Paul Beatty In Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen
Paul Beatty & Viet Thanh Nguyen
A double agent and a sellout. A French Vietnamese man concealed to nearly everyone around him, and a black American who is a stranger in his own hometown. These are the narrators of The Sellout by Paul Beatty and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, two of the most searing, complex, and celebrated books in recent times. The books are also funny—not the cute kind of funny, but the kind that causes our bellies to contract when we hear the truth quickly and deftly told. In fall 2017, the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, hosted Beatty and Nguyen for an onstage conversation. We asked them to talk about the resonances in their work, about their common questions and struggles.
In The Sellout, Beatty describes a comedian, a heavy guy, “unpaid-electricity-bill dark,” who “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” One night, a white couple comes into the club, in a black neighborhood in LA, and sits in front, until the comedian tells them: “Get the fuck out.” First they laugh, thinking it’s part of the act, then their laughter turns nervous, and then their chairs scrape backward and they get up and leave.
When I think about that night, the black comedian chasing the white couple into the night, their tails and assumed histories between their legs, I don’t think about right or wrong…. I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear.
The scene continues:
I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn’t been so scared, that I had had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what he did or to stick up for the aggrieved white people… but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?”
Beatty’s character’s question about the meaning of “our” reveals one of many resonances with Nguyen’s work. Nguyen arrived in the US as a refugee at age four, and he came to see his ancestral Vietnam as a place “both familiar and strange.” In part from that viewpoint, he conjured a character who introduces himself in the opening lines of The Sympathizer as follows: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.” This is his talent, the narrator tells us: “to see any issue from both sides.”
Later, he says:
I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess.
A hazard for ordinary living, but an asset for literature. Beatty’s and Nguyen’s work dwells in this magnetic field of repelling opposites—holding them close, so that the sticky energy pulsing between them can be felt all up the forearm. In their conversation, they explored identity and its textures, and their ideas emerged not only through their ideas but also in the intellectual dance of the exchange itself.
Onstage, after introductions by UNLV scholar Mark Padoongpatt and Las Vegas writer, editor, and teacher Erica Vital-Lazare, Beatty and Nguyen were the picture of unity and contrast. Nguyen wore a dark blue velvet jacket; Beatty wore jeans and a gray waffle-knit shirt. Nguyen had the bright, upright energy of a practiced public intellectual, while Beatty slunk back, only to rise up later, as the conversation got heated.
I. “EVERYBODY’S A SELLOUT TO SOMEBODY ELSE.”
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I read The Sellout recently. I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time, so our conversation was a good prompt. I loved it. We’re working on the same issues in different ways, you know? I don’t even know where to start. Near the end of the novel, you have this great line about nihilism: “Sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.” I thought that was a great line, and it summarizes the spirit of the novel, and for me it had a lot of resonance, partly because my novel The Sympathizer ends with a very serious joke about the meaning of “nothing.” And some readers are quite disturbed by that.
PAUL BEATTY: Oh, really? Why are they disturbed?
VTN: I think they hear “nothing” or see “nothing” and they think it’s “nihilism” and nihilism is bad. So therefore, there’s nothing, you know? And so they miss half the point of the novel’s conclusion.
PB: Do you think that’s a certain kind of reader?
VTN: It’s hard to predict. A certain reader wants a more conventional ending, a more hopeful ending, an ending with closure, let’s say, because part of it is satirizing closure in the literary, political, and social ways. So, yeah, there’s a certain sort of reader who wants that and a certain kind of reader who is confused by whatever “nothing” is supposed to mean. I’m a little bit confused by it too. What’s rich about the ending of your novel is that it’s not neat; it’s not that closure. And you’re left to ponder what exactly is meant by “nihilism,” what makes life worth living. So maybe you can tell [me] what was in your mind when you—
PB: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not very good at the rehashing thing. But I’m happy to talk to you about this, you know. I’m curious about this kind of conventionality. Do you feel like your book fits into any sort of convention at all?
VTN: When I wrote the novel I knew that I was going to reference several genres, like a spy novel, immigrant story, American dream story, anti-communism story. A lot of books have been written in these genres. Part of the pleasure of genre is that people know what to expect. That’s what I had fun doing, but these genres also have their own limitations because they’re also predictable, and I wanted to undermine all those things. And I think that’s part of what can throw readers off. One example is they pick up The Sympathizer, and they can slot it into this disillusionment-with-communism narrative and they’ll think, The way this book should end is that he should give up communism and come back to America and the American dream. And I thought, I’m not giving people that ending. I could totally see in your novel that you are totally aware of many different genres—and you are making fun of them. This book is not designed to give certain kinds of readers the pleasures of so-called “black literature” that they might expect. What have the reactions been?
PB: Varied, I guess. I’m not a very public person. I don’t really interact with people. I don’t tweet. I don’t do any of that. I don’t read many of the reviews. I was surprised just about how touched people were by the book. That caught me off guard.
VTN: You didn’t get that reaction with The White Boy Shuffle?
PB: For whatever reason that book didn’t get the same kind of acclaim. I did a two-week book tour and that was it, really. I never went to the festivals. I never sat down in front of people and talked about my work or myself, which I don’t really like. I try to be trustful of the reader— whoever that is, you know?
VTN: You don’t like the social part of being a writer, yet The Sellout is a very relevant novel today, and in fifty years it would be a relevant novel, but it’s something that positions you as someone people want to know and have your opinion about various things.
PB: Yeah. How do you cope with all that?
VTN: Well, my wife would tell you that I’m very irritable. Writing The Sympathizer was great. I had two years with no teaching obligation. No one knew who I was. I laughed to myself every day, or cried, I don’t know. And then the novel becomes successful. I can’t complain that it’s successful, but that means there’s a lot of requests to do all this social stuff and the interviews and the lecture circuit. I had a hard time saying no. But I also feel like that role of being a public person, if you’re a writer, is important. That’s the tradition I was trained in. I went to Berkeley. I was an academic. And I grew up with this idea of the importance of the public intellectual. That’s rather pretentious. But at the same time I think there’s some truth to it. When I’m doing the interviews and the lectures and everything, there’s a different kind of pedagogy for me to reach people who would never be in my class or read my stuff, right? But it takes away from writing. That’s a problem. The White Boy Shuffle: was it ahead of its time?
