be angry about, and it seems that many writers of my background are embracing that anger more and more. I take joy in that, perhaps because the atmosphere of our country is encouraging it.
I’m glad to see more and more anger being expressed by Vietnamese American and Asian American writers.
PB: Fascinating. Expressing anger is not foreign to anyone. So, I’m wondering if the increased presence of anger in Vietnamese American writing or Asian American writing is something novel. Could it be due to censorship or repression?
VTN: A notable difference in earlier Asian American literature is that the anger expressed is often subtle and internalized, aimed at one’s family, community, or country.
Typically, there is anger directed towards the patriarchy, abusive figures, or the Asian country in question, but rarely is white people or white racism directly confronted.
When references to the Vietnam War are made, it is usually only a passing or indirect mention. The Sympathizer, however, is much more direct in this regard.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine remarked that VTN was one of the few Asian Americans who would publicly state that “White people do this. White people do that.” [ Laughs ]
VTN: It appears that it makes some white people uneasy to have their race directly addressed, but I personally do not mind.
I think it is essential to tackle whiteness and its effects since there is an accepted way of expressing outrage within one’s own community, but it does not receive the same recognition from the white power structure.
As a writer, it is important to remain an outsider and look at all sides of a situation. I like the way you call out everyone in your work, may that be satire or something else.
My approach when creating is to try to offend all, while being aware of the varying levels of critique. One ought to be able to be cross with all groups, regardless of being white people or members of one’s own community, rather than shying away out of fear.
PB: Yes, I believe it’s important to confront the fear.
I was at a bar mitzvah recently and the historian Ben Lapp mentioned to me a quote I’ve always really liked, which is from Kafka: “What do I really have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.”
I find that so meaningful, that feeling of inevitable weight and duty you have. No matter what you do or what you write, that sense of identity remains.
Partial support for this interview was provided by the Tran Thi Oanh Fund.
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