Viet Thanh Nguyen and Vu Tran: "Narrative Plentitude" | Talks at Google
Thanks. For the introduction, thanks to Barb. And to jinja for, bringing us both out here and I just want to say you, know you guys have a great. Building. Workspace whatever you want to call I'm just bummed I didn't, get invited for the full day. So. I could make use of the, massage, facilities. And, your. Video games and everything else I just want the t thing and the T bar the. T bot yes. Well. It's great to be talking to you again. And thank everyone for coming and, see, I thought, we would. Begin. Our conversation, with crazy, rich Asians, you. Mentioned, it during our tour and I thought that'd be a good place to start I, think, by the movie, and the books definition, I, don't, believe either of us are crazy. Richards but you're doing quite well yes I think we're going had a three-way yeah. But. The. Movie is, a starting, point for an, OP that you wrote recently in, the New York Times. About. Narrative plenitude, about. How movie as popular. As, crazy rich Asians can, never be, on. Its own it, can never on its own vitalize, the presence, of Asian Americans on the screen, and. That, we need as many. Of. Those kinds of movies to. Do that and this idea you you kind of came up with in your book nothing ever dies, and. Speaks. To a scenario, where, stories featuring certain races or communities, are, in abundance and in that abundance, allows for not only a range. Of portrayals but also a range of quality of portrayals, right it. Bestows, upon them, the privilege of being mediocre. Because. There are enough. High-quality portrayals. To absorb that the low quality ones. Where. As you say narrative scarcity, does. Not allow for for, something like that for mediocrity for example, and, that it's narrow or inhuman, or simply, mediocre, portrayals, ends up finding, that, racer community, so, I wanted. To ask you if you could talk, more about this. Idea of narrative plenitude, and. How it affects the asian-american community and. Your own personal, confrontation. With, it well you grew up in an Oklahoma right so I think if I had had had an even harder time a bit than I did which is I grew and I grew up in San Jose and. Northern. California in the 70s and 80s and, San, Jose in Northern California it's, a diverse multicultural place, and everything like that right and I grew, up in. A rougher part of town and I, was surrounded by Vietnamese, refugees, and Mexican immigrants, and people like that but. Even so you know at a certain point I. Had. A very personal. Confrontation with his idea that there weren't enough stories, about people like us and that is I went. To a very elite high, school it. Was mostly an all-white high school except that there was a handful of us the, word Asian descent mmm. But we knew we were different we just didn't know how but. Every day at lunch we would gather in a corner of the campus, and we, would call ourselves the Asian. Invasion. This. Was 19 in, the mid-1980s, right so we. That was the only language we had for ourselves what. Was this graces, term. And. Obviously instead, of being crazy rich Asians at the time we knew we were the Asians who were threatening. To take over, and. Funny thing was last. Year I had a chance to go back to visit that, campus and give a talk to all 1,600, students. And we. Really have taken over, but. That's another story but. Looking. Back at that time I think what I realized. Now that I didn't, know then is that, we were living in narrative scarcity, that we, didn't have enough stories. About. Us and. That the only stories that we could refer to were, these racist. Stories, about, Asians. Who were invading obviously, these you know the idea of Asian wars and things like that which. Many of us had come from or fled from, and, what, I looking. Back I know that you know what I needed what we all needed back, then were. More, stories. And. More, writers. We need more filmmakers. We needed more artists, we needed more politicians, we needed more journalists. Who would be getting our stories, and our voices out. There and. That. Is, the difference between narrative. Scarcity. And, narrative. Plenitude. Narrative. Scarcity means very few of the, stories out there are, about you, wherever. You happen to be whatever, mic kind of minority you happen to be coming from narrative. Platitude is when, almost all the stories are about, you and that's. One of the surest signs that, you're, a part of some kind of majority when, you can take it for granted that's, some fundamental, part of who you are is being shown, to you in the, stories that you encounter, and, when you live in an environment like that you totally take it for granted right, so when somebody makes a stupid Hollywood movie you can think that's just that's it that's as Hollywood that's it so that's just a movie if that's a story, what's my students say that all the time I think, you're right one.
Story. That's a bad story is just a story you know but, when all the stories are, saying. The same thing then it's more than just a story it's actually saying something fundamental. About the culture and so again when all the stories are about you it's saying something about who. You are as a part of this culture and when most, of the stories are not about you or not about us, then when the one story comes out that, is about you the, enormous, weight yeah, it is put on that so. For better for casually, dismiss it you can't you can't can't really dismiss it so when, when you know what, when crazy rich Asians came out there's the reason why there was so much pressure. Put, on this is because Hollywood had not made a movie with Asian, American leading actors in about 25 years since Joy, Luck Club right, and so, everybody's, like this better be a good movie because. If it's a good movie it'll change all of our fortunes and if it's a bad movie we'll never get another movie for another 25 years that's. A totally unfair. Expectation. To put on a movie but. This is what narrative scarcity, is about and I think the the ramifications. Of that simply beyond the the world of artists and storytellers that. True pretty much everywhere, else, if you're a part of my minority, you're not allowed the luxury of, mediocrity. If you succeed or if you fail your, success or your failure somehow, tied to, your entire group yeah. Right I'm, assuming I'm up it's it's. True in a lot of corporations on how chew it is here, but, you. Feel this weight this burden being. Representative, for, your people, whatever that people happens. To be and so I think you know we go back just talk about writing that's that's I don't that something that you feel but certainly. I think I felt. That it, was it immediate, I mean what, was the evolution, of that kind, of confrontation with, this scarcity of it it always did. It always, come. To you in kind of like political, terms or. Was. It just you. Know you noticing. Oh I'm not on the screen I'm not in books I'm not on TV I mean, how, did that evolution.
