Pulitzer-Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen is our first-ever return guest for 5 questions! Last time, he was in town promoting his acclaimed novel, The Sympathizer. Since his visit, the book has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer.
This week on Wednesday, May 4, he will be discussing his new book of nonfiction at City Lights Bookstore, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, (published by Harvard University Press). with the one and only Maxine Hong Kingston. This event is not to be missed. More about Viet, and his answers, below.
About Nothing Ever Dies: All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. From the author of the bestselling novel The Sympathizer comes a searching exploration of the conflict Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War—a conflict that lives on in the collective memory of both nations.
From a kaleidoscope of cultural forms—novels, memoirs, cemeteries, monuments, films, photography, museum exhibits, video games, souvenirs, and more—Nothing Ever Dies brings a comprehensive vision of the war into sharp focus. At stake are ethical questions about how the war should be remembered by participants that include not only Americans and Vietnamese but also Laotians, Cambodians, South Koreans, and Southeast Asian Americans. Too often, memorials valorize the experience of one’s own people above all else, honoring their sacrifices while demonizing the “enemy”—or, most often, ignoring combatants and civilians on the other side altogether. Visiting sites across the United States, Southeast Asia, and Korea, Viet Thanh Nguyen provides penetrating interpretations of the way memories of the war help to enable future wars or struggle to prevent them.
Drawing from this war, Nguyen offers a lesson for all wars by calling on us to recognize not only our shared humanity but our ever-present inhumanity. This is the only path to reconciliation with our foes, and with ourselves. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.
About Viet Thanh Nguyen: Viet Thanh Nguyen is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and the novel The Sympathizer, from Grove/Atlantic (2015). The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. It is also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, an Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The novel made it to over thirty book-of-the-year lists, including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com, Slate.com, and The Washington Post.
About Maxine Hong Kingston is a Chinese American author and Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a BA in English in 1962. Kingston has written three novels and several works of non-fiction about the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in the United States.
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sitting in the green room, a.k.a. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s office,
waiting for the reading to start. Writers’ rooms are always mysterious places, at least to other writers and to readers. I wondered if I was sitting in a seat where some great work had been written, and hoped some of the magic would rub off on me.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?
VTN: I have a playlist on Spotify called “minimalism,” with lots of Philip Glass. If my book had an aural feel, I would want it to be like that music–compulsive, rhythmic, hypnotic.
CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?
VTN: I have no idea. I remember going to the library in Harrisburg, PA, with my parents, where we had settled as refugees. I remember getting books from a book truck, too. But the first book I can clearly remember is a book I didn’t like, Where the Wild Things Are. That makes me weird, right? But I was a young refugee living in a dark house, and I didn’t
need a fantasy world of dark things. I was already living in that world.
CL: If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?
VTN: I’m a professor. If I couldn’t be a professor, I’d be a full-time writer. If I could only make a living on it!
CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi).
VTN: The last time I did this Q&A, I said, “My wife, my son, and a magic lampwith three wishes.” If I couldn’t have those three, I’d say I would want a Kindle (or any electronic reader) stocked with thousands of books, a solar-powered generator to recharge it, and a satellite phone to call for help.
We very honored to have Viet back with us on May 4, 2016 at City Lights. He’ll be in conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston about his new book of nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies. For more about Viet, go to his official site. For more events at City Lights Bookstore this spring, go to our complete calendar.