PB: I don’t know what makes a book ahead of its time. Was James Joyce ahead of his time? I don’t know. It’s one of those things, I think… Your book goes in and out of all these genres and there’s a ton of literature that’s less tied down to what it’s supposed to do or what we’re supposed to think it’s going to do. I did some of that in White Boy Shuffle. I think the book is old-fashioned, in a weird way. I read a book after I had written White Boy Shuffle—Black No More, I think it’s called —and there are some similarities there. I want to hear about your research. It’s just so sharp. One thing that I thought you did really well—and it reminded me of Ishmael Reed, but it’s different—[was] how you would blend fact into the narrative in a real seamless way. That’s really hard to do.
VTN: In some ways—and maybe it’s true for you, too—my life was my research, because I’ve always been curious about the Vietnam War, and all these things around it, so I was always reading books and watching movies as I was growing up, and it became a part of my professional work, and of course besides that it was also all my own emotions about this history, so writing this book was like taking a cork out of a bottle that had been stopped up and shaken for twenty years. So in one way I didn’t have to research, because I knew. I do specific kinds of research for specific things. For example, the Fall of Saigon. I knew about it, but not like a novelist would.
PB: Right, right.
VTN: I had to go and read fifteen books, I guess, that provided the kind of concrete detail for restaging that.
VTN: Or I had to learn a lot about the Vietnamese secret police. Or I had to read everything about the making of Apocalypse Now. Was that similar for you?
PB: Yeah, I guess so. I don’t really know anything. I know LA a little bit, but for me that book was so much research. There was a ton.
VTN: I assume you don’t know a lot about farming and satsuma oranges and things like that?
PB: [Laughs] No, no, not really. If you grew up in California, I mean, you would know more than you think you do. Produce was a huge deal for us. Mostly because of my mom, I guess. But for me it was just trying to figure out where that character’s obsessions were and how I can delve into them.
VTN: What was the history of, for example, black representation on TV? Was that something you were always familiar with?
VTN: ’Cause I thought that was great. I watched a lot of The Little Rascals when I was growing up.
PB: Oh, yeah. The Little Rascals, that’s something I talk about with my sister all the time. For me it was just like—how do I tread the line between fictionalization and some kind of verisimilitude?
VTN: As a writer, I always have to be thinking about how people might relate to me or my name or my characters’ names and identities. I make very deliberate aesthetic choices about these kinds of things.
PB: There’s a thing in The Sellout where [the main character] talks about the changing of the name. I guess it’s sort of similar. His father changing the name,2 put a little less burn on the kid at some level, and he links to all these Jewish American actors changing their names. So your character doesn’t have a name at all? There’s no name at all?
VTN: Yeah, no name. He’s called The Captain, as well as The Bastard. And obviously The Sympathizer refers to him the same way as The Sellout refers to its protagonist. I’m assuming both you and I want our characters to stand in for certain types of issues or experiences and so on, so being called a sellout is a horrible thing.
PB: [Laughs] Maybe, I don’t know. Not necessarily. It depends who’s doing the calling, I think. It’s funny, I think it was the same day I won the Booker—some guy from some shady tabloid asked me did I think that Trump was a sellout. I didn’t know exactly what he meant. But I was like, “Eh, I don’t think so.” And then he construed that to mean that I was pro-Trump. I guess from my perspective Trump didn’t have anything to sell out. He’s not beholden to anything, you know?
VTN: One of the potent aspects of a term or an allegation like sellout is that it’s often used against people who are successful. Do you feel that pressure or, I don’t know, sense that you yourself might be caught up in that allegation as a writer?
PB: Nah, not really. It’s just so age-old with me. Not that term necessarily, but with the discussion and the rhetoric that go along with it. It’s not something I think about, really. From personal experience with friends and family, I realized that word is just so ephemeral in a weird way. I remember a friend of mine gave me a book that was very well researched and very well written. I can’t remember the title. But it was something like The Directory of Uncle Toms, or something. There’s no name on the book. But it was just a lot like what you said. It just took all these successful—I think everyone in the book is black—but it took all these people and just kind of deconstructed them as sellouts and Uncle Toms. You know, whether I thought they were or weren’t, it hit me. I was like, Oh, man. Everybody’s a sellout to somebody else.
VTN: That’s what I mean.
PB: Lenin is a sellout to the Trotskyites. It’s just not something that for me personally has this real weight. I could care less. Maybe if someone I revered said it, I’d feel another way about it.
VTN: Yeah. I don’t think you’re hung up on the term but you depict people who are hung up on the term and you depict conditions in which this term even means something.
PB: You use the word in your book, don’t you?
VTN: I need to do a word search.
PB: I think you do. I’m almost positive you do. I could be wrong. I’m often wrong.
VTN: The issue of authenticity is there in my novel, too, because he’s called The Bastard, and [is] therefore not authentic, and so on. And that’s a related charge. And then for me The Sympathizer, the title is important because that’s also an allegation that has particular resonance in an anti-communist context that I grew up in. The critique is embedded in the title. In your case, I see that you depict a character who is The Sellout, according to Foy, 4 but his mind-set, his whole project, is to debunk whatever that terminology means between white people and black people and everybody in between. And likewise, The Sympathizer, that title is supposed to bring up that whole problem with sympathy and empathy and all that. I want to talk about “Unmitigated Blackness.” I really love this chapter. You depict this whole sequence of stage one or two—I forget how many stages of blackness are gone through—stage three blackness. In speaking about them, you do include people who are not technically black, like Ichiro Suzuki, for example, or Bruce Lee, and then you get to stage four of black identity, Unmigitated Blackness. I like that. I don’t know if you intend that—it is parodic—but I don’t know if it’s completely parodic?
PB: No, I don’t think that it’s a parody at all. Some people get thrown off by that.
VTN: If it’s not parodic, do you think that The Sellout itself is the expression of Unmitigated Blackness?
PB: No, I wouldn’t say that necessarily. Is there a part in your book where you use these kinds of Asian slurs and stuff and they don’t mean anything? They’re dust; they’re words. These people don’t exist, you know? It’s just a pejorative; it’s not a bear or a cat. For me that’s interesting about how we really come to concretize these terms in how they exist. I always remember this kid coming up to me and saying, you know, “There are white niggers too.” [Laughs] Like, what the fuck are you talking about? It just always cracks me up. Yeah, I don’t know, man. I don’t know. How old are you?
