September 19, 2017

Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on the ghosts of the Vietnam War

Nguyen spoke with local author Kao Kalia Yang at St. Kate's last Friday. Photo by Anna Min of Min Enterprises Photography, LLC, provided by the Minnesota Humanities Center.

"How do we remember the living and what they did during times of war? How do we remember the nation and the people for whom the dead supposedly died? And how do we remember war itself, both war in general and the particular war that has shaped us?"

These questions, posed by Viet Thanh Nguyen at the opening of his latest novel, serve as the linchpin of both the book and the evening of conversation featuring Nguyen last Friday.

The public event was presented by the Minnesota Humanities Center in conjunction with the Evaleen Neufeld Initiative in the Liberal Arts at St. Catherine University, and drew approximately 320 attendees — a full house — to Jeanne d'Arc Auditorium on the St. Paul campus.

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, Nguyen spoke on themes explored in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War in dialogue with Kao Kalia Yang, author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and a contributor to A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Yang spoke at St. Kate's last spring during the author panel for A Good Time for the Truth.

David O'Fallon, president and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, joined St. Kate's President Becky Roloff in a preface to the discussion.

"What kind of world are we creating and what kind of world do you want to live in?," O'Fallon asked a rapt audience. "Whose narrative has been erased — not just forgotten, but erased, and how can we amplify their voices? We need to draw upon all the humanities to inform and to answer those questions. The Center is dedicated to bringing those voices into public discussions. We stand with St. Kate's in forming that mission and answering those questions."

Mission Chair and Director of the Neufeld Initiative Amy Hamlin, University President Becky Roloff, and Minnesota Humanities Center President David O'Fallon converse at the reception held before the event. Photo by Ryan Johnson '19.

In pursuit of a "just memory"

Born in Vietnam, Nguyen and his family moved to the United States in 1975 as refugees of the Vietnam War. He was just four years old. Growing up in San Jose, California, he was deeply influenced by the post-war cultural rhetoric of the following decades — a pervasive, misleading rhetoric that he addresses explicitly in Nothing Ever Dies.

The biggest lie in the public memory of the Vietnam War, said Nguyen last Friday, was "that it was a war of symmetry — that Americans had to do what they had to do." The popularized view of war, he added, suggests implicitly "that wars only affect soldiers," when in fact "they kill so many civilians, women, kids — innocents."

Nguyen asked skeptics to look at the numbers: 53,000 U.S. soldiers killed compared to 3 million Vietnamese. And yet "people in America really believe that everyone suffered equally," he said. "That's untrue — one side bombed, one side was bombed."

In response to this unbalanced perspective of the war and its ethics, Nothing Ever Dies revolves around the pursuit of what Nguyen terms "just memory."

Harvard University Press (April 2016)

"What I look for and argue for ... is a just memory that strives both to remember one's own and others, while at the same time drawing attention to the life cycle of memories and their industrial production, how they are fashioned and forgotten, how they evolve and change," he writes.

Since "[m]emories are signs and products of power, and in turn, they service power," it follows that "just as countries and peoples are not economically at the same level, neither are their memories."

"One sign of this inequality," he adds, "is that while the United States lost the war in fact, it won the war in memory on most of the world's cultural fronts outside of Vietnam, dominating as it does moviemaking, book publishing, fine art and the production of historical archives."

Nguyen calls for inclusion of Vietnamese loss in the American war narrative, but also cautions against treating victims "as objects of pity," which may eclipse any other aspect of victims' identities and only contributes to the "dramas of self-flagellation" that can define American anti-war sentiment.

Rather, he advocates for the expiry of "othering" altogether, proposing instead "an ethics of recalling others" defined "by acknowledging that those we consider to be others are neither other nor ideal. Instead, as much as we consider ourselves to be subjects, these others... are subjects as well."

"You can never stop fighting for justice"

Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen, St. Kate's faculty and humanities coordinator, was one of the primary organizers. She was the vision behind the event, according to Mission Chair and Director of the Neufeld Initiative Amy Hamlin, who also helped with planning.

Anh-Hoa Nguyen views the event as a special experience and a success. "I was so glad I could create an opportunity for our students whose lives and families have been affected by war to see their experiences reflected at St. Kate's," she says. "Above all, as a Vietnamese poet and artist, it was an honor to host and engage with Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer and scholar who I greatly respect and admire."

The significance of author Kao Kalia Yang's presence in the event is far from lost on Anh-Hoa. "It was extremely important to me as a lecturer of 'The Reflective Woman' and a champion for women-centered education that there was a strong and talented woman on stage," she notes. "I proposed Yang for the event not only because she and her work are eloquent and brilliant, but because the Hmong involvement in the Vietnam War is often overlooked or not known."

"If we do not reframe the history of our country's involvement in Vietnam and South East Asia, and the greater colonial and imperial history of the U.S., and if we do not create and share these stories and memories as artists and educators — memories that are not the mainstream versions of history — in order to confront our shared capacity to be inhumane, the cycle of war and violence will never end.

"You can never stop fighting for justice."

Star Tribune: "Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, 'fighting for utopia'" by Claude Peck

by michelle mullowney '17