Kind, Of well. When I was growing up I mean I get it gradually dawned on me that you know I'm. Vietnamese yeah, I come of our family did me the refugees I'm a Vietnamese refugee, and that. Pretty much the only way, my. Experience, of my family's experience or. The experience of all these beatings refugees, in San Jose meant, anything to the rest of the country, was. Through. The, Vietnam War yeah, right that that's the only reason, anybody had anything to know and, that's only reason anybody else had. To know about anything, about us yeah that, another problem though is that in this country when. People hear the word Vietnam, they, don't. Often tend to think of the country right, away maybe. Things have changed now maybe now when you say Vietnam in. 2018. People would think bite me or fun, or something like that but, in 1984, when you say Vietnam people meant to Vietnam war yeah and when they say that people when people say the Vietnam War, they really mean the American war so it gradually dawned on me that. There. Were no stories about us and there, were very few stories about Asians, in general in the 1980s, so I remember, going to a bookstore when I was about 18 or 19 and, finding, the Joy Luck Club by. Amy Tan which it just gotten published like that year or the year before and, just being, um, he's that there was a book, a novel by someone who was Asian, or Asian, American. That. Was a mind that wasn't popular I thought it was popular that was actually pretty good book and I was blown away by that that. Made a huge difference to, me. And, made me think. Where. Where has this book been or. Where have other books been like, this and that set me down the road as a student, at the college didn't of trying to find everything that had been written by Asian. American writers first, of all and then secondarily, by Vietnamese. And Vietnamese, American writers and there's a handful of that, work out there you, know so.
Sometimes I think about the very first Vietnamese, American writer to get published you know which was around the. 1960s. And how lonely that person, must, have been now you and I come out and there are literally dozens of, Vietnamese American writers out there but you couldn't, make that assumption two or three decades ago well. I want to talk about the. Vietnam War and especially in terms of its portrayal, on the screen but, you know I was, first curious, you, know in, in, what, realm, or mode of representation, whether, it's movies, books you, know or other art forms but, do you think narrative scarcity, is, most. Dangerous and in. Which mode. Or realm of representation. Do, you think narrative plenitude can be most beneficial does. That make sense well I go around the, country you know giving talks and one. Of the things I try to tell everybody is look you know people like you and me we're professional, storytellers, we write books for a living where I write op-eds for the New York Times, but. We. Are all storytellers. In the sense that we've all absorbed. Some, some, stories, that we take for granted and, we, tell these stories to each other all the time. Most. Often for example about what this country is what, is America what is it supposed to be right, this, these, are stories that we tell each other and. So. When. The. Current president, says, make America, great again that's, a story in four, words and. It's an enormous a powerful story for a lot of for a lot of people even a few people who disagree with the story it's an enormously powerful story, so, we. Go home and we tell those kinds of stories to. Other people. Here's, a story that I encountered. When I was growing, up in San Jose and my parents had opened. The second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose downtown. I remember. Walking down the street from my parents store when I was around 10 or 11 and seeing, a sign in the store window and it, said another, American, driven, out of business by, the Vietnamese. That's. Not just a sign that's a story in nine words and it's, a story that in fact Americans. Have been telling each other for a very long time it's, just another American given out of business by fill in the blank. It's. Been told before it, was told during my parents time it's being told again with, different populations for fill in the blank so, that's an example of, narrative. Scarcity, narrative platitude because, at. That time in the 1980s we, Vietnamese people didn't, have, the access to try to contest that story you know I didn't know how to make sense out of that story or how to try to fight back against it and meanwhile. Their narrative. Plenitude means that there are people out there with the power to go around telling these kinds of stories and spreading them around Asian, invasion it's a story like that and, it's a story that that, can be disseminated much more widely, and reinforced. You. Know more powerfully now with like social media yeah I mean a five, word story like that can can spread much more powerfully, nowadays right yeah, which. Underlines, their power right right that's a good example because obviously some people I'm not very good at Twitter you, know I I have like 16. Thousand followers which. Is nothing in the world of Twitter you, know they're, like fifteen-year-old, kids out there with my like a hundred thousand oh I don't know what they're doing they, know how to use that medium they know how to tell stories in 114. To native characters or less, right so there's, so many ways to tell stories out there not just through the world of books or movies and so on and that's, one of the things that social media has done is actually transform, that landscape, and I think that's, been empowering for a lot of people as they realized they actually are storytellers.
They Can bypass all, the established. Gatekeepers. That you and I have to rely on like New York publishers, and the like so, hopefully that brings to people this, react this sense that in fact all of us are engaged in narratives, in different ways well. You talk about and nothing ever dies. You know video games that. Is another narrative. That, is I. Don't think some people realize, how how. A, powerful, video games are in terms of how they represent the, worlds in those games you talked about like first-person, shooters for example. And. Can. You talk a little bit about that it's. Particularly I'm interested in like how, in a first-person shooter it's a you, know the points of view I mean when you're trying to kill the, enemy you. Have to distance yourself from that enemy and you can't bestow, that enemy any humanity because you're you know your absolute, goal is to is to destroy your. Enemy right and something. Like a first-person. Shooter game can. Really you. Know present, a very dangerous narrative. Well. The video game industry is more. Economically. Profitable, than Hollywood I think because I mean it's, billions, of dollars and all that kind of stuff and and you. Know we. Who are writers, you know oftentimes when we're only in a room full of writers will make huge, grand statements, about the power of literature Oh literature. Will save us writing will save us blah blah blah like yes it's true for, those people who read books, okay. Or the, even smaller population, of people who read novels right, but, everybody, almost everybody plays, video games and so. The. Reach of video games and the, way that they disseminate, stories, is really powerful, right. You got seductive. Which i think is I never thought of it in those terms you're not seduced when you play video games I don't play video games, you, know. But. Yes I mean it's seductive is a very good word for it my so than any book. Or movie I feel like it's I speak of someone easily seduced by video games so you know throughout the stages of my life I have gone out and bought the latest game console, on credit, played. It non-stop, for a week and then got sick and disgusted, with myself and then returned it okay good I know that if I kept it in the house I would just never stop playing games thanks but, what. I what, I say, is that, yes, novels. And Shakespeare, and so on these are these, are stories, that if. They're good or if we like them seduce. Us, through. The power of storytelling, right and get us to empathize, with the, in the plays or the books and the stories and so on but that's what video games do as well they.