VTN: I am forty-six.
PB: You’re forty-six, OK.
VTN: How old are you?
PB: I’m fifty-five.
VTN: Yeah, I feel old, you feel old. It’s all relative, but I feel like maybe it takes a certain number of years before you can write books like The Sellout, I hope.
PB: I don’t know if that’s true, but I wrote it when I wrote it, you know?
II. “HOLLYWOOD IS A PLACE THAT BOTH PRODUCES AND MAKES FICTION.”
PB: You’re from LA?
VTN: I’m from San Jose.
PB: Oh, OK. You went to high school in San Jose, then?
VTN: Yeah, I did.
PB: And where do you live now?
VTN: I live in Silver Lake.
PB: You live in Silver Lake? Everybody lives in Silver Lake.
VTN: Everybody lives in Silver Lake. All the New Yorkers that moved to LA ended up in Silver Lake… that’s another joke for you to use eventually if you write another LA novel. I love the way that LA is so richly textured in [The Sellout]. There are very specific neighborhoods, street signs, subcultures, and sub-climates. That was a great dimension of the book for anyone who lives in Los Angeles. It’s really amazing, because you give the impression of being exhaustive in terms of surveying these different micro-environments, and you capture a sense of how global and complicated this city is. So you grew up in LA, too, right?
PB: Yeah, I grew up in West LA. You know LA. Do you know the streets Beverlywood and Robertson? Do you know this intersection at all?
PB: So there’s nothing there but a doughnut shop and that’s basically it, but that’s where I grew up. Has LA influenced your writing?
VTN: Yeah, absolutely. I think that for a long time I identified as someone who came from San Jose. But it occurred to me recently that I’ve been in LA for twenty years now, which is longer than I’ve been anywhere, including the formative decade that I spent as an adolescent in San Jose. There’s no doubt that LA has shaped me. When I wrote The Sympathizer, I could have chosen any number of places in the United States to set it. But I chose LA because I’m just so familiar with it now and because I really do believe all this rhetoric about LA being a global city, a Pacific Rim city, a third world city. So you can use it as a global setting in the way that so many writers use New York City. There was no need for me to set another novel in New York City. But there’s this urgent need to claim Los Angeles as a setting, as a literary place. It also just made sense because a lot of Vietnamese refugees ended up in Southern California. And Hollywood is a place that both produces and makes fiction, by which I mean that Hollywood not only puts out movies but also fantasies about itself. Setting the novel in LA and Hollywood would lead to some organic opportunities for this kind of commentary about fiction-making. Of course, for you LA has been a major setting, at least in two of your novels. Did you ever consider setting them anywhere else?
PB: Yeah, my book Slumberland is set in Berlin for the most part, but it starts in LA. Tuff is set in East Harlem, but I think one of the things I realize is that I don’t know LA at all. I know my little section of the West Side. That’s it. I don’t know that very well, but it’s a place where I know that I’m lost at, you know? I have just realized that in that aspect, it’s sort of comfortable for me, and there aren’t a lot of things that are comfortable for me. So in that sense it’s really important to me. Reading your book made me think about panic, this notion of Pacific Rim, LA being this other kind of new battleground, you know what I mean, with these new immigrants coming into the geographic space. You could really feel that in LA, for whatever reason. I always remember this Richard Pryor line—I don’t remember the line exactly—but he’s like, “They got some new niggers now, Vietnamese.”5 Do you know this line?
VTN: [Laughs] I’ll have to look it up.
PB: You have to find this. He has this whole bit about Vietnamese immigration into the States. He talks about this Vietnamese community as the “new niggers,” right? This amorphous white structure teaches them how to be American, and the first thing they have to learn to say is “nigger.” He does this kind of, you know, racist trail of how a Vietnamese person would say it. But anyway, all that stuff just came up to me when reading the book, and that part set in LA and of course the film stuff was like, you know, it couldn’t happen if it wasn’t set in LA, at least not in that way.
VTN: Now that you recount the Richard Pryor scene, that does ring a bell. Because I remember the idea that the quickest way to be an American is to learn how to be a racist against African Americans.
PB: Junot Díaz talks about how new immigrants don’t become American necessarily by being racist to African Americans, per se; they become American by embracing African American aesthetics. I guess both can happen at the same time. [Laughs] That’s an interesting kind of counterposition on those two things.
VTN: Speaking from personal experience, the Vietnamese Americans I know in San Jose do both at the same time.
PB: I think most people do! I think everybody does at some level. The interesting thing is you do both without being aware that you do both. It’s kind of like Spike Lee and that movie Do The Right Thing. In the pizza shop, [the character Mookie] talks about how the [the Italian American son of the shop owner, Pino] loved all the African American athletes, and has embraced all this African American music, but hasn’t embraced African Americans. I don’t know, so there’s a little similarity to that.
III. “THERE IS NO READERSHIP.”
PB: So I think there’s a distinction between you and me. Like, I don’t write op-eds. Do you do book reviews?
VTN: I do book reviews and op-eds. I feel like it’s an extension of the work I do. All of a sudden, after twenty years of being a scholar, people want to hear what I have to say. So I’m gonna say it at this point, you know? I’ve come out of a tradition of ethnic studies where we’re inculcated— and I believe in this—with the idea that scholars can be activists and writers can be activists. That all these different types of writing are related. Fiction is one thing that I do, but it’s related to everything else that I believe in. Because the critical perspectives that you and I have are not that common necessarily. What I think about is truths that are difficult for people to handle. So in The Sellout, for example, the target is not only white people’s racism but also black middle-class, upper-class hypocrisy as well. Maybe that doesn’t go over well with certain audiences.
PB: I think the op-ed thing is interesting. But for me, I don’t really have a target, you know?
VTN: I know what you’re talking about. I’ve labored in obscurity for close to three decades. That’s normal for the academic. We work in a cave with other people like us and we take out our frustrations and our desires on each other. And all of a sudden this light shines into the cave because of the renown given to one book of mine. I feel like, well, there’s still an obligation to say these kinds of things in public.
