2016 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
(Harvard University Press)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I wrote this book for people who are haunted by war, or who want to understand why we keep going to war even if we know its terrible costs. I was raised by and among Vietnamese people who war had shaped indelibly, and for whom loss, melancholy, and sorrow were enduring emotions. In order to make sense of what had happened to them, and to the Americans they now lived among, I delved into memories and stories of the Vietnam War. Those memories and stories contained the universal patterns that allowed me to think through what it means to remember and forget, to forgive and reconcile, to be human and inhuman. I came to believe that embracing our humanity is not enough to prevent war and achieve peace. We can only achieve those goals if we also confront our inhumanity and understand that it is latent in all of us.
Nothing Ever Dies implores those who start wars to remember their submerged inhumanity before praising their humanity. Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a complex, but subtly argued, ethics of memory, a path toward seeing our enemies as humans, grieving their losses as much as ours. Clear-eyed about the utopian nature of his philosophy, he persuasively reminds us of how the transformative power of art—photography, film, fiction, poetry—can critique “history,” and thereby help free us from a collective forgetfulness, the mother source of war.
ABOUT THE BOOK
All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. From the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 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 the Author
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and 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 and the novel The Sympathizer. The Sympathizer won many awards, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, and the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction.
- TWITTER: @viet_t_nguyen
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Interview by Joel Whitney
“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” said Martin Luther King in 1967, “part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’.” Americans recognized the metaphorical poison that King cited in his famous denunciation of that war. But author Viet Thanh Nguyen recognized it as literal poison, too, that blurred the war with the nation. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, an examination of the art that memorializes that war, lands him on this year’s shortlist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction (in it he asks questions echoed in The Sympathizer, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). The first two thirds of Nothing Ever Dies is a travel book lined with criticism of public art in the United States and Southeast Asia: What’s fair in art and war? The last third features an examination of fictional depictions of the war. From Nguyen’s visits to war memorials and his sharp-eyed readings emerges a Robert’s Rules of Order of sorts for war memorializing where each side recognize the other player’s humanity and atrocities alike. Anything less, he insists, “hasn’t been able to get us past the continual repetition of going to war.”
Joel Whitney: How did you come to this book?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Vietnam War has always been important to me because it was formative for me as a refugee. I had thought I would write about this topic much earlier, when I was a graduate student. But I was discouraged. So at the earliest opportunity, after I published my first academic book, I set out to do the research for what eventually became Nothing Ever Dies. I had no idea that it would take me basically fourteen years.
JW: The Sympathizer didn’t take quite as long.
VTN: The Sympathizer would not come out until 2015, so in that gap between November 2013 and April 2015, I wrote Nothing Ever Dies. I did the research and wrote articles for it from 2002 to 2011.
JW: The book spins out from a concept of the ethics of memory. What is this?
VTN: Growing up in the United States, I was deeply aware of how the Vietnamese refugees remembered their past, and I was also aware that the Americans had their own memories of the Vietnam War, and those memories didn’t really include the Vietnamese. So it was a lifelong project to try to make sense of the difference between these two versions of the past; I had set off thinking that what I needed to do was to speak of Vietnamese memories about the past and that was the impetus for Nothing Ever Dies.
But gradually I realized that if it was unethical for Americans to exclude the Vietnamese from their memories—unethical because these memories were about something called the Vietnam War—it struck me as unethical, too, that the Vietnamese remember only their own version of this past, because they were also likely to be excluding others. Eventually, I decided it actually is ethical for us, whoever “we” are, to remember our own side. But what other ethical possibilities were there?
JW: A critique of one side is necessary but not sufficient when it comes to war?
VTN: I think it is ethical to remember one’s own side and to remember the crimes one’s own side might have committed. But the larger framework of the book is about what might constitute an ethical memory about war that would get us past war. And I think that the model of merely criticizing one’s own side, ironically, hasn’t been able to get us past the continual repetition of going to war. Eventually I argue that we need an ethics of the inhuman where it’s not simply that we’re trying to correct versions of the past to be more inclusive; but actually we would need to recognize how it is that we’re not all human, we’re also inhuman and that is actually what drives us to go back to war over and over again.
“Human” defines our sense of ourselves as moral, just, and civilized people. “Inhuman” would be the failure to live up to these standards. This is different than “subhuman,” which is how “we” often define our others. “Inhuman” would also characterize how humans have lost part of their humanity by incorporating machinery into themselves, either literally or figuratively, as in the case of becoming part of the war machinery.
JW: This book is a travel book, too, as it investigates asymmetrical memorializing.
