Author Maxine Hong Kingston wanted to talk about fame. The award-winning author of the 1976 seminal book “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” leaned forward and asked author Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”) how his life has changed since being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last month. She spoke on her own experience and the “tax” that’s imposed when you become a celebrated author. “I was called a liar and a race traitor,” she said.
Nguyen responded that he recently made the mistake of reading the online comments for an interview he gave on NPR. “People always tell me not to read the comments, but I did,” he said. “They complained how I could not write about the Vietnam War when I’ve never experienced it.” (Nguyen was a small child during the war when his family left Vietnam during the war as refugees).
Brought together to discuss writing about war and peace as part of Central Public Library’s Aloud literary series, the two authors engaged in a lively conversation that spoke on representation and the effects of war and memory.
Nguyen, a former student of Kingston’s creative nonfiction class when he attended the UC Berkeley, recalled how horrible a student he was. “There were only 14 students, and I would fall asleep,” he said. But he pointed out that it was a note from Kingston to “stop writing clichés” that would eventually leave an impact on his writing life and helped with the completion of his new nonfiction book, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” out now from Harvard University Press.
To write the truth of war, Kingston said that she always used realism but that there is always an underlying layer of myths and archetypes. When she wrote about peace, the text always comes out as poetry. After Nguyen asked what it was like to be a writer when there were so few writers of her ilk at the time, Kingston countered that she found her role models in African American authors like James Baldwin as well as work from the Beatniks.
Nguyen, who teaches at USC, read an excerpt from “Nothing Ever Dies” which tackles how war is remembered not only by the participants but by those affected by it. When an audience member asked what his first recollection of Vietnam was, Nguyen responded that he only had fragmented images of his time in Vietnam but that his first vivid memory came from when he lived in Pennsylvania at a refugee camp. He was separated from his family and taken to live with a white family. “I was 4 years old, and that was a consequence of the war,” he said, “how civilians in wars are forced to flee from it.”
The evening ended with a question that circled back to how the authors felt to read such negative comments. The two had similar reactions. Nguyen spoke on the burden of representation and “living in a narrative scarcity” and how that is tied to an economic scarcity. Kingston added that the expectations are just too high. “Readers expect you to tell a story that flatters them,” she said. “They expect you to do a PR job. They’ve accused me of exploiting them, but the line between honor and exploitation is really mixed.”