PB: The obligation thing is something I write about a lot. I think my first book is about that—White Boy Shuffle. I don’t like obligation. This pops into my head, a guy who I admire for any number of reasons, Amiri Baraka. I saw him at a memorial for a musician who had died, this neighborhood guy named Butch Morris. Amiri was, like you, a part of that tradition. Activist is not a word that I associate with myself. For me it’s the inaction in activism that I like to tease out and think about what that is. It’s not like I avoid hypocrisy. I think that is inevitable. If you say two words—if you say two sentences—there’s going to be some hypocrisy and contradiction there. But what are we talking about when we use these kinds of words like responsibility? I shy away from that.
VTN: I was raised a Catholic. And we’re all about obligation. We’re all about guilt. And even though I’m an atheist, the culture of Catholicism stays with me no matter what happens. Being a communist or being a Marxist is just like being a Catholic, just with a different god, and you martyr yourself for different things. And that whole idea of being in church where everything is sacred and revered and you’re going to sacrifice yourself for something—that’s always stayed with me. I transferred it into politics. But at the same time, like you, I’m also interested not just in the sacred but in the profane. Like, I revere the priest but I want to make fun of him at the same time. And literature occupies the same space for me. Literature is sacred for me; it has to be for me to have devoted thirty years of my life to it. But literature isn’t something for reverence. It’s to point out people’s hypocrisy too. And to point out our own hypocrisy. Which is why when I want to be a public intellectual, I don’t take it very seriously. I take my writing seriously, but I don’t take being a writer seriously. I take teaching seriously, but I don’t take being a professor seriously. Because once you start taking yourself seriously, and you don’t see the ironies around obligation, or the hypocrisies around it, then you’re in a dangerous place.
PB: I started writing as a poet. There were some inherent obligations to being a poet. No one is reading me now; no one was reading me then. It’s fine. No one owes me a read. But that’s where I first started thinking about obligation. You had to go read, you had to do this, it’s part of the job. One of the things is—for me, I realized—obligation was changing the way I was writing. And the story I tell, which is totally true, [is that] I remember writing a poem and thinking, Oh, they’re going to love that, blah, blah, blah. And then I went, Whoa, that’s not why I write. And it was really one of the things that made me step back from doing poetry, because there was an implied obligation.
VTN: Do you feel an obligation to an audience or to a community? For me, I’m an ethnic studies person and I looked around in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a student, and there weren’t enough stories about Vietnamese people. All we have is the Vietnam War, and it’s really racist. We need to have more stories about Vietnamese people. And this is a typical trajectory for the so-called minority writer, right? I’m going to write stories about Vietnamese people and I’m correcting representation and all that kind of stuff. And there was an audience in mind, an audience of Vietnamese people, the audience of Americans that I was addressing as well. But there was a third audience of editors and agents and publishers and people who could publish me. So my book The Refugees is very much shaped by all of these obligations and sense of the audience and everything. When I wrote The Sympathizer, I had spent seventeen years working on The Refugees. And I thought, Fuck it. I’m done. I don’t want to have any more obligations. I don’t want to represent anybody. I don’t want to think about an audience. I just want to write for myself. And my wife said, “That’s a bad idea. ’Cause your editors and your agents, they don’t want the writer to write for one person.” We want our authors to write for thousands or millions of people. And of course, in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to sell a book, or that when my agent called me, I thought, Oh my god, is this book going to sell? But the trick was to think, No, there is no readership. Just me.
IV. “THAT’S NOT WHAT I DO.”
PB: We were talking before about the nameless narrator. Would you say more about why your narrator doesn’t have a name? Because wasn’t that tied into expectation and obligation and how people were going to read the book and read the character?
VTN: Yes. The reason why the narrator of The Sympathizer has no name is because I knew that if I gave him a Vietnamese name, which you would have to have, being Vietnamese, that automatically anybody who was not a Vietnamese reader would have a hang-up. I checked in to the hotel today. The clerk had a hang-up about my name. I go to Starbucks. Should I give them my Vietnamese name or should I give them my Catholic name? It seems like a trivial point, but it’s important. Because names are super-crucial to whether we identify with someone. If the name is culturally familiar to us, then the name is transparent. But if people encounter my name on the book cover, they’re like, Is that guy American or is he Vietnamese or how do I spell it or how should we pronounce it? If I named my protagonist, the same issues would come up. So the challenge for me in writing the book was not to pretend I wasn’t Vietnamese, but to write about being Vietnamese as if I were a part of the majority, in which case things like names are transparent. In other words, to write as if I were universal. And as if my audience would treat me like I was universal. So how would I do that? There is a variety of strategies. But one way was to take out the name. In your book the narrator has a nickname—Bon Bon—and he’s called The Sellout by his archenemy, Foy. He’s also got the last name, the surname: Me. And he goes to the Supreme Court in the case of Me v. the United States of America, which is awesome. But no first name. Tell me what your thinking was behind that.
PB: For me the challenge is a little bit the opposite of what you said. I was part of a conversation once and the questions were about “Why do you write? What do you want to achieve?” And the woman before me went, “Oh, I kind of write to welcome the reader in. Open the door, come in and join my work.” That’s not what I do. It’s a little bit like how I am in life. I push people away a bit. Teasingly, maybe. And maybe if there is a door, leave it ajar a bit. For me, the names—I guess it wasn’t so much about guiding the reader or creating signposts or making the reader feel welcome or off-putting. It was more of—one, I’m not very good at coming up with names, so that’s part of it. But it was the idea of trying to have this as the perception. This is it. This is the point of view of the book, not based around the name. And the only reason that name came up at all. In my head I went, Plessy v. Ferguson, Gore v. Whoever, you know. And I went, Me v. the United States of America: that’s funny. And then I was like, How do I justify the surname Me? So that’s the only reason. Part of that justification is much like what you just said. You know, ’cause his father changes the name and does all these kinds of things.
VTN: Your thing about leaving the door open a little bit is resonant with me. I’m in a slightly different situation than you, OK? Because when we speak about African Americans in this country, whether people do or do not understand African American history, they think they at least got something about it, you know? So the door is already open a little bit, even if it’s a prejudicial door, even if it’s a racist door. Now, in my case, I think that my little purchase on the American mental landscape is the Vietnam War. That’s an even a smaller bit of purchase, because people know even less about that. So I had to get people to come in. That’s what I’m saying. I had to get people to come in, not keep them out with this name issue, and then ambush them inside, you know?
