Tag Archives: Vietnam War

The secret to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s overnight success

The novelist seemed to go from unknown to MacArthur genius in two years. In truth, it took decades.

This month, the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was awarded one of the most prestigious honors a writer can receive: the MacArthur “genius” grant, given to artists, thinkers, and public intellectuals whose ideas have culture-altering potential. This, in itself, should surprise no one. Nguyen writes with arresting moral and intellectual force, often about people scarred and uprooted by conflict. As the MacArthur Foundation put it in its citation, Nguyen’s demonstrated a unique gift for exploring how depictions of the Vietnam War “often fail to capture the full humanity and inhumanity, the sacrifices and savagery, of participants on opposing sides.”

But the MacArthur is just the latest in an astonishing run of literary successes, one that makes it easy to forget a simple fact: A mere 18 months ago, Nguyen was still unknown as a fiction writer. His career began quickly, and seemingly out of nowhere, in April 2015 — when a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review made his debut novel, The Sympathizer, one of the year’s most-discussed books. Shortly after that, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, bringing Nguyen international fame. Since then, he’s stayed busy, publishing two celebrated books in short succession: a work of nonfiction cultural criticism, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and a short story collection, The Refugees.

But Nguyen is no overnight sensation — far from it. In this interview, he opens up about a period of his life that’s been mostly overlooked: the two decades he spent trying, and mostly failing, to write fiction, working in secret while he juggled a host of other responsibilities. We discussed the 20 years of work that preceded his debut, the challenges he faced along the way, and — when it seemed his literary ambitions would never quite materialize — the strategies he used to keep going.

Viet Thanh Nguyen and I first spoke in 2015, discussing how he stumbled on The Sympathizer’s first sentence, an opening that finally allowed him to complete the rest of the book. That conversation appears in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, published this fall by Penguin Books. He teaches at the University of Southern California, and spoke to me by phone.

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The great Vietnam war novel was not written by an American

In 1967, Le Ly Hayslip, then known as Phung Thi Le Ly, was a teenager living and working in Da Nang. A peasant girl who had survived war and rape in her rural village, she had migrated to Da Nang to escape persecution from both Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists. In 1972 she married an American and moved to the United States, and in 1989 she would publish her powerful autobiographical account of being caught between two sides, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.” In 2017, it remains perhaps the only first-person book in English about the experiences of Vietnamese villagers caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. In her life and work, Ms. Hayslip embodies my broad definition of what it means to be Vietnamese, an identity that includes those in Vietnam or in the diaspora, as well as those who write in Vietnamese or in other languages, in this case English.

I came across her book as a college student at Berkeley in the early 1990s. It moved me deeply, not only because it was a compelling memoir, but also because it was one of the few books in English by a Vietnamese writer. (Co-written, in her case, with Jay Wurts.) Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.

There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.

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‘Into a Black Sun: Vietnam 1964-65’: Takeshi Kaiko turns his reporting experience into fiction

By Iain Maloney

Journalist Takeshi Kaiko covered the Vietnam War for the Asahi Shimbun, later fictionalizing his experiences in this novel about a Japanese journalist in Saigon and the Vietnamese jungle.

Embedded with a U.S. Army company, the unnamed narrator leads the reader through the boredom and high drama of a war zone with philosophical objectivity and a wry sense of humor. After surviving a stint at the front he returns to Saigon, where he chases rumors between drinking sessions, attends writing groups, and enthusiastically explores the seedy underbelly of Saigon life. Tiring of this dissolute existence, he decides to rejoin the troops and follows them on a mission deep into enemy territory, where the novel reaches its climax.

“Into a Black Sun” is an irresistible blend of narrative and inquiry, a moving exploration of how war desiccates humanity. Read more

Source: The Japan Times

Viet Thanh Nguyen wins Dayton peace prize for The Sympathizer

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The Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer has won the Dayton literary peace prize, a unique award that “celebrates the power of literature to promote peace, social justice and global understanding”.

Nguyen’s novel, winner of the Pulitzer this spring, looks at the legacy of the Vietnam war through the story of a double agent. The organisers of the Dayton prize, which is worth $10,000 (£8,000) and was inspired by the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, called it a “profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut … both gripping spy yarn and astute exploration of extreme politics”. Read more

Truth, Lies and Horse Operas: Myth and Cliché in The Literature of The Vietnam War

My novel, The Outside Lands, is set in 1960s San Francisco, during the Vietnam War. Siblings Kip and Jeannie Jackson are set adrift when their mother dies in an accident; Kip enlists to fight in Vietnam, and Jeannie joins an anti-war group that isn’t what it seems. I’m not American—I’m British—and I was born after the end of Vietnam War. I’m often asked about the challenge of writing about a time and place with which I have no direct connection; and whether, as a woman, it was difficult to write about a young man’s experience of war. But the central challenge of writing this novel wasn’t that I’m British woman in her thirties; it was navigating the wealth of cliché associated with a war that has been the subject of so many representations in film, television, and print. We can all summon up images of the war—platoons wading through rice paddies, Hueys choppering over misty hills, napalm blazing the jungle, straw huts burning. The challenge was to navigate these clichés and get away from rehearsed portrayals of the war.

The Orange County writer who saved Vietnam’s wartime literature, poem by poem, dies

When the Communist forces pushed into Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War, Vo Phien sensed that his country’s past was about to be erased.

Books would be burned, history lessons rewritten, entire cities stripped of their names.

Fearful of what was to come, he resolved to collect and preserve literary treasures, essays that had appeared in newspapers and magazines, books that might soon be banned, even diaries — anything that captured the raw emotions and nervous energy of wartime. Read more