Get Us to empathize what. We're, talking about first-person, games do they get us empathize with these, characters, and these narratives, that have been created. And. People. Spend more time playing these games than, they would reading Marcel, Proust okay, you wrote, four volumes of in search of lost, time this, thick your. Average teenager never gonna read it your average adult never gonna read these things but your average game. Player will spend dozens, of hours playing these, games. And they're artificially, created worlds and, yes, I think they're powerful and yes I think they're seductive, and what. Happens there is that stories. Can really have implicit, meanings, you know how many people have ever actually played first-person, shooter games. Okay. Good I bet. That's look unfortunately that's the kind of game I like I don't know what it says about me I liked it that's only game I like playing shooting, and destroying and killing things, actually me too I say I don't play video games but when I did, those are the only games I would play right and on the one hand yeah you can probably say they're harmless on the other hand are they I mean what are they what are they actually training, us to do what are they how they training, us to see the world and the reason that comes up in a book like nothing ever dies Vietnam, and the memory of war is that I'm well, you know try to make this connection between that, and in. General, as Americans, our. Perspective, on the world when. We think about the world how do we how do we think about the world you know Americans, are involved all over the world and when we talk strictly about war in the military we, have over, 800 bases, around, the world this, is a reality that you know most Americans are not engaged with right and. Our. Military presence is all over the place but. Usually when, we think about it we think about it from the perspective of American. Soldiers or American pilots or whatever and. When. We actually see, the. World oftentimes, it's, through, literally. The. Gun scopes of American. Weaponry or the cameras, of drones right, that, to me seems like a direct connection to the, first-person, shooter. Not. To say that everybody. Who plays the first-person shooter is gonna be out going out there you know piloting, a drone but. That's part. Of the connection yeah it's, a quite subliminal, conditioning. Right. So. I guess my, my. Question for you then is like how would you then advise. Asian. Americans or any American in their effort to kind of build on something. Like. Crazy vegetations, I mean, um you know, beyond just, creating. And engaging in these narratives, what else can, we do. Well. I look, back on that time in the 1980s, when there were very few stories buying, about Asian Americans I think yes, part, of the problem was structural. Racism that, we're preventing our stories from getting out there but, part of the problem is, Asian. Parents, right. You, know those of you who are Asian parents there's gonna be aging parents, and selling pants you know like, Asian. Parents have, bears some responsibility in. Saying. You know don't be writers don't be artists to their kids.
Don't, Be creatives, you know go into tech or medicine. Or whatever and, all that is very laudable and understandable. And everything like that but, you. Know I, I'm. Go around you know I'm convinced again I'm convinced, of the power of storytelling I'm convinced of the power of narrative you, don't have to have breed your kid to be a writer or something like that but you have to be open to the possibility. That stories. Really matter okay, and that, there's only so many doctors and lawyers and pharmacists, and nurses that we need out there we need other people doing different kinds of things too, so. I that, is an op-ed I want to write for the New York Times and saying Asian parents do. Your bit to change the world and one of the most rewarding things that's happened to me when I go out and I speak a couple of times has been when an Asian parent has come up to me like I was at Brown University in, this Vietnamese, woman, came up to me she's like 40-something, and. She. Said oh I, should've. Worked at a nail salon where she owned a nail salon and my son goes, here to brown and, I said what does it major in and. His. Major was so. Weird. It. Was like the stereotype, of a brown humanities, major I don't know what this but it was like it wasn't english it wasn't women's studies it was freakier, than those things find them I said. What do you think of that hey just I'm so proud of them I was. Like that's a story I want. To hear you know and. So hopefully there are more parents, out there like that who believe. In. These possibilities for you, and in a word I would say I wish that means parents would, embrace weirdness. As. A culture we don't like weirdness, you, know and in. Whatever form that is yeah you know to be okay with it to be somewhat, comfortable or at least comfortable with your discomfort, with weirdness, yeah right yeah and, allow your kids to, embrace. It as well I think that part of that is due obviously to Asian Americans being a relatively small minority in the last few decades, and. So of course when there's fewer people there's more pressure, because. Of the scarcity issues, right and the narrative scarcity, this idea that you, know you have to go out there and represent your people and all of that so you got to be a good boy or a good girl whatever and got there and be a doctor and do all those kinds of things but, we've we.
Have Model. Agents but, if we're speaking just about Asians we've crossed the magic threshold I think we're like five or six percent of the national population there's. More of a critical mass out. There I. Don't. Know if the problems with Asian parents. Are any different than any other parents I'm assuming if you take a cross-section of America as a whole a lot of parents out there want their kids to be doctors, and lawyers and engineers in, order to foot that $60,000. Tuition. Bill and so on you know but again just with a smaller population is this more pressure on us yeah. I was also thinking of something, you said and nothing, ever dies you referred to a little Saigon in Orange County as the. Greatest work of collective, memory these, defeated, people that it means people have created in the, sense that this recreation. Of home in, Southern, California in, America, has, allowed us particularly. Southern Vietnamese, to, control our memories of ourselves, from back home and. Also our, own presence here in America, and. It's. I guess it's economic, success, as a mode of cultural. Capital and and. It make me think that at, the center of this is Vietnamese, cuisine and. All those Vietnamese restaurants, that come, out of you know that started in Little Saigon enough, to spread all across the country the fact that that, Vietnamese cuisine has taken seriously, now Vietnamese, food everyone, not, only knows. What fuss or most people do they, also even know how to pronounce it now right. And. I wonder it have. You thought of thought of this as a kind of narrative itself. So. There's a little Saigon in Chicago, right or on what you call it but there's a yeah yeah yeah. So for those of you who have not been to Little Saigon in Orange County that's that neighborhood a hundred times larger yeah and. And, so yeah, you know basically, one, of the ways that you become American, in this country is. That you own real estate hmm, right. And it's the owning real estate that, you can you make your presence felt. And so these, so called ethnic neighborhoods are a very important way of Americanization, because, you go you drive to Orange County you drive to Westminster or Santa Ana you, cannot. Help but see the streets, and streets and streets full, of Vietnamese, businesses with, Vietnamese signage, and all of that it's, a very bold Proclamation. That we are here you know and. It. Is an enormous important, part of telling.