PB: That’s one of the things the book does really well. You’re very direct that this is aimed at “you.” And you’re specific about who “you” is. And I think there is a tradition among a ton of literatures about who this “you” is, who this person that you’re talking about is. And your book is straightforward about it. I often have a problem when people do that and don’t acknowledge it. And then I go, Eh, OK. Because your way for me is inclusive. But I think of this documentary that I couldn’t stand—I Am Not Your Negro. I hated the title. Because for me it’s automatically limiting about who this movie is talking to without acknowledging in the movie who it is talking to. That’s such an old trope. I remember the line in The Sympathizer, you use yin and yang to illustrate that narrow black and white/gray—no gray, actually, whatever gray is. I just thought that was really smart, also because you’re kind of literally putting a stamp about this symbol that really has nothing to do with the situation but is so emblematic of what we think about Asian American culture, Asian culture.
VTN: The reason I do that is exactly what you were talking about. I’ve read almost all of Asian American literature because that was my dissertation topic. Unfortunately, when you read all of something in any category you realize that 80 to 90 percent of it is not very good. OK? I’m not specifically denigrating Asian American literature. If you read anything, you can make this kind of statement. And one of the ways that the not-so-good Asian American literature works is that it has an unacknowledged audience, which is white people. Because that’s where the literature is addressed. There is an invisible “you”—the white reader, the white agent, the white publisher, the white editor. I could always see that. With The Sympathizer, there is a built-in audience in the book that is a Vietnamese person that the book is being addressed to. I am criticizing white Americans; they know that. But I’m also criticizing everybody else too. This book sets out to offend everybody. But unfortunately, when you’re offended you just see your own offense. I get hate mail from white people saying, “Go back to Vietnam and take your son with you,” for example. Do you get hate mail? Do people react that viscerally to your work? Please tell me yes.
PB: I’m sure some people [do]. But I don’t get a ton of mail. I haven’t gotten any hate mail really. I think long ago I learned, through writing poetry and just sharing work, about getting to the place where I want to be and really not worrying. Once, I had written a poem that I liked, a long, rambling poem. There was a kid who hated the poem. He was just, “I don’t understand this; this is all gobbledygook.” That next semester I had Allen Ginsberg as a teacher. He said, “We’re going to start from the top. Bring in your favorite poem.” So I brought in that poem. It was the best thing I thought I’d written. I read the same poem. And the same kid was like, “Oh my god, Paul is a genius. This is an allusion to this, this is that, this is that, this is that.” I asked him, “Well, what happened?” And he said, “Oh, I was in New York for three months.” It taught me that there was a shift. This person is going to understand, this person is going to be sympathetic. Color might have something to do with it, but oftentimes it doesn’t. I think people use color as an excuse for not having gotten something. The first time it happened I remember this woman said, “I had a hard time getting into your book because I’m white, this and that. And then a colleague told me, ‘Why don’t you think of the book as funny first and then that maybe will help you get into it?’” She was like, “That worked.” And I said, “Well, what color was the person that told you that?” She said, “Oh, he’s white.” So it’s not your whiteness. It’s about you. For me, I just had to learn to fucking first trust myself and then trust the reader. And then just to realize that these things just shift. That gave me a ton of freedom.
VTN: When that woman responded that way, it is about both race and politics, about language and art all at the same time. That’s why you get nervous when you hear the word activist, at least applied to yourself. But I want to run right into that. I’ll give you an example. The Sympathizer is written in a very self-conscious way. I used the thesaurus in almost every single sentence. You used to actually open a physical thesaurus. Now with a Mac you just punch a key and it gives you, like, a dozen different alternatives. Maybe that’s a bad thing because you go, Ooh! I have a dozen different options for a simple word. But it was a very deliberate choice, because I felt that, for better or for worse, I had to prove that I could be a writer who many people expect not to know English very well who actually does know English better than most Americans do.
PB: Who are you proving that to, though?
VTN: To myself.
VTN: And to everybody else. You know? Minority writers have a lot to prove. We have to prove things to our communities; we have to prove things to the majority; we have to prove things to ourselves. There’s always unfair expectations placed upon us that we’re going to have to represent the race or that if we do win a prize because we were good writers it’s because we wrote about the race. So all these kinds of challenges are put upon us. In this particular example of language, there’s a justification in The Sympathizer. He’s writing a confession, he’s under torture, so his relationship to the language is highly tortured. But that’s a metaphor for me too. As an Asian American in this country, my relationship to English is a tortured one as well. There’s a lot of stress being put on the language in general, just in the political environment that Asian Americans find themselves in, but also for me as a writer. And so this is an example of how these things are completely inextricable for all of us who are minority writers of any kind, racial or otherwise.
PB: Yeah, of course that’s all true. But for me there’s all these little moments where I went, Yeah, I don’t give a fuck. [Laughs] I’m getting old now and I meet these writers who are in their forties who read White Boy Shuffle. And they come up and they’re like, “Oh, thank you,” and I’m like, “What did I do?” And they’re like, “Well, you know, you wrote without the obligation.” That felt new to them. That’s sort of conscious on my part, but it’s more just how I am, you know?
VTN: I’m one of those writers!
PB: For me, race, class, all that shit, gender, it’s always in everything. But I don’t think about the expectations. I think about the unexpected. I go to these movies—I’m a big movie fan—I see a piece of art somewhere. And for me it’s that the hair on my arms went up, or something fucking happened. I just go, Man, I didn’t know you could do that. The challenge for me is to just do something—I’m like, Man, I’ve got this idea… How do I do that?
VTN: That’s right. And of course I want to experience that feeling, too, hair rising. But oftentimes it comes about from watching stuff that’s completely unrelated, like Birdman, or in the case [when] I’m reading a book and it’s like, Ooh, Me v. the United States of America. That made the hair stand up, right? But again, it’s all interrelated as well.
V. “THAT BLANKHYPHEN-AMERICAN THING”
PB: You know, I hadn’t heard the phrase immigrant literature until I had a Korean American student come up to me, and he was trying to shop his book to agents and he’s like, “Immigrant literature.” And I’m like, “Wait, what? What is that?” And he’s like, “I don’t know, but that was the first question they asked me, ‘Do you write immigrant literature?’” And I was just like, Whoa. When I was doing an event in Calcutta, I think, there were a bunch of young writers in the audience. A young Indian woman stood up, and I think she even said something like “You know, as an immigrant writer…” I let her finish, and then I went, “Do you live in India?” The fact that she is in India, probably writing in English, and sees herself as an immigrant writer, that fucking flipped me out. You know? But that’s a thing. I don’t really have those kinds of ties to nation. I don’t have that for any number of reasons. I didn’t know what to say to her. But I was like, “You are where you are and that’s it, that’s all that matters.”
