Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An anti-nationalist for these times

I think of Viet Thanh Nguyen as Steve Bannon's worst nightmare, someone whose being breaks categories of nation, origin, and history. He is the author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a National Book Award finalist, and far better known as the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, The Sympathizer. I do better with nonfiction than fiction, but if what follows intrigues you, I recommend either book.

Nguyen is no nationalist. He's a man betwixt and between countries, histories, perspectives, and memories.

I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America's deeds but tempted to believe its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. ... Today the Vietnamese and American revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the hardening of our arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, or who have been influenced by them in some way, we have to know how we make memories and how we forget them so we can beat their hearts back to life. That is the project, or at least the hope, of this book.

These nonfiction chapters survey memorials, fiction, film and the memories they collective construct of what people in the U.S. call the Vietnam war and people in Vietnam call the American war. His parents fled the north of his country for the anti-communist south in 1954 and, after the American war collapsed, landed in U.S. refugee camps and finally in what became the Vietnamese section of San Jose. He's been back to his ancestral country to see where relatives live, where battles were fought, and even the killing field of neighboring Cambodia. In this book, he describes crawling through what were once Viet Cong tunnels from which they ambushed U.S. GIs; these have been converted (also spruced up and enlarged) to accommodate tourist tours. He is more bemused than appalled by all sides' morphing memories.

Nguyen insists that only if we can allow ourselves the convoluted, often painful, process of rigorously examining embedded memories can we hope to create a usable past, more peaceful than what we've known. He calls this making "just memories."

...just memory proceeds from three things. First, an ethical awareness of our simultaneous humanity and inhumanity, which leads to a more complex understanding of our identity, of what it means to be human and to be complicit in the deeds that our side, our kin, and even we ourselves commit. Second, equal access to the industries of memory [currently dominated by the wealth and reach of the U.S. capitalist world culture] ... And, third, the ability to imagine a world where no one will be exiled from what we think of as the near and the dear to those distant realms of the far and the feared. ... The nation seduces us, particularly if we happen to be cast out of it as refugees, a population that now numbers at least sixty million, a floating global archipelago of human dispossession. ...

He doesn't think "the nation" is the answer to any of this agony. Everywhere -- on the ground and on the page -- he struggles against the worldwide hegemony of the U.S. view of what happened (this intrudes even within victorious Vietnam) and what it all meant.

... defenders of a homogenous America [have] cried out against the barbarians at the gate, those colored hordes who had climbed their way up the hill of civilization to the city of shining light. Reluctantly or fervently, we [authors from various Asian-origins], the barbarians, are also cultural warriors, demanding to be let in to civilization, haunted by the inhuman wars of that civilization. We, too, wish to tell true war stories, which are impossible to disentangle from the battles we fight to tell the stories.

Our English-speaking cultural arena can be profoundly unwelcoming to artists who insist on mixing their realities; he cites such unequivocally white examples as Kingsolver and Sontag as well as more obvious ones of color. Nguyen's recent acclaim seems a breakthrough in this context; but will it just be more tokenism?

A future post here will take up what Nguyen writes about the essence of war, of cosmopolitanism and compassion, and of the possibility of an effectual peace movement. He has a lot to teach.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails