Many Voices: Phong Nguyen

Many Voices: Phong Nguyen

This is the sixth installment in a column highlighting Asian American writers/books. It is important that we start acknowledging that Asian American experiences are the stuff of literature, of music, of movies, of culture, and that we start supporting those efforts and spreading word of those efforts far and wide. I read hardly any Asian American writers when I was in elementary school, or middle school, or high school, and it was only in college that I found voices that spoke for the importance of minorities, that made me understand that my experiences were worth something.

What follows is a conversation with author and editor Phong Nguyen. Nguyen’s first story collection, Memory Sickness, won the Elixir Press Fiction Award and was published in 2011. His most recent book is a second collection, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, which will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in January of 2014. Nguyen is the co-editor of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and Reviews. He teaches fiction-writing and literature at the University of Central Missouri.

About his latest, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History: At critical moments in world history, every political, spiritual, and cultural leader foresaw a different destiny. Columbus planned a Western sea route to Asia; Hitler applied to art school twice; Joan of Arc prophesied that she would become a mother. It is out of their failures that history itself is made. But what if the history-makers succeeded in the fulfillment of their best-laid plans? In Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, Phong Nguyen explores a myriad of pasts in which these icons of history made a different choice, and got what they wished for.

PagesHistoryALIST: Why did you want to write these alternate histories?

Phong Nguyen: It started with the story “Columbus Discovers Asia.” At the time I wrote it, I had no idea that I would write a whole book of alternate histories; I just had this incongruous image in my mind of Columbus arriving on the shores of China and wandering the streets of Shanghai, planting the flag, declaring that he had discovered this land, though it was already a densely populated region boasting a civilization that was, in the late 15th century, in many ways more advanced than Italy or Spain. That is how each of these stories begin, as a way of throwing known historical figures into new contexts as a way of defamiliarizing them. As soon as I became aware of this pattern in the stories, I began to notice in everyday life how, when we talk about history, we tend to assume an intimacy with famous historical figures in the same way that we assume intimacy with celebrities, but these people are even more remote than rock stars in magazines: they are separated from us by hundreds of years of social, political, and cultural change. Practically none of their core assumptions about the world are the same as ours. So why do we persist in talking about them from the stance of knowing their minds? It is literature, I realized, that helps enable that illusion of familiarity. But literature also has the power to dispel that illusion.

Most writers who undertake alternate history fiction do so because they are interested in macro-historical questions: What if the South won the Civil War? What if the Nazis had won WWII? But as my book developed, I came to understand that my interest in alternate history had less to do with the potential historical outcomes, but with the challenge of illuminating a character by exploring their ambitions. So, for example, Joan of Arc once prophesied that she would give birth to a pope, a king, and an emperor. If I were in the prophecy business myself, I would be interested in the specifics of how this would have created a new dynasty in Europe that consolidated political and religious power in one family, which would have had to struggle against the existing power structure. But as a story-writer, I was far more interested in Joan of Arc as a woman who wanted—who expected—more than martyrdom. She is a saint and a legend, and a national hero in France, yet her ambition at 19 years old was far from satisfied when she was burned at the stake. Victory over England, and a divine mandate from God, wasn’t all she ever wanted from life.

How did being Asian American influence your writing of these alternate history stories?

Well, from the very first story—”Columbus Discovers Asia”—it was clear that encounters between the East and the West would be an important part of the book. Being a biracial Asian American writer certainly informed my choices of what to write about—at first unconsciously, then consciously—as the book took shape. For example, “Columbus Discovers Asia” imagines an encounter between Europe and Asia more than 25 years before the Portuguese arrived in China (and the course of history dictated that East-West relations were almost immediately military and exploitative rather than cultural and mutual); partly I was amusing myself with the idea of a philistine Columbus for whom an encounter with Chinese civilization would have merely incited thoughts of profit, and partly I was exploring what a 15th century encounter between Europe and Asia would have looked like at an earlier time in history, when these two civilizations were not as technologically and culturally asymmetrical as they would soon become in just a few decades.

The only story in the book that directly concerns an Asian American character is, oddly, “Ho Chi Minh in Harlem.” And because this particular chapter in history is still a part of living memory, Ho Chi Minh provokes all kinds of conflicting associations. In Vietnam, his legacy is bound up with the story of national independence, while for Vietnamese Americans his legacy is war, oppression, often personal tragedy and loss—but as I was writing the story, I found that, through the young Ho, I was able to articulate some of the paradoxes I have experienced as the son of a Vietnamese immigrant. At one point in the story Ho talks about witnessing a lynching while traveling in the American South. The narrator Ed Winston sympathizes, but says “It’s a terrible backward thing, I know. But why has it got you so troubled? Was he kin to you?” Later, Ho attends a UNIA meeting, only to be asked by Marcus Garvey, “What does an Oriental care about the cause of the American Negro?” On the one hand they have a point: a minority group has the burden of advocating for its own political advancement and representation, as the people most acquainted with its own history of struggle. But as a man who came of age in the late 20th century, in the exhilarating glow of the Civil Rights movement, my heart revolts against the idea that our compassion has anything to do with tribal affiliation to our racial in-group. My mind goes to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birminghal Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Just because they teach it in 7th grade, that doesn’t make it any less true. I don’t relate to Ho Chi Minh the military general and Communist leader, but by taking on the naive perspective of Ho Chi Minh the young idealist, I was able to explore the conflict I feel between the burden of representing my personal national or racial group and the burden to serve humanity as impartially as possible.