VTN: Many reviews of The Sympathizer called it an “immigrant novel.” And if you want to irritate me, tell me that. If you’re perceived as a foreigner in this country— Asian or Latino, for example—you’re often perceived as an immigrant writer even though this is a terrible classification for many reasons. But I imagine you must have felt this experience of classification at different points in your life as a writer.
PB: All the time.
VTN: You satirize it in The Sellout, obviously, in terms of racial representations of African Americans and slavery. So we all deal with our particular racial tragedy, right? The poet Bao Phi, author of Sông I Sing—he’s a Vietnamese refugee who satirizes this. He’s a refugee from the time of the Vietnam War. He wanted to write about Hurricane Katrina, but was told he couldn’t, because he was just like, You only get one tragedy in this country when you’re a minority. Choose the war or the hurricane; you can’t have both. And so much of our work is saying, No, these tragedies are all interconnected, but people don’t want to hear that, because it makes their lives too complex.
PB: Yeah, I don’t have anything to say to that. I think for me there’s that blank-hyphen-American thing. As a black American, the American thing is never questioned. And in some weird way we’re like this quintessential American, so that’s something I don’t really have to deal with. I remember reading—whether it’s true or not, I have no idea—about [how] black Africans who were in Japan often really tried to stylize themselves as black Americans because for whatever reason that was one notch up on someone’s hierarchy, you know? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The way we’re taught to read, we’re taught to appreciate. I did this reading at Rutgers, in Camden. And I read and they were like, “Oh, what were your influences?” I mentioned that I had read a ton of Japanese literature. And the woman there who was the head of the English Department went, “Oh, that’s odd. You know? I see Japanese culture and black culture as being opposite.” And then… I’m a slow thinker. So I felt weird, but it wasn’t until an hour later, I was eating dinner and I was like, What the fuck does that mean? I was too lazy to do this with you, but one of the things I noticed is what we compare other authors to. Who do you get?
VTN: Early reviews were, like, Conrad, Graham Greene, Kafka. All good stuff.
PB: There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
VTN: You know why they compare me to these writers? They don’t know any Vietnamese writers.
PB: But it’s beyond that. It’s beyond that. They don’t compare any white writers to Vietnamese writers or to Asian writers. Like, I have never seen a book by a white writer compared to Toni Morrison. Or anybody. You just never see that. And it just gets you to think about where that point of view is always fixed from, you know? So one of the things you were talking about is the op-ed thing. It’s not 100 percent true, but no one would ever ask me to write an op-ed unless it was something about a hurricane or the fucking Vietnam War. For a long time when The [New York] Times called me, it was just if someone black died. It was like, “Hey, Paul, want to write the obituary?” Every now and then I’m angry enough to write something back.
VTN: That’s what I felt like when The Times invited me to comment on the presidential elections and I got to write about Donald Trump—and nothing to do with me as a Vietnamese person—I was like, I’ve done some work. You know? Because I think you’re absolutely right when you’re trying to challenge these normative ideas about who we are, who we can talk about, what is relevant to us. Part of the thing that I want to say is that I wrote about the Vietnam War for the last three books, but my books are not only about the Vietnam War. And even if they were only about the Vietnam War, the Vietnam War is a universal experience. That’s not just about the United States. Black experience is a universal experience that’s not just about slavery or whatever you want to classify it as. Toni Morison is a universal writer. Paul Beatty is a universal writer. And up-and-coming writers should be compared to these writers.
VI. THE “EXPERIMENTS THAT WORK”
PB: That word gets tossed around a little bit: what’s universal. What does that even fucking mean, universal? For me it’s so much simpler, I guess, in that it’s either all universal or none of it is, you know.
VTN: Sometimes what’s universal is the content, I guess. But other times I feel that it’s also about the style or the art, and I’ll read things that are completely removed from me and be like, Wow, it absolutely resonates. I’m very delayed at reading or listening to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, just the first book. It’s gripping! Very far removed from me in most ways, so I hope that you know my writing, your writing, will resonate equally with people who are in different locations and times and contexts.
PB: For me the operative word is good, and that’s what translates, hopefully. Nothing is going to translate for everyone. To me there’s the notion of, just, how much do you want to go exploring, to expand one’s horizons, one’s purview, whatever it is? I don’t know, hopefully that’s happening. It’s all so subjective, but that’s the part for me that makes it fun. I’ve been traveling so much and listening to other writers talk about what they do, and I hear so many people say, “I write to make people uncomfortable. I write to do this, to do that.” And from my perspective I realize that everyone’s sense of discomfort, their sense of risk, is different.
VTN: So you’re saying that all these writers are doing that, but not too many people are uncomfortable as a result?
PB: Yeah, maybe! Maybe that’s what I’m saying.
VTN: I want to make people uncomfortable too. But then of course I got the Pulitzer Prize, so evidently I didn’t make people too uncomfortable!
PB: [Laughs] I don’t think having won the Pulitzer automatically makes your work comfortable. I don’t think those go hand in hand.
VTN: It would be interesting to see what you think of the Booker, since it’s a British global prize or anglophone prize, versus the Pulitzer, which is resolutely an American prize. I felt that for me to get the Pulitzer, regardless of whether the book deserves it or not from some kind of pure sense or something like that—besides the politics of it, at least—what the Pulitzer testifies to when a writer of color gets it is that we are proof that America is not that bad. The Vietnam War, whatever. But look, at least these people get to write novels and get recognized! Which wouldn’t happen in Rwanda or the Philippines or the Soviet Union or China or somewhere like that.
PB: I guess that goes along with it for some people, but I think that’s just a reading people automatically take when someone of color wins something. It’s less about the book itself than about some overarching agenda or statement to the world. I don’t know, do you feel like that’s your problem?
