According to Viet Thanh Nguyen, all wars are fought twice—first on the battlefield, then in the public’s memory.
“I think that’s true for all wars, and it’s certainly true for the Vietnam War,” he said. “We’ve been waging war in our memory since 1975 about how to interpret the significance of the Vietnam War.”
Nguyen discussed the dual nature of his own memories of the Vietnam War and the role they play in his writing with a crowd of 300 people at the comparative literature department’s 2017 Betty Jean Craige Lecture, “Nothing Ever Dies: Ethical Memory and Radical Writing in The Sympathizer.” Held Feb. 13 as part of the Signature Lecture Series, the lecture is named for Craige, University Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and a former director of the Willson Center.
Born in Ban Me Thuot, Vietnam, in 1971, Nguyen and his family came to the U.S. as refugees in 1975 and settled in San Jose, California, in 1978. Those experiences shaped his memory of the war and his views on its depiction, adding that he watched “almost every movie Hollywood made about the Vietnam War” and wondered “who was I at that moment? Was I the spectator identifying with the American soldiers? Or was I the Vietnamese? I recognized … that I was both and that I was split in two.
“I knew it shaped me,” he said. “The Vietnamese people were not forgotten in the history of the Vietnam War in the United States. We were remembered and forgotten at the same time.”
His 2015 novel The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, tells the story of a double agent in the South Vietnamese army who flees with its remnants to America in 1975, continuing his efforts in the lost war amid the refugee community of Los Angeles. The 2016 follow-up, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, examines how the memorialization of the Vietnam War by all of its participants helps to obscure important truths about war’s ravages of all humanity and to hinder the true reconciliation that might prevent future conflicts.
“Both sides of every conflict are complex and deserve the complex treatment of full and sophisticated stories,” he said.
Specifically, Nguyen talked about the three models of ethical memory. The first is “remembering our own,” or nationalism, which leads people to believe “we” are human and “they” are inhuman. The second is “remembering others.” In the liberal sense, Nguyen said this model is the idea that we are all human. The more radical version of the second model leads people to believe that “we” are inhuman and “they” are human. The third model is “remembering inhumanity,” or the idea that “we” are human and inhuman and “they” are human and inhuman. Nguyen pointed out that this last model “doesn’t patronize or condescend to ‘others’ and it doesn’t idealize or demonize ‘us.’ Instead, it recognizes that both sides in any given conflict are equally capable of humanity and inhumanity.”
Nguyen’s visit, which also included a Feb. 14 public conversation, “Vietnam/War/Memory/Justice: A Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen,” hosted by the Dean Rusk International Law Center, was co-sponsored by the comparative literature department, the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, the Rusk Center, the President’s Venture Fund, the Office of the Dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of International Education and the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association. It is part of the Global Georgia Initiative, which presents global problems in local context with a focus on how the arts and humanities can intervene and is made possible by the support of private individuals and the Willson Center Board of Friends.