In a profile at New Republic, Josephine Livingstone talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the ghosts that inhabit his life, his writing, and his birthplace in Vietnam. Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”
In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.
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When 71-year-old taxi driver Long Ma answered the phone and agreed to drive Bac Duong and a few friends home, he had no idea he was about to be taken hostage by three escaped inmates. Although one of Ma’s captors was set on killing him, he developed a deep bond with Bac, a fellow Vietnamese immigrant. After almost a week in captivity and thanks to Bac, Ma got away alive and today, visits Bac regularly in prison — the two regard one another as father and son. Paul Kix tells their tale in GQ.
Money had always been tight, which exacerbated the arguments between Ma and his wife. He knew she was losing respect for him and knew that everyone in the family noticed it. Rather than suffer the indignity, Ma moved one day, without explanation, from their home in San Diego. He found a little room in the Garden Grove boarding house and began a solitary existence as a driver—a choice that seemed to have led to this: He was a hostage in a squalid motel room, debating whether an accused killer actually cared for him.
The escapees decided they needed to move north, and on Tuesday morning, they drove 350 tense miles to San Jose, where they found another motel. The journey exhausted Ma. And that night he began snoring so loudly that he woke Duong, lying beside him. But Duong didn’t elbow him awake. Instead, he slowly climbed out of bed, careful not to stir Ma, and curled up on the floor, so Uncle might rest more peacefully.
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Once an enemy of the U.S., Vietnam is growing as a country, and has become a key ally “as a counter to China’s rising power”:
Nothing better illustrates the Vietnamese desire to be a major player in the region than the country’s recent purchase of six state-of-the-art Kilo-class submarines from Russia. A Western defense expert in Hanoi tells me that the sale makes no logical sense: ‘There is going to be real sticker shock for the Vietnamese when they find out just how much it costs merely to maintain these subs.’ More important, the expert says, the Vietnamese will have to train crews to use them—a generational undertaking. ‘To counter Chinese subs,’ the expert says, ‘they would have been better off concentrating on anti-submarine warfare and littoral defense.’ Clearly, the Vietnamese bought these submarines as prestige items, to say We’re serious.
“The Vietnam Solution.” — Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic
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