VTN: No, it’s not my problem. If it was my problem I would have had to set out to write to win a Pulitzer Prize in the first place. To get to the question of discomfort, I mean, sometimes the discomfort is caused by what the content of the book is. And sometimes the discomfort is caused by the style or the art, and I’m very well aware that I’m not the type of writer who is going to write in such a way that the style itself will be alienating for enormous numbers of people. There are writers who write very deliberately from the aesthetic margins, experimental writers, really avant-garde writers. I don’t do that. If you are a literate reader, the book shouldn’t cause that many problems for you. Whereas avant-garde poetry is going to cause a lot of people discomfort or boredom or is completely off their radar. Now, there is a challenge I don’t think I could ever take up by myself, so that’s what I mean. There’s a certain band of an aesthetic range that a lot of writers like myself [have] who would end up on the festival circuit or something like that. You were in that band, you know. We’re not going to be uncomfortable for a lay audience.
PB: So say if we just talk about whoever marginalized people are. Are writers who are part of this marginalized demographic or identities, [who] are considered to be abstract or experimental, do they have an even harder time finding an audience or some kind of validation?
VTN: I think it’s about both issues, you know, what is the style and what is the content? You can point to certain kinds of writers of color who very deliberately set out to write in an avant-garde aesthetic and they were appreciated in a certain circuit, even if they didn’t write about race. I can name a concrete writer like Jose Garcia Villa from the 1920s, 1930s. He didn’t really write about being Filipino, but he’s accepted by the New York avant-garde. And then you have someone like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was so weird that Asian Americans weren’t reading her when she was publishing and when she was making her movies. It was only in retrospect, after she was dead, [that] she was reclaimed from the avant-garde by Asian Americans. It’s not just being marginalized in terms of race, culture, or whatever; it’s the combination of these two factors of style and content, if the content reflects your ethnicity in some way. So minority writers who are very formally experimental, they may be cutting themselves off from a certain kind of identity community if they don’t talk about it, but they could be welcomed into these formal communities by default. How do you see yourself fitting in there? Do you see yourself as formally experimental?
PB: I don’t really consider myself an experimental writer, necessarily. I guess [I’m] experimental maybe in that I’m showing only the experiments that work, or something, not the experiments that fail. So for me that word implies a lot of failure in a weird way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t necessarily see myself that way. But when you were talking it made me think of Suzan-Lori Parks for some reason. When I first moved to New York—I’m not sure why I’m telling this story—she wrote these really—is obtuse the word? or oblique is the word—but these crazy plays that I always really loved. So it was always really interesting for me to see her success, and I used to wonder, Has she changed or has the audience changed in relation to her work, or have I changed? I always thought, These aren’t as “experimental” as the earlier stuff. I wonder, is that why people are suddenly seeing the genius in her work or something? I don’t know.
VTN: I do like your idea that we’re all experimental, but the failed experiment never gets shown. That’s perfect, right? Because scientists are not out there showing us all the one hundred different experiments they did before they got the right one that worked. In The Sympathizer, there were parts that I was quite proud of when I wrote them and they made it to the editor and the editor said, “You need to take these things out.” And I was like, “Oh, shoot.” He was right; the book didn’t suffer as a result of removing only fifty pages or something like that. Those were scenes I enjoyed writing. Those were experiments in the sense that they weren’t going to work.
PB: Yeah, and there’s different ways of measuring success. I think people get all caught up in success in terms of prizes and sales and all this kind of stuff, and that’s obviously not the case.
VII. EXASPERATION/ GRADATIONS OF ANGER
PB: So wait, Viet, one thing that we didn’t get to that I have to get to is the notions of anger and humor in your work. Do you want to address those?
VTN: You know, the anger is less surprising to me than the humor.
PB: When you say “less surprising,” do you mean from yourself or from the response or…?
VTN: From myself. Because the whole reason for existence as a thinking human being is anger, you know? I came to Berkeley as an undergraduate, and it’s like I was hit by lightning because of what I was learning in my classrooms and what I was doing as a political activist. It all revolved around anger. Like, “Oh my god, I finally understand how fucked-up American society is and this explains all these things that relate to my parents and me and all that kind of stuff.” So the anger was always there, and what happened is I got my PhD and became an academic and I put all that anger into a box or something, because you can’t survive in academia being an angry person. And then I felt very repressed.
PB: So is there a distinction between the anger that one lives with day to day and the anger that [is] instilled or imbued into their work?
VTN: Well, I think that every person has a different coping strategy. Sometimes you can’t contain these two worlds that you’re talking about, but for me my coping strategy was always to repress, repress, repress, and try, like many other scholars and critics I know, [to] express anger through scholarship. Ethnic studies and cultural studies are very political because that’s where we take out our anger. Maybe we do it professionally, and maybe not. But that eventually was not enough for me. To be a fiction writer was partly about the art but partly going back to that angry person I was when I was, like, nineteen or twenty, angry enough to get arrested for what I believed in. So that’s why The Refugees, the short-story collection that was written before the novel, is not that angry, but The Sympathizer is a fairly angry novel—because I finally allowed myself to tap into that. So that was a matter of finally going back to who I was. The humor was a surprise because no one who knows me thinks I’m a funny person. I didn’t think I was a funny person.
PB: So it was a surprise also to yourself, you’re saying?
VTN: I mean, I admire novels like Catch-22, for instance, which I read when I was a kid. I never thought I could write anything like that. What happened was, as I was learning to be a fiction writer, I started a blog and that was pure freedom, and I started writing satirical things just because I wanted to, and I think that was what happened. That allowed me to move these types of writing muscles I didn’t know I had. And the humor is related to the anger, so the angrier I got, the funnier I got on the satire. And for the novelist it was a matter of creating a character who could say the things that I was thinking and had a dramatic reason to do it. I created that person—I didn’t really think he was going to be funny—and then I just started writing and the writing took over, and that was where the surprise came in. If you look into a situation as absurd as the Vietnam War was, you’ve got to be able to laugh. But you were funny from the get-go, since The White Boy Shuffle, which was the first thing that I’d read from you. Was that also a part of who you were, that you knew that?
PB: Nah, not really. I never really considered myself to be necessarily a funny person. I don’t think I’m unfunny, but I’m not like a person who goes around telling jokes all the time. When I write, usually, I don’t think about being funny at all, really. I just think about writing the sentence that I want to write. Oftentimes, those are funny. I think it’s exactly like what you said earlier. If you think in absurdity and absurdities, those things are kind of naturally funny. Just pointing those things out, it takes time for someone to follow the finger and go, Oh, that is kind of funny. Looking at it from the outside rather than from the inside sometimes. Then there’s just a natural humor in the distance it can create.
