Refugee Writers Ariel Dorfman and Viet Thanh Nguyen on Migration, US Wars and Resistance

As dozens of migrants from Central America remain camped out at the US-Mexico border attempting to seek asylum in the United States, we spend the hour with two of the nation’s most celebrated writers, both refugees themselves. Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he and his family fled to the United States. He is the author of three books, including The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and he teaches at the University of Southern California. He is also the editor of a new collection titled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. We are also joined by the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, who has been described as one of the greatest Latin American novelists. Forty-five years ago, he fled Chile after a US-backed coup displaced President Salvador Allende. Dorfman had served as Allende’s cultural adviser from 1970 to 1973. Living in exile, he became one of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s most vocal critics, as well as a celebrated playwright and novelist. Dorfman, who teaches at Duke University, has just published a new novel, Darwin’s Ghosts, and a new collection of essays titled Homeland Security Ate My Speech. He also contributed an essay to “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: More than 70 migrants from Central America remain camped out at the US-Mexican border attempting to seek asylum in the United States. They were all part of a month-long caravan that brought refugees fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to the US border. Organizers say 158 members of the caravan have already crossed the border, where their asylum requests will be processed. But experts predict most of the asylum applications will be rejected.

President Trump has repeatedly railed against the asylum seekers. In one recent tweet, the president wrote, “Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming.”

The standoff at the US border comes as a new report shows the number of refugees, especially Muslim refugees, has plummeted since President Trump’s election. Between October and the end of March, just 10,500 refugees entered the United States. A year earlier, nearly 40,000 refugees entered during that same period — four times more.

Well, today we spend the hour with two of the nation’s most celebrated writers, both refugees themselves.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he and his family fled to the United States. He’s the author of three books, including The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s also the editor of a new collection titled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. He teaches at the University of Southern California.

We’re also joined by Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, who’s been described as one of the greatest Latin American novelists. Forty-five years ago, he fled Chile, after a US-backed coup displaced President Salvador Allende. Dorfman had served as Allende’s cultural adviser from 1970 to 1973. Salvador Allende died in the palace as the Pinochet forces rose to power on that other September 11th, 1973. Living in exile, Ariel Dorfman became one of General Pinochet’s most vocal critics, as well as a celebrated playwright and novelist. Dorfman, who teaches at Duke University, has just published a new novel, Darwin’s Ghost, and a new collection of essays titled Homeland Security Ate My Speech. He also contributed an essay to The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Viet and Ariel, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s a great honor to have you with us. Viet, let us begin with you. In this era of President Trump, as President Trump and Vice President Pence head to Dallas today to speak at the National Rifle Association, and this caravan that President Trump has railed against has made it to the US-Mexico border, the participants lawfully applying for asylum one by one, your thoughts?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think they have the right to do that. The United States has been meddling in the southern countries south of the border for a very long time, and would rather think about these people as undocumented immigrants or people who are trying to invade this country, when in fact questions of immigration are totally related to US foreign policy and US drug policy and things like this that the United States would rather disavow. So I think it’s a powerful political protest that’s bringing to visibility the human crises that are taking place around these efforts for people to move.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book The Displaced, you write in the introduction, “I was once a refugee, although no one would mistake me for being a refugee now. Because of this, I insist on being called a refugee, since the temptation to pretend that I am not a refugee is strong.” Talk about this.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think this is a country that values immigrants. Even people who don’t like immigrants like the idea of immigrants wanting to come to this country, because it affirms how great this country is supposed to be, the narrative of the American dream. Refugees are a very different problem, if you want to call them that. They’re unwanted where they come from. They’re unwanted where they come to. And they don’t fit into the narrative of the American dream. Those refugees who actually make it here to this country and become successful, I think, find it easier to call themselves immigrants, because when you introduce yourself as a refugee at a cocktail party, it really kills the conversation. If you call yourself an immigrant, then people want to know about your American dream story. But refugees bring up these ideas of migrants at the border, of people on boats, and many Americans just do not relate to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own refugee story.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I was born in Vietnam in 1971. And in 1975, when Vietnam fell, or was liberated, depending on your point of view, my family became refugees. And my memories really start after we make it to the United States and we were put in one of four refugee camps in this country. In our case, it was Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. And my memories begin with being taken away from my parents. So, in order to leave the camp, you had to have a sponsor. One sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10-year-old brother, one sponsor took 4-year-old me. And so, that’s why I still think of myself as a refugee, because that experience has been branded on me.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does that affect your life here in the United States, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a professor at University of Southern California, chair of — what’s the name of the department?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I’m the Aerol Arnold chair of English, which does not mean I’m the actual chair of the department, thank God. But, well, I mean, how it’s affected me has been that I refuse to call myself an immigrant. I’m often called an immigrant writer. My books are called — you know, The Sympathizer was called an immigrant novel, and I said, “That’s absolutely wrong.” I’m a refugee. This is a refugee novel, a war novel. And I insist on that, because I think it’s so important for people who are — who have been refugees to assert these kinds of identities, so we can continue to talk about the difference between refugees and immigrants, and the necessity to empathize with refugees, which is, I think, very important for both former refugees and writers to do.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about refugees so often being the victims of US policy, foreign policy. So, for example, this caravan of immigrants has — and refugees, has come up from Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador, as well. Talk about that connection to the United States.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, one of the essays in The Displaced is by Reyna Grande, who came as an undocumented immigrant. And I wanted her to write so that we could have this conversation about what the difference is between an undocumented immigrant and a refugee. A refugee is an official classification. And the UN says there are about 22 million refugees in the world right now, but about 66 million displaced people of various kinds. So when you become officially classified as a refugee, the UN says you have certain kinds of rights. So it’s in the interest of the United States not to call certain kinds of people refugees. Now, these people are moving for all kinds of various reasons, but sometimes they’re moving because of wars of certain kinds — drug wars or actual shooting wars and things like that — that the United States has had a role in. And so, to call some of these people refugees is an important political move to illuminate why it is that the United States might have some moral, ethical and political responsibility towards them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He wrote The Refugees, or edited this book. One of the people who contributed to The Refugees [sic] is our next guest, after break, Ariel Dorfman. The book — oh, the latest book is called The Displaced. Stay with us.

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