That That, narrative right and from added that concentration, this is this is a very American thing I've, been to Paris for example and and. In in France the, French don't like this they don't like ethnic concentrations. But. In this country because, of our particular history we do or we allow it anyway and so, we tell that kind of a story and then of course besides the real estate there's the food that, you're talking about and food, is an important story right like how. Do we go from a moment in the 1970s. Or 1980s where. The perception, of the American perception, racist, perception, of Vietnamese, is that we ate dogs this. Is us these were stories that were circulating, back then right and now, we've gone from that to fall. You. Know we've, gone from that moment to, Rachael Ray making. Horrible thaw, okay. I. Was, like that's you, that you just taken something and put the word thaw on it has no relationship, to the actual food I'm. Sort of okay with that you, know I'm sort of okay with that because it means that we've actually changed the, vocabulary. Change we've done were are enough for someone like that to do right and gotten far, enough for someone to debase us in the in our feelings procreate, you, know Trader, Joe's as oh my god Trader, Joe's I went there I made a mistake I just wanted to try it by, : the spring roll they have it at trader, Joe Joe's the vermicelli wrapping, around vegetables, it was horrible, it was horrible, you know but at least we've gotten that far that's what you mean it's like did, that kind of plenitude, allows. For mediocre, or even awful stuff like that and that's a it's a kind of a good thing but, I think most people people know that if they go and they get from Trader Joe's it's gonna suck I think, I think people are smart enough to know that right, so. That's, not necessarily a bad thing it's actually a good thing you know for example when the refugees my shorts reflection came out and.
Went To Costco once and they had it they had a pallet full not palpable they're like several stacks of the refugee of the fun. The. Costco even into Trader Joe's that's what we're trying striving, for and, this, goes a little authenticity thing, like, nobody. In their right minds, won't. Think they're getting good from Trader Joe's but, the point is is that then, people, will know I I, know where to get the good fun I'm. In the I'm in the know so, I know where, the authentic Vietnamese food, is and, so that's part of the dynamic of narratives. As well like oh you know these people over here they don't know enough to divet the difference, between good but me or good, fun bad abundant, bad man me we did we, don't be Vietnamese but we're really hip we know what's going on you, know and so that's, true for narratives of all kinds whether, it's movies, or books or, food, because. Now very. Hip since they're very hip and smart Americans go yeah I know that fish sauce I was, at Brown I was, joking around it was a continental restaurant, yeah and wrote it in Providence and, I was looking at my plate of, fish whatever it was I thought it'd be better with fish sauce and the, waiter said we, have fish sauce and. He did he would thought Vietnamese this is not a Vietnamese restaurant so that we made it in, this continental, European, kind of restaurant they have a bottle fish sauce for people who asked but. We. Have a secret ingredient beyond, that that. Most Americans. Do not know about dude. That's even more authentic, than. Fish sauce. Shrimp. Paste Oh God oh yeah. This. Is nuclear option. But. You know back, to those this this kind of model. Asian. And especially, the kind of economic, model of success that that a. Lot of immigrants particularly Vietnamese, really. Celebrate. You, know and it comes out of like the success, of a place like Little Saigon and I wonder about the. Problematic, aspects, of that for, example you. Know it does reinforce, this notion that to be a success, you have it has to be an economic success. Or financial, success, and. That, also, more. Deeply, I think this is it. Seems, to me this is how, Vietnamese. Also end up. Supporting. Arguments. Against. You, know immigration. And and, you know against. You know the. More. Revenue or refugees, coming in you know it's this kind of, contradiction. Where people, always wonder like why, would, okay. So my parents voted, for for Trump right. And, and. When, you have an example like that you know people ask how could they as refugees, now support someone who does not you, know who's, so against immigration, and refugees. Why. Do you think we, do this I mean, I feel like it's kind of you. Know founded in this idea of what is a successful immigrant. Don't you think. You. Know it only makes sense and it's true there are a lot of you, know fervent. Supporters. Of Donald Trump for example in the in the Vietnamese American community and they will wear the the red you know make America great hat hats, again also and, I think there's a number, of different narratives that that are that are happening there one, is the American idea of the American dream you know the Vietnamese, refugees, really believe they have succeeded in the United States and they've, done it the right way and everybody else should do it the right way and. Therefore that means you, know going through the legal procedures, and everything they, also participate. In a very important American narrative to which is that. This. Is a country, in, which, people. Get the right to forget. Where. They came from right, yeah right I mean if you're an American of three or four generations you may. Have a very fuzzy notion, of who your ancestors, are how they came here and so on and you're just because they were immigrants, two or three or four generations back doesn't mean you're gonna be empathetic with. The new immigrants, that come in you, are an American now in, part, of part. What it means to be an American, as part of our history is that we have. Barriers, and borders and exclusionary. Acts and things like this and the Vietnamese. Americans. Now who want, to maintain that border and so on they're participating in that same. American. Narrative to. Become. American and to forget where. It is that. They came from so it's not surprising, it's ironic because we're, intimately, with it and it's more recent history but it's completely American. To, do these kinds of things I mean. You've written the the secondary, goal of this ethics, of memory this is and nothing ever dies again but, the second goal this ethics, of memory, especially, for those formerly, cast as others is to, be empathetic to the ever-new others on the horizon, and.
