By Ben Tran
Please continue to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s response following Ben Tran’s remarks, both excerpted from a critics’ round-table on the novelist in PMLA (March 2018).
Although the United States lost the Vietnam War on the battlefield, it won the war on two long-term fronts: economic ideology and cultural memory. A mere eleven years after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government officially transitioned from a ration economy to a market- socialist one. This perestroika resulted in capitalist development, more akin to what the United States had propagated when it entered the war to prevent the cascading growth of communism throughout Asia. The United States also triumphed in terms of memory, dominating narratives of the war through the global influence of its culture industries.
The latter victory is a central concern in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies (2016), a nonfictional work on memory and the Vietnam War. He writes that the United States “won the war in memory on most of the world’s cultural fronts outside of Vietnam, dominating as it does moviemaking, book publishing, in art, and the production of historical archives” (15). For Nguyen, collective memory is a selective process of remembering and forgetting. In its attempts to come to terms with military defeat abroad and divisive conflicts at home, the United States’ collective memory of the war often focuses myopically on the country’s own projections.
Such a narcissistic gaze can only see what Sylvia Chong calls the “oriental obscene,” a “phantasmatic, visual presence that dominates the American cultural imaginary in the absence of an Asian American political collectivity that can speak for itself” (21). The oriental obscene permeates “all aspects of visual forms and structure,” which, in turn, become part of collective memory informed by racial hierarchies (17). As a consequence of such racialized impositions perpetuated through media and culture, the collective unconscious is, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, the “repository of prejudices, myths, and collective attitudes of a particular group” (165). For Nguyen, what governs the collective unconscious is not merely the social and cultural repositories of racialized representations but also the enterprises of a capitalist entertainment industry: “Industrializing memory proceeds in parallel with how warfare is industrialized as part and parcel of capitalist society, where the actual firepower exercised in a war is matched by the firepower of memory that defines and refines that war’s identity” (Nothing 13). Against this industrial complex of war and remembrance Nguyen calls for an “ethical memory” that addresses war’s racialized violence and inequities (18). This ethical memory restores the forgotten violence of war and its representations—to “recall the past in a way that does justice to the forgotten, the excluded, the oppressed, the dead, the ghosts” (68).
Nguyen’s insistence on ethical memory
manifests itself in the form, content, and style
of his 2015 novel, The Sympathizer. Nguyen
practices ethical memory through the genre of
confession and what I term “literary dubbing” to critique the spectatorship of war, particu-
larly the act of doing nothing. For Nguyen, the significance of nothing points not to the do-
main of philosophical nihilism but rather to the passivity of war’s spectator—who is both
a witness to historical events and a viewer of movies that contribute to the unethical memory of war. The protagonist and narrator of The Sympathizer eventually confesses his war crime of passive spectatorship, transforming his writing—through literary dubbing—into ethical remembrance. Before moving on to Nguyen’s use of literary dubbing, some elaboration on this technique is necessary.
Literary dubbing occurs during the writing process when an author translates characters’ speech and thought from the implied or referenced language, within the diegetic frame, to the language of representation or
the reader’s language. The target language may not be comprehensible to the represented characters, but it does make the characters legible to a reading audience. Literary dubbing covers over the referenced language(s) with the audience’s language. The translation involved in dubbing becomes a part of the narrative’s literary voice. To put it differently, the author’s voice doubles as a translator’s voice, and writing fiction doubles as an event of translation between languages.
Nguyen’s literary dubbing mirrors and counters Hollywood’s filmic dubbing. In the latter Vietnamese characters are relegated to the background as an “indistinguishable group—rather than as an aggregate of individuals” (Nguyen, Race, 17). Vietnamese bodies and language are treated indifferently by Hollywood: often when they speak, Vietnamese characters are not translated and, even worse, are speaking another Southeast Asian language, such as Tagalog or Thai. As a result, Hollywood’s Vietnamese characters remain incomprehensible to both English-language and Vietnamese-language audiences. Against this marginalization, Nguyen translates and applies English-language dubbing to Vietnamese characters and language that had previously not been legible yet had always been present. He writes the novel in the form of a confession that targets the Vietnamese reader as the primary audience, but by replacing characters’ Vietnamese-language thoughts and speech with English, he also addresses an English- language audience—as secondary readers. Whereas Hollywood’s filmic dubbing prioritizes the American perspective while alienating Vietnamese viewers, Nguyen’s literary dubbing prioritizes the minority perspective while disorienting the American experience. The novel does not so much give voice to the voiceless—the Vietnamese have been speaking and writing for a while now—as it does seek to disabuse the cultural systems that perceive the Vietnamese as voiceless.
Viet Thanh Nguyen responds
from: Dislocation is My Location (PMLA, March, 2018)
As someone who has spent most of his career writing about others, I find it odd to see myself, or what passes for me, being written about by others, especially academics, the people with whom I am most familiar. Who is this “Viet Thanh Nguyen” that they are discussing? Is he the one whose name appears as such on the cover of the Vietnamese translation of his short story collection, The Refugees, instead of as Nguyễn Thanh Việt, his Vietnamese name? Has “Viet Thanh Nguyen” disabled, in himself, the authenticity that most Vietnamese people hold dear and that he has been reminded of constantly throughout his life, symbolized in his name and his mother tongue? More important and urgent to him, is “Viet Thanh Nguyen,” in being discussed in such a manner, already dead?
