The Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s second novel, The Committed, is the sequel to his celebrated debut, The Sympathizer, a spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war that was both a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer prize for fiction. The Sympathizer established Nguyen as both a literary star and an advocate for displaced people around the world. In The Committed, his unnamed protagonist arrives, as a refugee, in 1970s Paris, looking to shore up his identity on a diet of drug-dealing gangsterism and poststructuralist theory. Nguyen is a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at the University of Southern California as well as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
You’ve written about the ease of writing your first novel. How was it sitting down to write your second with a Pulitzer under your belt?
It was certainly more challenging, not necessarily because of heightened expectations but because of the publicity around the Pulitzer. I got very distracted doing interviews and lectures and all of that. With The Sympathizer I had two years of total concentration because nobody knew who I was. With The Committed, I had to write it in bits and pieces with lots of interruptions.
So how did you overcome the disjointedness?
I don’t know if I did! There was an outline for the novel that I was generally faithful to. I would write in 50-page chunks – I wrote 50 pages before the Pulitzer. Then my life got really messy for a couple of years while I wrote the middle of the book. Towards the end, I finally figured out how to balance everything that was making demands on me and felt like I was back in the groove again.
To what extent does your fiction draw on your own life experience?
Across both books, the narrator’s personality – the fact that he’s a man of two minds and two faces – is pretty much me too. That’s how I felt growing up as a refugee in the United States, as a Vietnamese and Asian American, always looking at myself from inside and outside. Always feeling displaced no matter where I was. Always feeling uncomfortable. In The Sympathizer, I took that feeling and put it into the novel and just greatly exaggerated those feelings and his circumstances to make something much more dramatic, and I continued this process in The Committed. I’ve also spent time in Paris and France, and I’ve thought about many of the issues that my narrator grapples with in terms of French racism and French colonialism. With this sequel, I also wanted to bring greater attention to my narrator’s attitudes towards women and sexuality – his tendency towards the objectification of women. This is also part of the politics of revolution that he wasn’t really aware of, and that he becomes much more conscious of in this second novel.
In both novels, you often evoke trauma through humour. Your protagonist seems to be at once tortured by displacement and yet always amused by his predicament in equal measure.
In looking at political situations – of colonialism, communism and American capitalism – I’ve felt there was a lot to make fun of. The key is always to balance the comedy with a punchline that is also grounding us in the history and the politics. Every low joke – jokes about the body, for example – is grounded in questions of how these larger forces of power are operating exactly through our bodies and trying to get us to ignore things that are literally right there before our eyes. We can’t see them because they’ve been normalised to us, [but] if we take away these lenses of normalisation, the humour is revealed.
When The Sympathizer was published in 2015, you emerged as a significant spokesperson for the refugee crisis. Do you think we’ve learned anything useful from that moment and the fallout of the Syrian civil war?
The refugee crisis is ongoing; the political and economic roots that give rise to these mass displacements of people on the one side and the fear of the movements of people are still with us. Around 2015, there were around 60 million displaced people. Now it’s around 80 million according to UNHCR. I don’t see from those statistics that we’re doing better in terms of handling these crises.
What, for you, are the roots of the crisis?
Just call it colonisation. That’s the shorthand for so many problems today. Refugee crisis. Drug wars. Interracial violence. For me, the roots of them all go back to this half-millennium-old historical epic that we’re living in – colonisation – which is wrapped up with the development of capitalism and the rise of European modernity that extends to the United States. And even though decolonisation has happened legally, in the sense that colonised countries have thrown off foreign domination, that decolonisation hasn’t actually happened yet. Formerly colonised countries are still traumatised culturally and politically. They still have hierarchical structures of domination that they have inherited from their colonisers and psychological structures of self-hatred that they have inherited, and the formerly colonising powers from western Europe to the United States still have all the wealth and power that they accumulate from these centuries. The forces of racism and of patriarchy that are fundamental to the operation of colonisation are still embedded in our societies and inside of us.
Your protagonist in The Committed seems to be grappling with canonical postcolonial writers, notably Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, throughout the novel. Which of the two has had most impact on your own thinking?
Fanon. I keep returning to Black Skin, White Masks, especially, because of its description of the colonised condition, especially for men. (Not so much for women.) It’s grappling with this problem of race versus universality, and everything he says there is absolutely pertinent today. This dilemma between wanting to be just a human being and yet totally aware that you can’t just shed this skin that’s been given to you by racism.
Biden’s already bombing Syria. When it comes to US imperialism, do you believe that he will be in any way a better president than Trump?
No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that most of Washington, including many Republicans, are breathing a sigh of relief, because what Biden brings is a return to a more efficient version of American imperialism as foreign policy. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I don’t have to have Trump on my mind and his incredibly racist, xenophobic policies as well as what I think of as his billionaire-friendly economic policies. But there is no doubt in my mind that American power is still going to continue the way that it always has been under a Biden-Harris administration, and the fact that Biden almost immediately turned to bombing as a tool of foreign policy is both predictable and terribly sad at the same time.
What are you reading at the moment?
I can’t tell you, because I’m sitting on the Pulitzer board and I’m reading all the Pulitzer nominations, which are incredible, but they’re also confidential.
OK. So who were you reading 30 years ago, in your early 20s?
Toni Morrison. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison. Black American writers. Then, growing up as an Asian American, it was a real shock to me to discover that we had Asian American writers. I didn’t know anything about that until I got to college and discovered that in fact Asian Americans had been writing for almost a century already. We’re talking about writers including Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese-American writer, Carlos Bulosan, one of the first major Filipino-American writers, John Okada, the first writer to write about the Japanese-American internment.
If you were stuck on a desert island and you only had one book to read, which would it be?
Now that you’re famous, do your students pay you more attention?
I don’t know. When I hold office hours [where students can book a slot and come and talk about their work], no one actually turns up.
Viet Thanh Nguyen will discuss his new novel with Nikesh Shukla at a Guardian Live online event on 29 March. Book tickets here