VTN: You said that it’s the absurdities but also on the outside looking in. Is that a position that you’re always in? Because in order to be able to see these absurdities from the outside, it’s a position you always have to take regardless of what you’re looking at, which is why it may be difficult to be a satirist of only the enemy. For example, in your novel it’s like you’re satirizing white people and white racism and so on, but you’re also satirizing black hypocrisies too. I’m wondering if that’s connected, because, again, I’m not sure how you can just look at one set of absurdities if you’re not naturally inclined to do that, but then also not look at another set of absurdities?
PB: One, I don’t think of myself as a satirist. I think if I’m parodying anything, I’m making fun of my perspective, and in doing that all this other stuff just comes into play, you know what I mean? It’s not so much about who these groups are, what these situations are, these things that I’m making fun of. I’m thinking about how I see it. And that’s the stuff I’m challenging. It’s not so much about them as about how I see my relation to them. That’s where the stuff is, and hopefully there’s kind of a universality to that. It’s about the point of view; it’s about the distance in how you navigate those spaces between the personal and the political. That’s the part I think I like. That’s the part for me that hopefully can translate, I think. I don’t know if I’m making any sense.
VTN: Yeah, absolutely.
PB: It’s funny, because anger is not something I think about very much when I write, either, but it’s there, I guess. I never think of it as anger but more as a sense of—what’s the word when you’re at your wit’s end and you don’t know what to do? I don’t know, I feel like there must be a word for that.
PB: Yeah, something like that. Maybe exasperation is the word. It’s funny, because I was in London and it was before all this Man Booker stuff, and all the writers were onstage and this woman was moderating. There were a lot of people in the audience, and she just turned to me first and went, “Why is your book so angry?” I got angry that she asked me that question. One, like, the book may or may not be angry. I don’t really consider it to be an angry book. I didn’t realize, because I’m so slow all the time, [that] if I had been more aware and I had been faster I would have went, “Look, every book on this stage is angry. There’s a book about this woman who hates these child prisoners and makes a murder. Here’s a book about a serial killer. Here’s a book about a woman who hates her mom.” You know what I mean? There’s a ton of anger up there, but I should have just said, Why is my book the angry book? I feel like these words you’re talking about—exasperation, anger—so much good fiction is about that stuff. But I think oftentimes books like yours, people see a certain kind of anger in that book, which is there, but they often don’t see the very similar kind of anger in other fictions. That part makes me angry. It’s not like the content, but it’s the blinders.
VTN: I’m trying to remember whether I’ve gotten angry at people saying that my book is angry. Except I get so much pleasure out of it.
PB: [Laughs] That’s a good way to handle it, I guess.
VTN:It’s all contextual, and my context is that Asian Americans and Vietnamese Americans are not seen as being very angry. So then a book like this comes along. One way the book might unsettle people is that they’re not used to someone like me, of my group, being angry in this way. I like unsettling people in that fashion. When people react that way, in surprise, I’m like, Yeah. [Laughs] I’m glad you’re unsettled, because there’s a lot to be angry about. If anything, I’ve gotten pleasure in seeing what appears to be other Vietnamese American writers getting angry too. Like, if these people didn’t seem to me to be too angry before, there’s been a lot more anger from them recently, and maybe it’s because the whole general atmosphere of our country [is] provoking it. I’m happy that there’s more anger being unleashed within Vietnamese American writers in particular, and Asian American writers in general.
PB: That’s interesting to me. Anger is nothing new for anybody. So if that is the case, that [there] is a new phenomenon in Vietnamese American writing or Asian American writing, is the anger in these earlier books not expressed at all? Is it censorship? Is it repression?
VTN: The difference is that there is anger in earlier Asian American works going back a long time, but it’s often subtle, it’s repressed or directed inward, to one’s family, to one’s community, to one’s country. I’ve read a lot of Asian American literature, and just generally if there’s anger it’s anger at the patriarchy, anger at the Asian country in question, anger at abusive fathers or husbands, whatever. There’s very little calling out of white people or calling out of white racism. With the Vietnam War, for example, Vietnamese Americans are aware that the United States was there and bombed the country and all that, and they’ll mention that in a line or two, but for the most part, they’re not really going to directly confront the United States or white America and say, “You did this” and call them out by name, you know? So it’s a very gentle kind of reproach that takes place. And The Sympathizer is much more direct about that and that’s apparently been unusual. Recently when I gave a public lecture in Massachusetts, one of my friends up there came up to me and said, “You know what? You’re one of the few Asian Americans who will get up in front of an audience and say, ‘White people do this. White people do that.’” [Laughs]
VTN: Like, you can’t say “white people”! Apparently, it makes some white people uncomfortable to have you say “white people,” but I don’t have a problem saying that. I think it’s important to directly address whiteness and what it’s done, because anger directed within one’s own community, blaming the people of one’s own community, that’s perfectly acceptable to the white power structure. Not so much acceptable [to] the members of one’s own community, but they’re not the ones publishing your book and giving awards and all that kind of thing. So if you’re talking about anger, there’s gradations of anger. That’s why, going back to an earlier point, we as writers take this position of always being on the outside. That means that we’re always on the outside regardless of who we are looking at, whether it’s our own community, whatever that is, or whether it’s the dominant community, dominant society. What I like about your work is that you’re willing to call everybody out, however you want to call that form— satire, or whatever it’s going to be called. And in my own position, my take on my own work has been that I really want to try to offend everybody because that’s the only way for critique to be really worthwhile. You can make gradations of judgment, gradations of being offensive, but you still have to be capable of being angry with everybody in one way or another. You can’t withhold yourself from one group simply because you are afraid of them, whether they happen to be white people or members of your own community.
PB: Yeah, I think at least challenging that fear is important. There’s no doubt about that. I was at a bar mitzvah recently and I was talking to historian Ben Lapp. He reminded me of a quote I always really liked. It’s Kafka, and he says, “What do I really have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.” I’ve always loved that quote. It’s just the burden and the sense of inalienable responsibility that you’re supposed to have. You are who you are, and all these kinds of things will come into play no matter what you do or what you write about.
This interview was supported in part by the Tran Thi Oanh Fund.