I can think about the Ho Chi Minh story the opposite way, too, like what if you grew up in Vietnam instead of America? Have you thought about a personal alternate history?

I can say that writing Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History wasn’t, for me, a way of psychically working out identity issues. For better or for worse, I’ve never been one to agonize over my racial difference. My brothers and I are half-Vietnamese and half-Scottish/English/Welsh with a little bit of French thrown into the mix. In my extended family there are Latino, African-American, German-Jewish, Russian-Jewish, and Hungarian-Jewish relatives, as well as plenty of relatives with old, old American roots—going back to the colonial period. So in my experience diversity was the default, and it is homogeneity that always strikes me as odd whenever I encounter it. I grew up in an incredibly diverse area of Central New Jersey, too, and I didn’t encounter de facto racial segregation until I moved to New England; mostly, I am grateful to have grown up in a time and place where diversity was the norm.

All that having been said, yes I have wondered what my life would have been like had I grown up in Vietnam rather than the U.S. I’m glad I didn’t, for the reasons of cultural diversity that I’ve mentioned and because the 1980s and 1990s in Vietnam were marked by extreme poverty at times to the point of starvation, and attitudes towards the Amerasian children of the war—known as “Bui Doi,” or “Dust Children”—were fiercely negative (attitudes towards “overseas Vietnamese” appear to have changed as of my visit to Vietnam in 2007), so all indications are that my life growing up in Vietnam would have been brutal. As it is, many of my family members were interrogated by the communists during the war, and other relatives were forced to go into reeducation camps afterwards. But on the upside, my immune system would probably be stronger.

When you were exploring these historical figures, ambition was your way in? 

Well, the characters in each story are so vastly different from one another, but the inevitable common thread between them was that each had a profound effect on historical events. So trying to understand the kind of unhealthy ambition that animates saints and emperors became a necessary part of the process. But what made it endlessly interesting to me was exploring these characters’ unfulfilled ambitions as a way of understanding their inner lives—to think how every prophet could have been a frustrated dictator, and every dictator could have been a frustrated artist, and every great artist could have been a frustrated inventor, and every great inventor could have been a frustrated athlete, and so on. The way we tell stories—and thus the way we tell history—conveys a sense of the inevitable, but the way we live our lives with some degree of agency and free will defies that. So there is this great disconnect between our lives as individuals and our perception of history, which comes from the fact that we learn only about what happened, and not about what could-have-happened given a different set of variables. The book simply changes those variables to bring about their intended futures. By focussing on these characters’ deepest desires, I was both able to explore their inner lives more fully and explore the way we mistake history for prophecy.

How did the textbook questions come about? Did you imagine this book in a classroom? Did you imagine any particular readers?

The “Suggestions for Class Discussion” are meant to be both tongue-in-cheek commentary on the way textbooks try to guide reader inquiry (I guess as a way of bailing out teachers with a phobia of uncomfortable silences?), and a way of exploring theme in ways that are potentially surprising. One’s reaction to the questions may not be simply to take them up and consider them—the way a textbook author might have wanted—but to gain insight on the mind of the people who put together the textbook. It’s one of the few moments within a textbook when the authors show their real values and priorities. So when the “Suggestions for Class Discussion” on Joan of Arc says “What, after all, are the genitalia of a saint, to God?” we glean information about the elusive textbook curator, Obie Lister.

I honestly never thought about Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History being used in a classroom. I expected that it would be of particular interest to readers with a hyper-nerdy obsession with history, and I deliberately included references that would be amusing to readers who will be familiar with the relevant book, character, or history, but that’s as far as I went as far as conceiving of a particular sort of demographic among readers.

phongCan you talk about the other hats you wear: teacher, editor, husband, father, and how they informed these stories?

Siddhartha Remains in His Father’s Palace” is a great example of a story that I cannot have imagined writing without being a father myself. I’m not prepared to say it’s impossible to do so—I have read some uncanny stories about parenthood written by people who aren’t parents themselves (Michael Nye’s “A Fully Imagined World” comes to mind)—but in my case, this kind of insight into character could only have come about through experience.

I could say that the textbook format was inspired by my work as a teacher, but it’s just as accurate to say that my choice to pursue teaching was inspired by my nerdy interest in textbooks. In fact, they both emerged from the same general bookishness with which I approach the world.

How did you learn about your family history? Are your family storytellers? Did you have to look into it on your own?

My father worked constantly and wasn’t very talkative, so I grew up with a lot of strange assumptions about my family history, many of which I have no idea where they came from. For others, I can identify a clear source.

