National Book Award finalist Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks out on war, capitalism and Donald Trump

by Jeffrey Fleishman

From: Los Angeles Timesla-lochoa-1479158875-snap-photo

A sense of the other seeps through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work, a place where war and memory play like discordant whispers, and defining one’s identity, especially for an immigrant or a refugee, can be as disquieting and elusive as chasing light through a prism.

A child of the Vietnam War who arrived in this country when he was 4, Nguyen is at once outsider and citizen, provocative terrain for a writer seeking to articulate and reconcile the opposing national narratives that have shaped his life. His first novel, “The Sympathizer,” which won a Pulitzer Prize  this year, is set against American involvement in Vietnam, as told by a sly protagonist of multiple perspectives: “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”

The book is gleaming and uproarious, a dark comedy of confession filled with charlatans, delusionists and shameless opportunists. It is the unabashed companion to Nguyen’s “Nothing Ever Dies,”  a sobering nonfiction meditation on war, inhumanity and remembrance that is a finalist for the National Book Awards, which will be announced Wednesday.

Such recognition has marked a busy time for Nguyen, an L.A. Times critic-at-large,  who the other day sat at his dining room table, laptop open, and typed a few thoughts, more in demand these days than before he won the Pulitzer. The sound of traffic and an occasional siren drifted through his meticulously neat Silver Lake home, which overlooks the strange, ragged allure of Sunset Boulevard. Tea was served. Donald Trump was mentioned. Or, as Nguyen noted, the man who aroused “white nativist feelings directed against immigrants and minorities.”

Trump is the fusion of populist politics and the cult of personality; a reality TV star and one-percenter who, as Nguyen sees it, is part of a virtual economy based partly on celebrity that benefits the rich but creates no jobs.

“Reality TV people don’t have any real talent except to perform this fake version of their lives. That fake version is what people want,” said Nguyen, who, while he opposes Trump’s ideals, credited the president-elect for setting forth a brash vision that upended American politics. “It’s not just Trump supporters who accept reality television and celebrity culture. It’s society as a whole. We’re all guilty of profiting from that virtual capitalism and enjoying that virtual celebrity.”

A trim man with a swoop of black hair rising like a small, shiny wave over his forehead, Nguyen and his family left Vietnam as refugees in 1975, the year the war ended. They settled in San Jose. His parents opened a grocery store where they were shot and wounded in a robbery years later. Nguyen learned English and the ways of his new home.  As he grew older, however, he felt of himself as “the other,” outcast from a native land he never really knew and estranged from the country he embraced. There were stories of relatives left behind and films like “Apocalypse Now,” which conjured the war from an unnerving American perspective. Read Rest of Story Here

 

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