If the author is dead, then a ghost writes this text, or at least haunts it. If that ghost speaks in the future to belated audiences, it will only be because of language. Let’s proceed from language, then, from how English is not the author’s mother tongue but my native tongue. How he, or I, came to lose a mother tongue and gain a native tongue is one explanation for any theories and methodologies that I possess. I—the ghostwriter—came as a refugee to the United States from Vietnam in 1975. At four years of age the only language I possessed was my mother tongue, although it was also spoken
by my father. That mother tongue of mine should have grown ever more fluent, ever more confident. Instead, it froze in the Pennsylvania snow, where my best memories of childhood still reside, before the full impact of history and my refugee existence struck me, first through the suffering of my parents and then through the “body count” of the millions of war dead to whom Sunny Xiang refers.
What kind of language would be adequate to the personal example of the sacrificial parents? What language should I use to speak of the millions who did not survive, unlike my parents, and whose deaths I know only in the abstract? A mediocre language would not suffice. A mother tongue, no matter how authentic, if inadequately mastered, would never do. As I look back some thirty or forty years later I can only conclude that losing a language is not always a passive act. Loss is not always due entirely to the circumstances of the immigrant or the refugee, who often lacks, as I did, the family, community, or culture needed to sustain and nurture the mother tongue. Sometimes the loss of a language is also a choice. One of the things that has caused me the greatest guilt is that I let the mother tongue go to make room for the native tongue of English. In my own life, I was never as culturally fluid as many of my characters, certainly not as much as the narrator of The Sympathizer. His fluent bilingualism, as much as the rest of him, is purely fictional.
Knowing that I was not fully bilingual was one of the reasons I never believed that I was speaking for the Vietnamese, whoever they were. Paradoxically, I gave up the mother tongue to master the native tongue so that I could eventually write a novel that “does not so much give voice to the voiceless—the Vietnamese have been speaking and writing for a while now—as it does seek to disabuse the cultural systems that perceive the Vietnamese as voiceless,” as Ben Tran puts it. His concept of “literary dubbing” quite nicely encapsulates one dimension of The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies, both of which seek to foreground the act of speaking and the act of being spoken over, or dubbed, or translated, or misrepresented.
Literary dubbing “disrupts the body- voice continuum,” Tran says, “[b]ecause [it] replaces the language of thought and speech with the
language of representation.” The Refugees is more interested in that body- voice continuum that act of speaking from (but not for) Vietnamese or refugee perspectives. I was aware of the complications of literary speech from, for, and by members of a minority group, having already written Race and Resistance: the Literature and Politics of Asian America. Despite my critical awareness, however, I could do no better at the time of The Refugees as a writer. Realism dominates that collection of short stories. In contrast, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies more aggressively explore how language and form can alter our understanding of a reality constituted by millions of dead, although the books do so in very different ways.
Ben Tran is an associate professor of Asian studies and English at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Post-Mandarin: Masculinity and Aesthetic Modernity in Colonial Vietnam. He is working on a manuscript that examines literary dubbing.
Ben Tran’s remarks above are excerpted from “The Literary Dubbing of Confession”, one of ten articles for the regular section “Theories and Methodologies” in PMLA, the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, titled “On Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the Refugees, and Nothing Ever Dies” concerning Nguyen’s first novel, his first collection of short stories, and his second critical work ( (PMLA volume 133, number 2, pages 413-419).
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s response to Ben Tran is an excerpt from “Dislocation Is My Location,” the reply of the Aerol Arnold chair of English at the University of Southern California, winner of the René Wellek prize for criticism and the Pulitzer for fiction, now MacArthur fellow, to ten critics in that PMLA issue.
The ten critics and their articles are “Slips and Slides” by Sarah Chihaya (Begin Again, in process); “Vietnam, the Movie: Part Deux” by Sylvia Shin Huey Chong (The Oriental Obscene, 2012); “Un-American: Refugees and the Vietnam War” by Yogita Goyal (Runaway Genres, in process); “The Lasting Lure of Asian Mystery” by Yunte Huang (Transpacific Imaginations, 2008);
The Sympathizer: A Dialectical Reading” by Anjali Prabhu (Hybridity, 2007); “Between ‘I’ and ‘We’: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Interethnic Multitudes” by Caroline Rody (Interethnic Imagination, 2009); “Viet Thanh Nguyen and the Scholar-Public Intellectual” (The Children of 1965, 2013); “The Literary Dubbing of Confession” by Ben Tran (Post-Mandarin, 2017); and “The Ethnic Author Represents the Body Count” by Sunny Xiang.
Viet Nam Literature Project excerpts Ben Tran’s essay and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s response here in fair use. The authors hold copyright to their work and have cooperated with VNLP. The full articles first appeared in PMLA, March 2018 (volume 133, number 2).
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Viet Nam Literature Project works to make the products of a dispersed Viet Nam, and the United States that nation’s revolution split apart, attractive and accessible to readers. PMLA’s critical discussion of the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen exemplifies the scholarship we would like more people to learn about and read.