by William B. Noseworthy
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Harvard University Press, 2016. 384 pgs.
Nothing Ever Dies is the latest installment in an extended project by Viet Thanh Nguyen—who is probably best-known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer—to provide an entirely new historical reading of the Vietnam Wars. As the author argues, although the United States military and the Republic of Vietnam lost the protracted civil war in the Indochinese Peninsula, the Americans seem to have won the second war, the memory war. The memory war, as Nguyen elaborates, is in fact fought after any war, and may continue for decades upon decades after the original conflict has ended. It involves the transformation of gravesites into memorials, the construction of monuments, the building of museums, the creation of photography and history exhibits, the publication of works of literature and the production of films. The tension between the documentary aspect of these genres of production and the fiction of a vaguely historical nature has, as Nguyen implies, contributed toward the misunderstanding of the so-called "war in Vietnam." Although most critics of Nothing Ever Dies have not made this point explicitly in their reviews, the author is in fact critiquing the dominant portrayals of the Vietnam Wars as catering to white American visions of the past, in a way that subtly, and often explicitly, replicates the repression of minority memories of events, be they Vietnamese, Korean, African American, Cambodian, Filipino or otherwise. In his most recent two works—The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies—Nguyen has gone above and beyond previous efforts to understand the conflicts in an attempt to disentangle the complex memories of the past and to provide, as he argues in Nothing Ever Dies, a more "just reading" of the Vietnam Wars.
To provide a just reading of Nothing Ever Dies, it would only be fair to put the work in conversation with Nguyen's more than two decades' long history of scholarly accomplishments. His undergraduate work resulted in a thesis that provides a reading of The Quiet American by Graham Greene, a work to which he returns in Nothing Ever Dies. In between these two studies, he was a co-founder of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN) and lead editor for diaCritics.org, a blog devoted to Vietnamese and Asian American literature and scholarly studies. While DVAN was a communal project that allowed Nguyen to be involved in the organisation of film festivals, youth arts groups and literary festivals, and diaCritics serves as a popular outlet for Asian American writing, he has also published short fiction and an extensive series of editorial columns that offer provocative commentary on American culture, politics and current events. His early scholarly work culminated in Race and Resistance (2002), a critical study of Asian American literature. He then served as co-editor, with Janet Hoskins, of an anthology for the University of Hawai'i Press, Trans-Pacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies) (2014), in which, as is suggested by the title, they proposed the new academic field of Trans-Pacific Studies. The next year, Nguyen achieved critical popular acclaim with his debut novel The Sympathizer (2015), which became the first work by a Vietnamese American author to win the Pulitzer Prize in literature. Although fiction, Nguyen has expressed the sentiment that The Sympathizer is primarily a response to film adaptations of The Quiet American and other similar popular productions about the Vietnam Wars. The novel reads as though it were history that could well have been.
Film provides a particular problem for Nguyen. In Nothing Ever Dies, he argues that even fictional film can be wielded to cover up the nuances of historical events, such as in the case of popular Vietnam War movies like The Deer Hunter, or to, conversely, tell new narratives that are associated with the war, such as in the works of Rithy Panh and Socheata Poeuv, which deal with the Khmer Rouge Genocide and its aftermath. For Nguyen, the Vietnam Wars, are not just about Vietnam, but also encompass the associated conflicts in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia and related expressions of American imperialism worldwide ever since. The scope of his history of the Vietnam Wars is not only wider than most, but also more penetrating, as both fictional and nonfictional works are considered alongside the ideas of critical theorists such as Roland Barthes (on photography), Homi Bhaba (on culture), Judith Butler (on violence and memory of war), Michel Foucault (on sexuality), Jacques Derrida (on memory), Pierre Nora (on memory and history of place), Paul Gilroy (on post-colonialism) and Edward Said (on critiques of empire).
One of the most surprising aspects of Nothing Ever Dies is that the author, in addressing truly horrifying topics, manages to also construct an engaging narrative that is, in the end, intellectually enjoyable. The book is a form of scholarly travelogue, wherein Nguyen journeys from America to Southeast Asia and back again. Along the way, he comments upon everything from the importance of the Zippo-lighter economy of tourist stalls in Ho Chi Minh City, to the abandoned grave of Pol Pot in Cambodia, while also providing enlightening readings of classic works by Vietnamese authors (such as those by Bảo Ninh and Dương Thu Hương). Nguyen ends with a memorial vignette that draws on the Vietnamese tradition of reburials, which seems to serve as a metaphor for his work. In this case, the bones of historical events have been left to rest for just enough time, so that he is able to shine new light upon them before properly reinterring the narrative. Nothing Ever Dies is a tremendously successful work that will be a worthy read for any student, scholar or instructor working in the field of Southeast Asian History, Literary Studies, Film Studies or Memory Studies. It is a reminder that just because a particular historical narrative is deemed "dead" by the majority of the world, the simple fact of its having been "solidified by history" is not necessarily an indicator that it has ever truly died.