What’s Written and Said
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Viet Thanh Nguyen on Edward Said and public intellectuals.
By Sam Needleman
Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose debut novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, will deliver the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at the Italian Academy in April. The lecture’s title, “Out of Place: Refugees, Immigrants, and Storytelling,” alludes to major themes in Dr. Nguyen’s writing, teaching, and contributions to public discourse. Dr. Nguyen spoke with Sam Needleman, a staff writer, from his office at the University of Southern California, where he is University Professor; Aerol Arnold Chair of English; and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: You’ve spoken with greater interviewers than I about your life and work, so I was wondering if we could focus on the lecture—as well as its namesake, Edward Said—that’s coming up. I’m wondering, when did you first encounter Said’s work, and what has it meant to you?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I first encountered Edward Said’s work when I was an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, and I read his book Orientalism, and that was actually quite a life-changing book for me because it offered a completely different understanding of my place as an Asian, as an Asian American in the world, but also as a student and a scholar. And, you know, I was influenced by that book in the same way that many other people who were doing work with colonization were influenced by Said, and reading Orientalism was the instigator for me to write one of my senior theses, which was a critique of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and that would eventually manifest itself briefly in my novel The Sympathizer, where I joked about having my character write a thesis on Graham Greene. And then, later on, I would read more of his work: Culture and Imperialism, Reflections on Exile, Representations of the Intellectual, and his work on Palestine as well, After the Last Sky, and other things. So he’s always been a major figure for me in terms of the ideal scholar, activist, writer. The major reason I agreed to give the talk at Columbia was simply because it was the Edward Said lecture.
B&W: Of course, a major part of Said’s legacy, as we often remember here, was his tenure at Columbia. You’ve been teaching, I know, since the late ‘90s. Will you tell me a little bit about your role as University Professor at USC, and how that’s shifted since The Sympathizer in any capacity?
VTN: Well, since The Sympathizer—and, in particular, since the Pulitzer Prize, rather than The Sympathizer—I think my role has shifted at USC because I’m aware that the prize carries a lot of symbolic weight with it. It is a university, so I think it likes to foreground me a lot more than it used to, and more students are drawn to my classes, and all that is fine. I think that when I was aspiring to be a professor, I looked up to certain professors, who had been deeply influential on me, both as scholars and as teachers, and I always wondered if I could something of the same impact as some of these people. And if the Pulitzer has enabled some greater impact for me in the classroom and in venues like writing op-eds for The New York Times, or in my scholarship, then I’m happy to take that opportunity. I think, again, talk about Edward Said—he certainly was a model in the sense that he was also a public intellectual. He took his work about Palestine seriously, but he also took his work about being a cultural critic whose work was deeply political very seriously, too, and I always admired that public profile that he had.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
B&W: I’m curious about the term ‘public intellectual.’ Do you think that the meaning of that term has shifted at all since it was applied to Said? Do you identify as a public intellectual as well?
VTN: I think, for me, the term intellectual is something that should be applied to people rather than proclaimed by themselves.
B&W: Fair enough.
VTN: I think, also, that’s why it took me a very long time to consider myself as a writer—because, you know, when I was in college, I knew a lot of people who called themselves writers, and they were all annoying. So I didn’t want to be one of those people. When people call me a writer, then I can accept that term. So I think that the idea of the public intellectual has always been important to me, ever since I was a student. You know, I studied Antonio Gramsci, and his idea of the organic intellectual, which also has a public component to it, and there was always a sense in which I believed that scholars, artists, and writers could be public intellectuals, carrying out their work with the hope of impacting a larger public outside of their own disciplines. And so I hope I can do that. Let me make it very clear, I’m not proclaiming myself to be one of these people, but I think the work of public intellectuals is really crucial.
B&W: Here at Columbia, especially in the College, we’re always discussing the Western canon, as it applies to our Core Curriculum—what books we’re reading together, what books are on the syllabus. What do you think an undergraduate humanities curriculum ought to look like today?
VTN: I think an undergraduate humanities curriculum has to do more than it might have had to do fifty years ago, for example. And I say this because I actually do believe in the idea of core concepts, major texts, traditions, and so on—I believe in those things, and I think Said did, too. I’ve read a lot in the Western canonical tradition, and it’s helped to make me the kind of writer that I am. At the same time, I think that whatever we consider to be a canon or a Core Curriculum, has to also adapt. The Core Curriculum and the humanities have to both address traditions, but also contemporary needs as well. And I say this as someone who always felt that he had to do both. And I think that many of us who would be considered so-called minorities in any dominant society have always felt that we need to know both. We need to know what the so-called majority thinks, and its conception of tradition and the canon, and yet we also have to know what we want, and what our particular cultures have done as well. So there’s always been a double work imposed or self-imposed on the socalled minorities, or people of color, or the colonized, or whatever term you want to use. And I think part of the controversies over the canon and the humanities are from people who are defensive, who don’t want to know more than the dominant tradition. I have no sympathy for those people, because I think that, again, we live in more complex times than we did fifty years ago, not in the sense that we’re dealing with new issues, but in the sense that people who have been suppressed in the articulation of their concerns are much more vocal—that’s what part of what makes things more complex. Hopefully, a canon and the humanities are preparing people both for traditions and challenges like this.
B&W: In the literary realm, do any recent texts from marginalized or subjugated voices come to mind that really ought to be read, as an example of what you’re talking about?
VTN: I think that there are two aspects of your question: what would be considered canonical, and what might be considered necessary to read now. I draw that distinction because, yeah, you could say, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, these people should be considered canonical. They’ve had enough time that’s elapsed—20 to 50 years where we’ve made some kind of assessment that they belong in some kind of—at least, American— canon. If we are to talk about a course that might address something immediately urgent, like if I were teaching a course, for example, on contemporary American literature, who might I include? I don’t know if these writers would be considered canonical in 20 or 50 years, but who would I teach now, besides Baldwin or Morrison, for example? I think Tommy Orange’s There There is a brilliant novel. I think Luis Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels is a brilliant novel. These books take up different aspects of what it means to be American from the indigenous and border perspectives. They’re doing really, really vital work. If we’re talking about an international curriculum—and I think we should talk about whether a Western humanities curriculum should include people from outside the United States—I’m recently a fan of Han Kang, the Korean writer, best known for The Vegetarian right now, but the book that I’m citing in a talk that I’m going to give soon is the book Human Acts, which is about Korean military dictatorship and its suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, where the Korean army killed hundreds of civilians. And these, Han Kang says, are human acts—not inhuman, but human. We’re living in an age in which a lot of these human acts are taking place. We’re living in an age in which there are a lot of military dictatorships, or just the temptation of fascism that arises. We need to read people like Han Kang, who has something to say about what’s happening now—within the last 30 years, up until the present.