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Posts Tagged ‘war refugees’

“With her brother on her back, a war-weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled tank, at Haengju, Korea. June 9, 1951. Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF. (Navy)”

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How did coming to the United States as a child refugee during the Vietnam War affect your identity and politics?

My own narrative memory begins with being taken away from my parents and sent to live with a sponsor family as a way to leave the refugee camp in Pennsylvania, so in that sense being a refugee was imprinted on me from the very beginning of my consciousness.

Awareness of being a refugee continued throughout my childhood. I observed how my family lived as refugees trying to survive in the United States and was cognizant of the inequities of memory: how Americans chose to remember the Vietnam War that had produced me and how Vietnamese refugees remembered the war.

The end result was to produce in me someone who was always aware of the inadequacies of any side’s perspective. When I was in my parent’s household or in the Vietnamese refugee community, I was seeing it through the eyes of an American, and when I was outside of that environment, I saw American culture through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. That produces some skepticism about ideologies and viewpoints.

All of us who have ideologies and viewpoints feel pretty certain about the justness of our point of view and the unjustness of other point of views. I was always interested in trying to understand where different perspectives were coming from, but I was also very skeptical about each of these perspectives as well, given the sense that all groups are self-interested, and, given enough opportunity, all groups would be tempted to abuse the power they have: Americans have done it, but the Vietnamese might very well do the same thing if given the chance.

That led me to being a writer, specifically a writer who wrote Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer — it’s the refugee’s capacity for empathy for the outsider and the skepticism of everyone’s point of view.

What is the role of Cold War literature and art, including films like Apocalypse Now, in shaping the public’s memory?

The Cold War was experienced as a hot war by the countries in which the antagonists were fighting. The people in these countries are often rendered as background actors to a Western drama, even though they paid the steepest price in terms of human losses and natural destruction. The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies are meant to rebut that by foregrounding the experiences of the people for whom the Cold War was hot.

If we’re talking specifically about literature and film from the American point of view, we see a lot of ambivalence about the Cold War and its cost for Americans. But we also see a reiteration of the American perspective on history. Even if these literary texts and films could be interpreted as antiwar, they nevertheless carry out that portrayal through an American or Western viewpoint, so it centers the West again.

The Sympathizer is meant to contest these types of portrayals by making visible how these texts do that work. There’s a satirical section about a movie that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now but is really a compilation of all the various kinds of American movies about the Vietnam War.

The Sympathizer tries to make the point forcefully and explicitly that America’s Cold War cultural production functioned as a kind of propaganda. Even if it portrayed the United States negatively, it still functioned as a kind of propaganda for the United States by making the rest of the world deal with it from the American point of view.

There has been a recent emergence of popular literary fiction about the Cold War by authors of various Asian backgrounds. What do you think of this trend?

The American literary industry has the same ideology that dominates throughout American society, a liberal multiculturalism. That ideology is integrated with capitalism, and so just as American corporate life needs diversification in order to be possible, so does the American literary industry.

This is why we see an interest in narratives that could be classified as multicultural. Even though the publishing industry is 89 percent white, it’s still interested in this sort of diversification and commodification. The very same capitalist system that drives the United States and other Western countries to engage in colonialism and war eventually leads to this desire to hear stories from different people about those very same histories. So capitalism creates the conditions by which these Asian or Asian-American or Asian-international writers emerge.

The flexibility of American ideology, which is perfectly capable of acknowledging that the United States has done bad things in the past and in the present, encourages the production of stories that deal with these kinds of histories. Now, the question is, even if these stories talk about these histories, how critical are they? Do they acknowledge these histories only to eventually reconcile with the demands of liberalism and capitalism? Or do they actually try to be more revolutionary or radical?

I think that the latter is actually a lot more rare. Even if you have these sorts of authors, they are not necessarily doing anything radical. What they are doing is telling the stories of their peoples, which again is completely reconcilable with a flexible kind of democratic capitalism that is willing to acknowledge its own faults.

You’ve written that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” How is the memory of the Vietnam War still being contested today?

Just to talk about America and the Vietnam War, the control over the past — the memory of this war — is critical in both countries because memory is a strategic resource in any country, especially the memory of wars. By controlling the narrative of the wars we fought, we justify the wars we are going to fight in the present.

In Vietnam, the state attempts to tell the story of the war as a victorious one, of revolution, unification, and liberation, all of which buttresses the legitimacy of the Communist Party and its government in the present. If that history is contested, it threatens the authority of the Communist Party, which is why any kind of dissidence domestically or from the diaspora is considered very dangerous by the ruling government.

In the United States, because we’re not an authoritarian government, the battle over the past is not so straightforward, so Hollywood has the license to make movies that depict the American war there very negatively. But that narrative reconnects to the American point of view, and the dominance of the American point of view is partly what led the United States into the Vietnam War in first place.

The interpretation of the Vietnam War has shifted from the negative portrayal we see in the seventies and eighties — that Vietnam was a bad war — to the present, where presidents from both parties, the government in general, the Pentagon, and the State Department have actively worked to change that narrative: it’s now considered a noble but failed war. If we learn such positive lessons we can fight contemporary wars more effectively, according to these voices. That’s an example of how control of the reinterpretation of this particular war’s legacy justifies how we conduct wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other countries.

In his book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, David Rieff argues that it may be moral to forget because collective remembrance can be toxic. What do you think about letting oneself forget?

That’s a classic dilemma. For individuals and societies to function, you have to forget something in some way; it’s obviously a necessity. But how to remember and how to forget, those are the crucial questions.

There are ethical and unethical ways of remembering and forgetting, but we cannot talk about those ethics in some kind of abstract way. We can have a code of ethics about how to remember. In Nothing Ever Dies there are ethical pathways for doing this, but I think ethics are insufficient without an understanding of inequalities. We have never had just memories and just forgetting, if the society itself is unjust.

For example, in an economically unequal society where different groups have different levels of access to the means of production, there are also different levels of access to the means of representation. So it’s not possible in the United States to have a just accounting of issues like slavery. If one population has greater access to the means of production, the means of representation, and therefore the means of memory, they are going to dictate how we remember and forget, and those who are disempowered are going to feel that is unjust. The inequalities of the past are structurally embedded in the present.

– Yahya Chaudhry interviews

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Forgetting and Remembering.” The Jacobin, January 6, 2018. 

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