Viet Thanh Nguyen’s tools for combatting xenophobia
30 January 2020
In his acclaimed debut novel, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen offers new angles on the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Currently visiting Uppsala for a few days as a new honorary doctor, he wants to inspire more people to reflect on how we choose to remember our collective past.
In late January, by tradition, various high flyers arrive in Uppsala to have honorary doctorates ceremonially conferred on them at the University. This often remains largely the individual faculties’ concern but, on occasion, a prominent name – a previous or likely Nobel laureate, say – creates a stir in the media around the person’s visit. Then there is a third, considerably more select category, such as when the Faculty of Languages announced its honorary doctors for 2020.
“Interest in this year’s guest is truly exceptional. We’ve had to limit interviews to the biggest media organisations, and when his Swedish publisher arranged a conversation with the author on the International Writers’ Stage at Kulturhuset (the Stockholm cultural centre) the other evening, the seats were sold out. Clearly, we’ve chosen an honorary doctor who, with his ability to unite humanities research and literary expression, succeeds in moving people,” says Julie Hansen, a researcher at Uppsala University and host for the visit.
When Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor at University of Southern California, published his debut novel The Sympathizer, it was immediately acclaimed in the US. This was partly for its literary qualities, but also for its way of depicting the aftermath of the Vietnam war, 40 years after it ended, from a Vietnamese point of view. The book was awarded several distinctions, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, and the author himself soon became a sought-after guest on the top-rated TV shows.
Scientific reasoning in a literary guise
Half an hour before Viet Thanh Nguyen is due to start his open lecture in Uppsala University’s Ihre Hall (Ihresalen), the first attendees are already taking their seats. The rows fill up rapidly with researchers and students, but the speaker has also attracted an influx of people from what is often called “the new Sweden”. Perhaps this is partly due to the Faculty’s presentation of Nguyen, stressing his “scholarly and literary elucidation of the consequences of war and migration” – a subject that, two centuries after Sweden last found itself in an armed conflict, is once more highly topical in this country’s public debate.
Viet Thanh Nguyen starts his lecture, War, Fiction and the Ethics of Memory, by describing some childhood events. At the age of four, he fled from Vietnam to the US with his family, only to be torn away from them in his new homeland. It was an experience that shaped him as a person and, like many others, he carries the war and the memories inside himself to this day. There, too, the seed was sown for his lifelong interest in how we choose to interpret and retell the past for the purpose of distinguishing us from them, Nguyen relates.
The narrator in The Sympathizer – like his creator – flees to the US when the “fall” (or “liberation”, as the event is frequently described) of Saigon took place. But there ends every parallel to the author’s life. The protagonist of the book is a relatively unlovable communist double agent, which makes him the exact tool that Nguyen was seeking to formulate, in a literary guise, his scholarly discourse on the ethics of memory.
He recalls Donald Trump declaring, in a speech, “You will never be forgotten again.” But who did he mean by “you”? Who were the people who had forgotten them, and what is it, in fact, that should be remembered? In countless historical writings, we characterise us as human and them as inhuman. Individual radical views may indeed set out to mix things up; but why not start reflecting on the weaknesses and strengths in both our own and other cultures? Only then do we have the rudiments of the platform needed to combat war, racism and xenophobia.
Hope of far-reaching collaboration
An hour and a half in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s company zooms by. A few questions from the audience can be fitted in before the socialising is due to start. A big crowd of people linger for the chance to exchange a few words with him. Nguyen is generous with his time, and when the glasses and canapés have been cleared away, another 90 minutes have passed.
“My life has been dramatically transformed in the past few years. Suddenly I’m expected to fulfil all the obligations of a prizewinning author’s role. Needless to say, I’m deeply thankful for my success, but it takes up a lot of my time. So I also have to work to create the space I need to find the way back to my writing. Last year I managed it and now, five years after The Sympathizer, I’ve laid the foundation for my next novel, which I hope will come out in 2020.”
But first comes the forthcoming Winter Conferment Ceremony in the Grand Auditorium at Uppsala University. The contrasts with Southern California are huge, Viet Thanh Nguyen points out. The cold and the darkness are very different, of course, but the academic rituals are even more so. Already awaiting him at the hotel is a tail coat for which he has had a fitting; it is a garment he had no need to wear when he received his first doctorate, which was at an American university.
“We never wear tail coats in American academic life, but perhaps we should. Apart from the great honour of receiving this title at Uppsala University, with its rich history, it’s enormously enjoyable to take part in these beautiful traditions. It’s an instructive experience to meet you Swedes, too. It’s already given me a much more nuanced picture than the clichéd stereotype of Swedish descendants in our American culture.”
At Uppsala University and its Department of Modern Languages, there are hopes of developing more far-reaching academic collaboration with their new honorary doctor. During this visit, there have already been discussions about what forms future interactions might take, and the shared points of contact are many.
• Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971 but grew up in the United States, where his family fled in 1975.
• Nguyen is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California, USA.
• He regularly contributes as a chronicler, in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others.
• In 2019, Nguyen's short story collection Refugees was published in Swedish.