We had family friends who had recently immigrated from Vietnam, and my dad must have told me that they were “boat people” who fled the country in the final days of the war, because I somehow took on their story and developed a rich narrative about my dad’s life as a refugee, escaping on a fishing boat while the Vietcong tanks rolled into Saigon. In fact, my father was never a war refugee. He came over to the U.S. on a scholarship in 1962, attended Montana State University, and got his PhD at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met my mother Emily, fell in love and got married, and was in his first year working as a chemical researcher in Montreal when the war ended.

I also convinced myself for a long time that my father’s family was royalty in Vietnam, because of a family photograph that showed my great-grandfather in an elaborate regal gown. I’ve since learned that this is at best a half-truth. My great-grandfather was a businessman and a local official, like a superintendent, a role for which he wore the official clothing of his station, but he had no kind of birthright to his title. My father’s father was an educated civil engineer who worked for the government (at that time, the French), and my dad grew up in one of the only Western-style homes in Nha Trang with running water and a bathroom, which might as well have been royalty in that place and time.

So I didn’t grow up knowing the true stories of my family history, and in their absence I just made stuff up. But in my adult life I am more inclined to ask questions, and in my father’s retirement, he’s more inclined to answer them.

Did visiting Vietnam in ’07 affect your writing?

It didn’t directly affect the way I write, but it hugely impacted my priorities as a writer. Aside from the cultural education and sense of third-world perspective it conferred, the biggest revelation for me was to see how much my father’s dutiful support of his family in Vietnam (and not his nuclear family, which had all died before and during the war, but his whole extended family) over the years had had such a profound effect upon their lives. Growing up, it seems all I had seen was a busy father who knew how to pay his dues and earn his daily bread. But to witness him now surrounded by people whom he had helped survive and thrive over forty years of national hardship, who now were gallery owners, publishers, academics, and artists, with a high quality of life as a result of his steady support—this tapped in me the ambition to be useful.

In 2007 I had just completed a PhD in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. The idea that I could ever be useful to anybody was (and is) thought to be a bit ludicrous. Both the producers of the world and my fellow artists would tell you so. For some reason we are in a cultural cycle where we are invested in the idea that literature is just another medium of entertainment, and that its impact on us is just as fleeting. I haven’t given in to this collective shrug, and I don’t anticipate doing so. As impossible to measure literary influence ultimately is, I maintain that there is a profound connection between literature and life that compels me to take art seriously and make high demands of it.

I think of literature as entertainment, but I guess I think of entertainment as having the same kind of value you’re describing. These stories are certainly entertaining. Do you think of entertainment as a component, as a way in?

I don’t know any writer who believes that literature should not or cannot be entertaining. But it has capacities beyond merely the power to evoke pleasure (which is also important). It isn’t an either-or proposition. The stories that last with me are ones that offer complex pleasure and complex experience, so that I have to spend some time figuring out “What the hell just happened to me?” There are a lot of writers out there right now on a mission to prove to the academic fuddy-duddies and wet-blankets that literature is fun. I am absolutely on board with that. But for one thing I suspect that this isn’t news to the academics themselves, who have built their lives around a love of great books, but whose job it is to attend to other aspects of literature (otherwise, every course in literature would be “literary appreciation” class). These writers that champion pleasure-above-all also risk forfeiting the grounds upon which literature can make its soundest contributions respective to other mediums such as TV and film: interiority, depth of experience, strong theme. I mean, praising great writers for their vivid sensory detail is understandable (and perfectly appropriate for students, who are just acquiring these skills), but it’s a bit like praising a painter for achieving three-dimensionality. If that’s all you are going for, why not work in sculpture?

Can you talk a little about your approach to teaching? What is some advice you find yourself giving students with frequency?

My approach to teaching is always changing. I try to make it as fresh as possible each time. I think an honest writing teacher gives some concession to the inability to impart the most important dimensions of the discipline (what Butler calls the “white hot center”), and so s/he must keep on trying new things. I’ve been teaching fiction-writing for about 10 years at this point, and some of the best results have come about in the most unexpected ways. Recently I have had some success with having students focus purely on the generative stage of writing. This is completely at the other end of the spectrum from the traditional workshop, where you focus on developing editorial acumen. This year I had my students produce a lot of pages, and after pointing out the highlights and low points (so that they had something to think about while working on the next story), I asked them to try something completely different on the next project. So if they wrote a somber, reflective story in which nothing much happens, I would direct them to try an absurdly funny and frenetic story next; or if for their first story they wrote about an epic quest for a jewel in which evil is vanquished, I would ask them to try writing a story about the travails and burdens of being the evil leader for the next piece. I don’t require that they write that exact story, but I establish the expectation that they will try new things and hopefully achieve range as a writer. For an open-minded and energetic student, being told to experiment and produce lots of pages can be exhilarating, and can lead them to make discoveries about their writing that it’s hard to imagine them arriving at through criticism alone.

About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two, married a Korean woman, and writes about marriage, fatherhood, adoption, and race for The Good Men Project. His new book is I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying. Other work has appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Hyphen, The Rumpus, Glimmer Train, Koream, and others.