It Seems like it's it's too easy for, us it, too, often this doesn't happen to, be empathetic the new others to the new yes you. Know I think we're all capable of empathy. Right and again this is what narratives, and stories are supposed to do it's supposed to teach us empathy, about people who are not like us we read books or we watch movies but, people who are not like us right, but, where where, do we draw that that, circle, of empathy. How far how far out does it does it extend. Obviously. I hope most of us are empathetic to our families, for example we're. Empathetic, to other Americans. Right but, who are who who counts as an American, right, so it's, totally possible to say I empathize, with Americans. But, my, definition of Americans excludes, certain, kinds of people in. This country right. So I think that this is part of, the. Political tensions in, our country is. That they're competing, projects. Of empathy that. Are happening here, and competing, projects of storytelling about what America is you. Know. There's. Some, people who want to say, you know we should expand. Those borders of empathy to include the undocumented. Or, refugees, or immigrants, and there's other people are saying no. We. Just want to take care of Americans, whatever. Americans, mean and these, I don't think these people who advocate for that would say they're not empathetic, I think, I am I am empathetic, I'm just empathetic with the, people we need to take care of to a degree to a degree the near and the dear yeah you, know and I, feel that you know we. As writers. Our. Project, is about, approaching. The far and the feared whatever, whoever that happens to be that this could be like literal. Populations, of people you know foreigners, immigrants, undocumented, the people were at war with or. The far in the fear it could be what's inside of us you. Know that's. What weird spiders are supposed to do and so, I think that's why. Today. The, literary community is, in such an uproar. Against. The. Current administration. Because I just feels is that there, are definitions that empathy are radically, radically, different, and it is partially. Based on different, ideas of storytelling, different ideas of narrative different ideas of who it is should. Be at the center of our stories. But. With this new kind of newfound empathy. You. Know, where, people do have a language to to. Both express, why you, know certain. Representations. Of them have been either. Not. Satisfactory. For or dangerous. How. Do you then deal, with you, know. Products. Of the past once, you see them in this new light for, example you know you go back to you. Were talking about the Vietnam War as a betrayed and. In movies and, and you've written that links on that I mean that that was a kind of narrative plenitude that then it means Americans, did have but in the back way right. For. Example you've. Written about Apocalypse. Now and how, that, became a space for for. White. Americans, to deal with both their their, humanity, and humanity but. In doing so it it, left, the Vietnamese only in human and. Distance them. An. Example like like, Apocalypse. Now and, there are many other examples of that what do you then do. With that now that you have this new insight does. That make sense yeah it, how. Many people to here I've actually seen Apocalypse, Now oh you. Come from the generation that has you know yeah I go around now people like, teenagers, and college students they've not seen this movie right you had to have it I'm shocked to have it yeah so, I mean there's to be a cool thing in college that you have this poster on your it's been a long time since we've been in college okay so. Very. Generational. Shift. So, you you know what the movies about right and and I think. That for. Those of us who, feel. Like we've been excluded, from narrative, plenitude for whatever reason, there's oftentimes impulse, that you know we could we need to tell our own stories, we didn't need to get our voices out there and, we've, seen that, we've. Been depicted as inhuman, or a stereotypes. Or whatever in, mass media so, we're gonna tell a story once we have the chance to tell the story we're, gonna tell a story about how how, human, we are about. How, pathetic. We are. And. That's powerful, I also, think, it's actually very, limited at, the same time, because. What. It means to have, narratives, plenitude, and to be a part of the majority is that. You can, take, for granted that you don't have to prove your, humanity. That's. Why in an economy of narrative plenitude you. Can have. Movies. About white. People who are serial, killers for, example and.
People, Are not gonna go out of the movie theater saying oh my god all white people are serial killers you. Know right you get to. Immerse. Yourself, in the world of the serial killer and, think hmm yes bad, person, but. I can empathize if it's. A well done movie you. Empathize, with the full range of human possibility, from the inhuman, to the human okay, so that's. Why for, example the. TV shows that I was watching when I was writing the sympathizer where TV shows like The Sopranos, or. The wire, these. Are shows that are not going out there trying to prove the humanity, of Americans, it's. Simply. Looking at these people who are capable of a range of, good. And bad things as what we all are that's. What we have to do that's. I feeling when we have the opportunity, to tell our own stories, we. Have to proceed from the assumption. That we're, already human, which. Means we're already in human at, the same time and, my, response to Apocalypse, Now was not to write a novel that. Simply, showed the tragedy, of Vietnamese, refugees and our human story and all that no the sympathizer. For. Those of you who haven't read it shame, on you. But. It is a story about a, spy, who. Has to do bad things and he's an alcoholic and he's a womanizer and he's a murderer and all this kind of stuff it's, a really good story okay, precisely, because it doesn't try to prove any humanity, or, try to make the Vietnamese people look good or anything like that it does the same kinds of gestures that. These stories, like, The Sopranos or The Godfather and so on take, for granted which is that you can have, anti-heroes. As. Your. Representatives. And no, one's going to mistake them and somehow telling. The entire story about in this case Vietnamese people but how do you really. Like. Apocalypse, Now or platoon, or or, a deer hunter the. Kinds of things that are not going to go away from the culture how, do you reengage, it especially if you had, previous.
