Viet Thanh Nguyen, the writer who puts down colonial imaginaries

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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 Devout”, a spy novel that curls American imperialism and French colonization.

Released at the end of October in French, “Le Devoué” (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.

“In 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 years.

Critically qualified as a great book on the Vietnam War (1955-1975) seen from the Vietnamese side, “The Sympathizer” tells the story of a Vietnamese double agent, the son of a French Catholic priest and a Vietnamese woman.

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

Refugee in the United States

If descriptions and dialogues often border on burlesque, there remains the question: why Algerians and Vietnamese, two communities colonized by France, seek to kill each other rather than unite 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 has hardly any memory.

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

The Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen shows his book “Le Sympathisant”, of which “Le Devoué” is the continuation, 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 took refuge in books and wrote his first fictions.

If he says that “literature (l) ‘saved”, he also says he discovered very early its “destructive” power: “As a precocious reader, I ventured out of the children’s section to read books on Vietnam. But now, the books were mostly written by American soldiers who described the Vietnamese in a very negative way. “

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 specializes in the question of memories, especially post-colonial.

In parallel with teaching, he publishes several texts. But it was “The Sympathizer” that made 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 dusted off the American imagination on Vietnam. It also hires 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 we can entertain while talking about important subjects,” 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 AFP OFFICE / Archives

This desire to question colonial imaginaries is at the heart of his literary work. Moreover, “The devoted” does not speak only of Vietnam but also of Algeria, 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 face the identity debates which shake them: “To limit oneself to speaking only of identity crises is to concentrate on 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 puts down colonial imaginaries