Viet Thanh Nguyen, the writer who destroys colonial imaginations

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Paris (AFP) – Rather French universalism or American multiculturalism? Neither, responds the Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize 2016, back in bookstores with “The Devoted”, a spy novel that teases American imperialism and French colonization.

Released at the end of October in French, “Le devoted” (ed. Belfond) – “The committed”, released in March in the United States – is the sequel to “Sympathisant” (2015), his first novel sold over a million copies, and which won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and the prize for the best foreign book in France.

“By finishing it, I had the feeling that I had not yet finished with my character even if the initial idea was not to continue this story”, explains to AFP the writer of 50 year.

Qualified by critics as a great book on the Vietnam War (1955-1975) seen from the Vietnamese side, “Le sympathisant” tells the story of a Vietnamese double agent, son of a French Catholic priest and a Vietnamese woman.

In “The devoted”, the reader finds the double agent in Paris, where he took refuge in the early 1980s. Haunted by the crimes he has committed, he tries to rebuild his life by becoming… a dealer . But the road to redemption is strewn with pitfalls and he is targeted by a gang of Algerian drug dealers.

Refugee in the United States

If descriptions and dialogues often border on the burlesque, remains, in watermark, this question: why Algerians and Vietnamese, two communities colonized by France, do they seek to kill each other rather than to gather behind a common experience?

Born in Vietnam, Viet Thanh Nguyen arrived in the United States with his parents at the age of 5, in 1975. Of his native country or of the war, he retains almost no memory.

Only a few fleeting scenes in the refugee camps where he had been separated from his parents when arriving in the United States never left him. “I tried to forget to protect myself and to be able to move forward,” he says.

Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen shows his book “The Sympathizer”, of which “The Devoted” is the sequel, on August 27, 2017 in Chanceaux-pres-Loches, in the Loire Valley. GUILLAUME SOUVANT AFP/Archives

A few years later, the family moved to California. Growing up, he takes refuge in books and writes his first fictions.

If he affirms that “literature () saved him”, he also recounts having discovered his “destructive power” very early on: “As a precocious reader, I ventured out of the children’s section to read books on Vietnam. But lo and behold, the books were mostly written by American soldiers who portrayed the Vietnamese in a very negative light.”

This experience will be decisive. At the end of high school, he began studying literature at the University of Southern California (where he teaches today) and specialized in the question of memories, particularly post-colonial.

In parallel to teaching, he publishes several texts. But it is “The Sympathizer” that makes him, at 44, a star of American literature and a spokesperson for the cause of refugees around the world.

romantic breath

Critics are enthusiastic about this new voice that has come to dust off the American imagination on Vietnam. She also praises a writer with a romantic breath served by a clever mix of genres: espionage, police, confession novel…

“I want my stories to be as creative as they are political. I think you can entertain while talking about important topics,” he argues.

Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, June 28, 2017 in Paris
Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, June 28, 2017 in Paris Martin BUREAU AFP/Archives

This desire to challenge colonial imaginaries is at the heart of his literary work. Moreover, “The Devoted” does not speak only of Vietnam but also of Algeria, a former country colonized by France.

According to him, it is precisely by talking about these subjects that countries like France or the United States will be able to deal with the identity debates that shake them up: “To confine oneself to talking only about identity crises is to concentrate on the symptoms. By doing so, we will never understand the current problems, which are political problems”.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen, the writer who destroys colonial imaginations