To This new insight you, had a positive, relationship. With it. I mean, I think a lot of the. Response nowadays well I'm canceling it out you. Know it's. A larger question too bad what do you do with like Woody Allen for example now that you know what. Do you think you know. Have. You thought about and it's a how should the culture you know if if it sees, apocalypse. A movie like Apocalypse, Now in this new light how. Should it reengage. With it we. Should reject it completely no, no no I mean I I've. Never gone out there and said just to use Apocalypse Now as an example we shouldn't watch it or we should ban it or something I've never never you, know my way to respond to it was to make fun of it to satirize it was a big chunk of the novel to sympathizer that is basically a satyr ization of Apocalypse. Now, in. And, that it's a part of our culture you know canonical. Texts like this and we need to respond to it like that but it's very you it's a very intimate question for me because like. For example I, grew up a huge, fan of the, Tintin comics I don't know how many of you read Tintin, for example right okay. I go back and look at it as an adult like oh there's some there's some racism, in, the Tintin comics but I enjoyed so much. But. I, actually. You, know have pretty much bought the incomplete collection in French and in English for my son who's like five years old and we read it together and I, have to think about well these, are great stories he's really, into them but, he's also being exposed to a certain idea, about race from. The 1930s. Of the 1960s, and RJ, was a liberal right. He had some liberal you by the standards of the day he was actually sort of you know sympathetic. To the colonize and things like that but, there's no doubt that that, visually. There's. Some racist that we with what we would now consider to be racist images in, these books and I. Have, I sent my son I sent my son to a school in which apparently the year before he enrolled a parent, got it's a French school there's other very intimately aware of Tintin, you, know a parent, got so mad about this, issue that she wanted to have Tintin pulled from the shelves and, then she took, her kid out of the school okay, she was white all right and I wouldn't do that because. I think my. Son, sooner, or later is, going to see these kinds. Of images and. I want to be the one to. Expose them to him first I don't want him to, be. On call as a school playground, and have. Someone. Say. Racist, terms to him or, do racist gestures, or something like that and then he's gonna be all.
Confused And come home to me yeah, that's what I can happen anyway but. These, images are already out there we have to confront that you, know and and so that's, that's why I read. These books with them and he'll he'll look at it now say oh, there. Was a black man in here I'm like that's a very racist depiction, of a, black man in here and he's. Five years old he's not gonna come back at me with like you know some kind of you know discourse, about this but. I know he's absorbing, it they say that we have this capacity to talk about that I think. That's what we have to do with. Right. Before. I give, to audience. Questions I do want to ask you about the. Book you're writing you were working on now or at least the, one book but I don't know if you're working on multiple projects, but. It's, a sequel to the sympathizer you're, you're calling it to commit it is that a pretty definite. Title. Pretty. Close okay, and. You've been working on it it takes place in Paris and, you've been working on it in, Paris and I. Have a couple questions in terms of like how you. Know, your. Your, work, in fiction, in many ways dramatizes. The many many of the ideas that you've worked out in your, non-fiction, works your, critical works and I wonder how you. Know working on the committed has have, you moved, beyond some of those ideas I have you how. Have your ideas evolved, especially in light of successive. Sympathizer. And. How. Paris, has affected it actually living there, working there well, you know I like most of many, people in this room probably I have very romantic, notions, of Paris and France and my wife and I spent seven, months there on our on our honeymoon in 2003. And. Then. You. Know France, is a part of our heritage as Vietnamese people we were colonized by the French for 70 or 80 years and, so I wanted to confront that that heritage and the sympathizer is about a guy, who's half French and half Vietnamese, so the, committed being setting that in Paris was an opportunity, to engage with that and. Deal. With a country that is a very different sense, of race, and difference, in culture than the United States does. And. It's and I wanted to you, know challenge myself and. It. Has, been challenging because. The. Experience, of the, French in regards to all these things is, so different than. The Americans, and even for the Vietnamese who are in France, you, know I go to France and I'm like racism racism racism no. That's not racist, you know that's they're just being stupid and. The. Vietnamese people here are doing great we're so well adjusted and. It's, very hard way together by marriage all right French. Saying this or ven amis french french people of Vietnamese descent okay. So either they wouldn't say French Vietnamese or Vietnamese French you don't have hybrid identities, it's, supposedly. So. It's it's it's it's a learning experience for, me to try to figure out how to acknowledge. Legit, legitimacy. Of these French perspectives. And yet also, be. Critical I can't, help but be critical you know and so that's that that's, the near the narrative is is partly about that it's mostly about drugs. And sex and violence in Paris at the early 1980s, and politics but um underlying. All of that there is also do you ever find yourself have, you found yourself questioning. Your own stance. On certain things because of these. Vietnamese and in, Paris and their kind of. Casual. Reaction, to racism yeah, I have because. You. Know we're we're Americans were very used to how the American, system of differences. Work here right and. It's. A system that gives us opportunities, but also gives us traps so. I knew you. Know I don't. Back away from being Vietnamese, as a writer I say I'm a writer if I also say, already Ryder meeting he's right there I'm all these kinds of things but, I also knew that the the the way by, which I'm. Perceived, in this country is through being Vietnamese and that. The way to tell my story the, one the story that people expected me to tell would be about Vietnam or the Vietnam War and that's true for all minorities, in this country we're. Only allowed one, historical. Experience, that the rest of the country knows, about, that's. The opportunity and it's also the trap, good things like oh he's, Vietnamese he's got to write about the Vietnam War and, so the, the, the what, I had to do there was, simply, to take. Up that opportunity but to do it on my own terms, yeah okay, so, in France the difference would be that at least the French would say you, know that. Is a total trap, you. Know to be to be stuck on your own difference. You, should instead try to be a universal, you. Know tell the universal, story, and, I personally think the sympathizer for example is a universal, story but it's read the rebbe it nummies history. Here. So. I have to look at France and think what.
