A Manhattan prosecutor and a defense attorney offered competing versions of a violent confrontation in the backseat of a car…
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen's new memoir reflects on family's experience of war and exile
Geoff Bennett: Recently, an event featuring the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen at the 92nd Street Y, one of New York's leading cultural institutions, was canceled.
The organizers cited Nguyen's public criticism of Israel. It's just one example of how the Israel-Hamas war is roiling cultural and educational organizations in this country.
The Vietnamese-born Pulitzer Prize-winning author has long written on themes of war, refugees, and exile, now most directly and personally in a new memoir about his own family's experience.
Jeffrey Brown spoke with Nguyen about "A Man of Two Faces" before this conflict began for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A favorite?
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Author, "A Man of Two Faces": Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: On a recent afternoon just outside Los Angeles, Viet Thanh Nguyen brought us to Golden Deli, a favorite Vietnamese restaurant, to try the fried spring rolls, and talk of exile, secrecy, divided identity, the lives and histories that have made him "A Man of Two Faces," the name of his new memoir.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: When I was growing up, my parents told me that I was 100 percent Vietnamese.
Jeffrey Brown: One hundred percent.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: One hundred percent.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And whenever they said American, they meant other people, not us.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So they definitely wanted me to stay Vietnamese.
The United States was where we live, but it wasn't, I think, their idea of a permanent home. And it wasn't…
Jeffrey Brown: I mean, literally? Like, they thought they might go back or you might go back or you could somehow…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think a lot of people are — yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think a lot of refugees think that way, even if you obviously have to live here and work and survive.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And my parents became citizens.
Jeffrey Brown: Survival was a central theme of his family's life. His parents were born in the 1930s during the French colonization of Vietnam. They moved to the south in 1954, and then, in 1975, when Nguyen was 4, fled to the U.S., refugees twice over.
They eventually settled in San Jose, California, dealing with traumas physical, including a holdup at the grocery story his parents owned in which they were shot and injured, and psychological, never quite leaving the past behind. We continued our talk at his Pasadena home.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: For me, history was really present, because I felt that history was rippling through all of us Vietnamese refugees through our bodies and our emotions, because we wouldn't speak about history necessarily in the house, but people would be angry, people would be sad, people would be torn up by all these emotions, not just my family, but every other family I ever interacted with.
Jeffrey Brown: Stories became a way to both escape and forge his own identity through the books he read and eventually his own writing.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I had to not acknowledge to my parents that what I really wanted to be was a writer, because I felt that writing was how I could save myself and also hopefully save them in some way, like, save their stories, and in some way impact the country in which I was living and growing up in.
Jeffrey Brown: That puts a lot of weight on you as a writer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: A self-imposed weight.
Jeffrey Brown: Self-imposed.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right.
Jeffrey Brown: Which you feel?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I feel, because I believe stories can do all these things.
Jeffrey Brown: His debut novel, "The Sympathizer," about a North Vietnamese spy in the South Vietnamese army who then lives among the U.S. refugee community took in all this history.
The new memoir borrows from its opening line: "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces."
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Growing up as a refugee in San Jose, California, I felt like a man of two faces. I was an American spying on my Vietnamese parents, but I was a Vietnamese person spying on Americans when I stepped out of the house.
And so, with this memoir, the only way I could really write it was to imagine the sympathizer writing about me. I had to, again, pretend I was someone else writing about me to gain some distance from myself, because part of the subject of this book is how difficult it is for us to know ourselves, or at least it's difficult for me to know myself.
Jeffrey Brown: And how difficult for what he terms America T.M. to know itself and its often destabilizing role in the world.
There is a sharp political critique here, also of how popular culture, the movies most of all, shape and distort our sense of history, other people, and war itself. Indeed, Nguyen refers to his memoir as a war story, just not in the way we typically think of one.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: In the 20th century, wars killed more civilians than killed soldiers. So, why are civilian stories not typically thought of as war stories?
And so when I think about the fact that my family was displaced, that it was fractured, that we left people behind, that my parents' lives were destroyed and had to rebuild them, to me, even though my parents were never soldiers, these are war stories.
Jeffrey Brown: One person left behind, an older sister.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I didn't even realize I had a sister until we got a letter from her when I was like 9 years old. Never came up. So, that was…
Jeffrey Brown: And you realized she was — she had been left behind.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yes. And who was this person? And what happened to our family? What have we never talked about?
And so that was really a defining element of my life, is trying to figure out how the personal conflicts and emotions and anxieties that are present in all families were present in my family, but they were shaped also by this terrible, terrible history.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a history that deeply affected his mother, who died in 2018. Nguyen presents her as a successful, self-made woman, but one who also struggled with mental illness.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Went to the psychiatric hospital three times in her life. That was never something we talked about outside of the family.
So she definitely had two faces there. Her illness will always be a mystery, because what happens inside of us, who knows what combination of genetics and psychology leads to this kind of experience.
But I also surmise, I can guess that everything she underwent, as someone who grew up in 40 years of war and colonization, and being a refugee twice, and being separated from her family, not seeing her siblings for 25 years, not being there when her own mother passed away — her mother passed away in Vietnam when she was in the United States — that must have had an impact on her, must have shook her.
Jeffrey Brown: I knew you first as a fiction writer. Was it — how — what was it like to write about yourself?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Writing about myself was very difficult. That is why I had to create some distance between my persona and me.
What does it mean to delve into these family experiences that were so painful? And so I think that, in fact, I become a better writer, but also hopefully a better human being, a better father, because I could finally engage with these things that I — that have been so difficult for me to confront for 30 and 40 years.
And then, in the penultimate chapter, the book addresses my own children. They're 10 and 3. Maybe, one day, they will read the book, or maybe they will never read the book. I have no idea. But it was very important for me in that chapter to say, I hope they never feel the need to write a memoir. But, if they do, they have my blessing.
Jeffrey Brown: The memoir "A Man of Two Faces" was long-listed for this year's National Book Award.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Pasadena, California.