On Thursday, March 21st, 2019, Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Miami to give a lecture entitled “War, Fiction, and the Ethics of Memory.” His novel The Sympathizer (2015) is a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, and he is currently the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Nguyen’s talk primarily focused on his theories of different kinds of ethical memory, his experience as a Vietnamese refugee, and his novel The Sympathizer.
Nguyen opened the talk by discussing the separation of refugee children and their parents at the border, and asked questions about ethics and the way war functions in our memories. According to Nyugen, literature cannot fix the world, but it can help us illuminate problems that need our attention. One of those problems is that of war and its effects on memory. Nyugen stated that every war is fought twice, once on the battlefield, and once in memory.
Nguyen theorized that war creates a few different types of memory; we are human and they are inhuman, we are inhuman and they are human, we are human and they are human, and we are inhuman and they are inhuman. This is part of the ethics of recognition; who we deem fully human and who we do not. Nguyen, arguing that we should view cultures as multifaceted, both “human” and “inhuman,” read excerpts from both a short story of his and from several portions of his novel to illustrate this point.
His work is intervening in larger conversations about recognition. The Sympathizer contains complicated and deeply flawed characters, and revealed both ends of a marital conflict as being capable of atrocity. One of the interventions Nyugen detailed was writing a scene wherein the narrator of The Sympathizer acts as an uncredited adviser for a Hollywood director, who is making a film about the war in Vietnam. The narrator tries to suggest less blatantly racist alternatives to the director’s ideas, and is ultimately shut down.
Nyugen argued that writers from the margins should not write in such a way that panders to non-marginalized audiences. There is no need for the narrator of The Sympathizer to explain pho as he eats it, because the narrator knows, Nyugen knows, and Vietnamese readership knows.