Would, I be different if I was there what I actually simply be French would. That would that be a possibility are, there are do the French are they did, the French have something that we don't is it actually true that you. Know race is not such a big deal there etc. Personally. I don't think so but. But, I understand. Why they think that way and I, want to acknowledge that in the book but, also show how, it's. Also really, limited, by. The French experience, as, well well people don't realize sometimes is that the universal, is actually very specific exactly yeah. It's. Not about getting, everyone to to, recognize themselves, it's about being specific enough that so that it resonates right. Audience. Questions. Sorry. This is, I'm. Matt again. So, everything, your time I was really interesting cuz I'm talking, was earlier during the tour that I'm from the North Midwest and part. Of my family I have several, members that came back from Vietnam with, great uncles and. So you're kind of about this identity but they kinda the opposite they assimilated. In a very very very non diverse culture and so, I don't know when, you see people who do that if you have certain views, or you. Know is that anti your. Own culture or is that, appropriate just. Want to get your thoughts on that here talk about so, they're not they're not white they're right they came back from Vietnam okay but rather then hold, on to any of their culture they, completely, gave it up to become completely, American and Mir the small communities are in right, you, know I it's. Hard to me to say because I had the the luxury, of growing, up in California which is obviously much more, diverse than North Dakota and, little. San Jose which is the second largest Vietnamese. Population in, the United States. So. If. I was in that situation and, I was like the one Vietnamese person or the one of the handful of Vietnamese people in that environment or any kind of minority that you're talking about that's, a survival strategy to. Do that right. It's. It. Can't come without costs. Though at the same time so I met, more. Second-generation. Vietnamese. Americans, who've emerged out of those circumstances and they migrated, to the bigger city or more. Diverse state and you, should have pretty regretful, that they they were raised. In that kind of environment where there, is their their history and their specificity was. Denied, to them you, know and that with the situation that you're talking about it looks a lot more like like, France because. Most, of the Vietnamese I met there were like well we ended, up in a place. Where there was no other Vietnamese people so. We had no choice but. To assimilate. They, were ok with that because. That's, the only option that they really had, and then, they became assimilated, functional. Members of French society and everything like that but that's, the price if it is a price of, not. Feeling comfortable. Associating. With other Vietnamese. Or Asian. People we would I would see that as a cost that. Wouldn't, necessarily be the case in in France. Or in North Dakota and if people never left, so in other words there I don't I don't I really don't want to make a judgement about people who who, don't have any other option, when, they're put in that situation. But. The culture that we do share though is something like Hollywood. We all have Hollywood right so. That's. What the issued narrative scares the narrative plenitude is about like, you could be the only Vietnamese, person in North Dakota or that particular City and if. You don't see yourself at all in mainstream, culture. You're. Encouraged to forget. Your differences, but what if that makes you coach it was different you could still be the only Vietnamese person in that particular place but, if you had access to all these books and all these movies and so on all these stories it, would completely change your perception, of who you are out there. Hi. There excuse. Me thank you for coming and joining us my name is Nelson my. Question is so I'm I'm CUBAN I was born in the island I grew up in Miami which is basically Cuba but.
Outside. Of those that area in Miami. What. I come across in conversations, when I meet someone and they they, figure out or I tell him that I'm Cuban is older. Generations, immediately, think of Cold War communism. Younger. Generations just go immediately to tourism. Food. Maybe, I'm. Just curious as. You. Know, seeing parallel situations, between Vietnam, maybe in a more. Frag. Of a better word of violent history with the US but, kind of similar with communism, and the struggles they had there do, you find a more nuanced conversation when you meet people when you talk about Vietnam or is it basically sticking to what. Older generations, think about Vietnam and what younger generations, think about like Vietnamese, food or going. To visit it like the Vietnamese part of neighborhood and eating bon. Mise or whatever it might be uh. You know it's a big country so there's so many different. Experiences. That, people have you know so when. I go and I, go, to speak, to college campuses at the very different experience, than, going to Palm Springs and speaking to retirement, community, or going. To Idaho. Which is like 1887. Or 89 percent white so I can sort of feel the differences, there in terms of responses. So what amount of college campus and the people are young and they're diverse and they're, obviously being college educated, the, level of responses, is really different because they already know about fun by me and all of this and they're they're hungry for. These. More nuanced statements, about, what America is and and, what our stories should be for example if. I go to. You. Know. Palm. Springs City cuz that example and. The, average age is like 60, or 70, in the audience, it's. A totally different experience, it, is more like what you're talking about you know they're the the notions. Of. Awareness. Of. The. Stories, that we're. Talking about is much more limited right. So. For example. Springs. First. Question from the audience was. And. This was this was several, months ago have. You seen that. New Ken. Burns documentary, about. The Vietnam War okay. And. In my mind I was like that's an 18 hour documentary I, don't. Have 18 hours and. If you have 18 hours to watch a documentary, you have, enough time to read a book by Vietnamese person because whoever asked me that question whenever, that question, came up in audiences like that they had never read a book by Vietnamese person or seen a movie from Vietnamese point, of view so, it's a radically, different. Set. Of experiences from one end of the country to the next I, went, to Clemson University, first question from the audience was, a guy who looked like he literally was a Confederate veteran and. It, was about the Confederate, what's that nothing to do with my top you.
Know So that's, the beauty and the, the challenge of of, a country like this is that you have people who know exactly what you're talking about and you know people have no idea what, you're talking about and again that's what we're doing with trying. To expand our stories and our narratives, is to eventually get to all these different people but also especially to, the next generation, as well I thank. You so much for speaking as. A, Nigerian, a person who's born in Nigeria I can definitely hear my story and my parental, experience reflected. In a lot of what you say. Although, Nigerians, are a bit more invisible in the sense of how we blend into American society but what I hear a lot about you know writing from you is the, this idea of the need for vulnerability. Right, so in order to really tell the story that you want to tell in. Your books you have, to face the, idea that you're not necessarily going to talk about the, Vietnamese experience, in a way that people expect, so, I just want to know what, influences. Did you have as far as books, that you read experiences, that you had that allowed you to step fully into that state, of vulnerability as, a writer young. And then moving, through your career that kind of shaped. The way you've thought about these are the stories that I'm gonna tell regardless, of what people think. That I should be talking about or what they're gonna try to engage. Me on even though it has nothing to do with my book or the talk that I I came to give you. Know one of my writing. Instructors, when I was in college brought. In Booker G you know I read one of my short stories you said you're. Not cutting close enough to the bone I was. Like 19 or 20 other what does that mean you, know if it literally means cutting to the bone I can do that taking a knife to cut yourself it's, okay, most writers would do that I think if you can't get a good story by cutting yourself you would totally do it all right.