VTN: I’m a literary critic, which means I spend most of my time reading books. The challenge of Nothing Ever Dies was to get out of my chair and go to these places where the war had been remembered. When we remember, it’s often associated with physical experience. The memories of war that so many people have are deeply tied up with the impact of the physical experience that being in a certain place had on them. Some of the reactions that I had to these works I traveled to visit were that I was saddened. Not just in terms of the content as they show you the horrors of war, but saddened by the sometimes decrepit aesthetics evident in them. And I needed to try to make sense out of that. I didn’t want to patronize these works or their creators.
So would it be possible to talk about the art of memory without simply taking for granted how a Western aesthetic looks in comparison to the Southeast Asian aesthetic? And that’s what the historical work of the book is trying to do—to get us to see how the history that led to the inequality of destruction (58,000 Americans dying versus 6 million Southeast Asians) leads to art that is so much more polished in the West and not so polished in Southeast Asia. And yet that unpolished work in Southeast Asia, because of its lack of polish sometimes felt more powerful than what I encountered watching, for instance, a Hollywood movie.
JW: You cite two reasons that make viscerally ironic the fact the Vietnamese won the war: body count disparities and the size of the US media and its ability to tell the story from a US angle. Nevertheless, the US story reveals that it’s still haunted by Vietnam.
VTN: Hauntings are important to these countries that have experienced war. Sometimes they’re present in people’s lives in really traumatic ways, and I see that with Vietnamese refugees I know and also American veterans I’ve encountered. I met so many people who have only one story to tell about the past—one story that really traumatized them, whether they were Americans or Vietnamese. So there was a real sense that the war continues to haunt people who lived through it. Yet I was also interested in how the traumatic past haunts the societies—American or Vietnamese—in ways that were not explicit. That was one reason I wanted to talk about horror movies and zombie movies; because they don’t seem to be explicit about the war and maybe they are in fact outcomes of that suppressed history, so that this is one way Americans deal with the history; these zombie movies can deal with a war that Americans knew had happened but which they didn’t want to directly confront.
JW: Much of the art that looks at the war shows inhumane and inhuman things done in Americans’ names by the soldiers thrust into this conflict they didn’t understand. But these works—the iconic example being Apocalypse Now—refuse to tell the history from the Vietnamese viewpoint. You see this visually as the film tells the story from up in the air, from American helicopters and American heights. You muse a little on what that vantage may suggest, Wagner playing and all.
VTN: I was trying to understand the aesthetics of power, how war machines represent themselves. [I saw it as] this possession of the upper ground—of the heights of air or space—something that has been fundamental to how European or American imperialism and conquest have operated. It is something that those considered to be natives of these lands are very aware of, because it’s [the result of] a technology that they themselves haven’t possessed, whether hot air balloons, dirigibles, airplanes, and so on. It becomes structured into the very way that—in this case—Americans versus Vietnamese imagined themselves in the stories that they tell. It becomes natural for Americans to position their camera inside a helicopter or a bomber—looking down. It becomes natural for Vietnamese to position their camera in a hole or in trench looking up at these war machines. The point I was trying to get into was, again, just how fundamental the question of technology is to what we see, what we remember, how we tell a story.
JW: In the last section of Nothing Ever Dies, you turn to examine the fiction from the Vietnam War. You frame this fiction in the context of the Cold War and what you call anti-communist liberalism. Talk about the significance of this, and what remains with us today.
VTN: One reason for popularity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—a novel I greatly admire and respect, and that The Sympathizer is in conversation with—is because it participates in 1950s anti-communist liberalism. I wanted to reject that mode; I’d seen it so strongly throughout minority American literature. Certainly in the case of Vietnamese American literature, I’d seen that one of the ways by which people who flee from a communist country and come to the United States become recognizable to other Americans is by articulating their anti-communism. I wanted to argue for a more radical approach to this political problem of what communism and anticommunism represent for the United States. What happens is that writers who come from a minority community can acknowledge that American society has in some way or another victimized us or our population and yet by being able to speak about it, by having a voice, we “affirm” the openness and triumphalism of American culture at the same time. That’s a very hard dilemma to get out of for many minority writers.
JW: Is there a way out?
VTN: One of the ways to get out of it is to acknowledge that this dilemma exists in the first place.
JW: What about the scenario where diverse people want to be portrayed with accuracy, historical and critical--critical of stereotypes or received portrayals--and they are told they are being too sensitive. You just wrote something about this.
VTN: [Calling the people who make these criticisms too sensitive] doesn’t excuse acts of denigration or appropriation when they do happen, or prevent people from trying to empathize with others who are not like them (and that should be true of all sides). To be empathetic with those not like us is fairly radical. To do that and yet stay true to our own convictions as writers is even more radical. That’s what I think radical writing should do—believe in empathy and commitment at the same time, which is a difficult political and aesthetic practice.
Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers (out in January) and is a cofounder of Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.