But. What she meant I think was, that I wasn't, getting vulnerable, enough I wasn't. Going deep enough inside. That's. Really hard to do because I think most of us, don't. Want to do that we've. Built up these protections, against, the things that have hurt us the things that make us most vulnerable in order to function. And. I, didn't know how to do that as a, person or as a writer and you. Asked for a list of books I can give you a ton all all great books. Are about, writers getting vulnerable, whether or not there are whether other autobiographical. Or not you may not see the mechanism in operation, but, maybe I don't, if you feel this way but you know to be a writer you have to be vulnerable to yourself and you because. The. Experience, that matters the most is not like going out there and like chopping, lumber or working, in a nail salon or whatever it will gonna ward accumulated, experience the, most important experience is your emotional experience, that's when you draw from in order to imbue, feeling. Into your work so Toni Morrison and say writes beloved, she, was not a slave right. She. Had somehow to find those emotions building ourselves I don't know what emotional journey she undertook in. My case the stories that I had to confront were not the stories in books although I read a lot of those the, story I had to confront was my own the come. From from my own families refugee, experience confront, my own refugee, experience, stuff. That I had lived through that, we had lived through that, I had just I never, forgotten, them but I'd sort of sealed them off and not. Felt those emotions. That was, difficult to go. Back there and, to look at those to, look at those experiences. And. There's. There's. No one who can teach you how to do that, except, for maybe your therapist, you, know but, in my case it was thank, God I never saw a therapist I had to do it through through, my writing instead. Hopefully. That answers the, question. We. Have one final question. Hi. I have, a question in 20 parts so, this is a great. But. So my name is Andy William I'm a first-generation. Vietnamese. American born here in Chicago, and, I actually wanted to talk to both of you but your your view of, ethnic. Enclaves, I'll call them so growing. Up in Chicago I actually didn't grow up in Argyle or Vito music people called a guy like, that's where that. The Vietnamese areas. That's. True in Chicago yeah, and. So I grew up kind of away from it so we. Would come here and you know wow there's like a thousand, Vietnamese people so cool and then, when I was 18 or, 20 or something I went to Westminster and, I was blown away it was like Vietnamese, flags everywhere, I, thought I was in Vietnam Franklin, so. I want. To get your POV because I'm actually I'm torn, right, because there is the, power of having all, the, people in one place but. That also breeds different. Types of prejudices, right there are areas and and Vietnamese. Towns where, you. Know there's, just a lot of prejudice in the area so I was gonna say what do you think the balance is you know and going, to weave in my life and I we, went to Paris and there is different.
Types Of you know you don't really see all these view people all in one place because they have a different sense to identity. So does. Your POV be great. Why. I can always speak. For myself I feel like I have to constantly fight the, need to be special. Because. I grew up you. Know in, Oklahoma you know I was the only enemies, person I ever saw and, and. Yes that comes with feeling, like an outsider and feeling alienated but, also I, always, had, a feeling of specialness too if that makes sense and and. When, you start, engaging with your. You, know when I start engaging with Vietnamese communities, I. Had to fight that urge. That. Desire to be special like, and it made me try to break down what that actually means and why, I felt. I need to have it and and. What, was the cost of that you, know that's. Might been my experience with it you know I'm. Only now engaging, more with with the Vietnamese community, and. It's it's brought. It's. Brought perspectives, to me that I've never had I'm 43, and, it's. Very meaningful to me but I'm still finding that that needs to be you know the, only Asian person in the room which, is weird that I wouldn't even want that. What. To pick up on one element of what you said Andy, maybe. The implication, is what you're saying, Vietnamese, people, can. Be racist too you. Know in a matter of fact they're pretty great we're pretty racist okay I'm just judging very much so from the, the. Comments that I hear in Vietnamese, in Vietnamese language communities, and so on the. Casual, racism the, deeply, embedded prejudices. That people have what, it goes to show is that it doesn't matter if you're a minority, right, just because you've been the victim of racism doesn't mean you, can't be a racist yourself and as a matter of fact often, times you are racist, yourself, these. Are the unfortunate. Dynamics of human experience. And. What that meant for me both.
As A writer but also someone, who's Vietnamese, and someone who thinks about politics and political stories, is, that my my my commitment, is as, a writer is twofold one is that it is certainly to the Vietnamese community, and to tell our stories, and all that kind of thing but, the second obligation. Is to truth, and justice, you know these these grand words and, if, your, community, is doing, something wrong you, need. To stand up against. It that's the role of the writer right, and, the role of the writer is is, complex, it's both to represent. Right, but it's also to oppose and. Again. The dynamics, of being a minority in this country or any country oftentimes, as you feel simply the desire to represent like, we've been misrepresented, we've. There's not been enough representation. Therefore, we have to represent. But. Again, if. Your community is dumped do is doing something wrong you have to represent. That now. Now that is the, the, real challenge. I think and. If. We think of ourselves as Americans many. American, writers you, know, do. Not go out there thinking, we have to represent America, that's not the first thing, that most American writers or artists are thinking about they're. Thinking my first obligation is to the art and then it's the truth and justice, and if. It's oftentimes in opposition to, America. Itself either America, in terms of what it's doing overseas or, America. What's good happening wrong within our country today whatever that happens to be that's. Part of what it means to be a part of majority right and that's, also if you're a minority writer, that's what you have to do as well, you cannot, feel. That. Your first. Obligation is, is only, to your ethnicity, of your culture or something like that that's part of it but you the first obligations, are to your principles your, art truth, justice, things like that and so. That's. Part of I think what's going to happen with.
Something. Like Vietnamese American, writing. And so on that. They. Have to depict those kinds of things they have to depict, both the beauty of Little Saigon but also of course the, fact that it's a deeply it's. Almost a fascistic. Community. Out there and if you step out of line they, will they. Will, get. In your face and make. Sure you don't say another word. Thank. You very much. You. You.