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Refuge: Viet Thanh Nguyen & Shankari Chandran 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Shankari Chandran and Daniel Ghezelbash on stage

What does it mean to be included in a military industrial complex that wants to be the global hegemon? We as refugees, we come to the United States, we're expected to be grateful for what? To become settler citizens on indigenous land? And to become the alibi for the exercise of an imperial machine? And so my own writing is trying to figure out ways to refute that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The life stories of refugees have all the narrative tropes of myth, replete with world-shattering conflicts, perilous voyages, and courageous heroes who sometimes get to live happily ever after.  

Go beyond media reports in this discussion with Pulitzer Prize for Fiction-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (A Man of Two Faces), Miles Franklin-winner Shankari Chandran (Safe Haven) and refugee law expert and advocate Daniel Ghezelbash as they discuss the refugee experience.

This event is presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers' Festival. Viet Thanh Nguyen appears thanks to the support of Fiona and Matthew Playfair.


UNSW Centre for Ideas: UNSW Centre for Ideas

Daniel Ghezelbash: Welcome. I'm Daniel Ghezelbash, the incoming director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. I'd like to begin by first turning my folder the right way up. And acknowledging the Bidjigal people who are the traditional custodians of this land. And to pay my respects to their elders, both past and present, and to extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. With us here this evening. I'd also like to acknowledge the unique role that First Nations communities play in welcoming refugees and people seeking asylum to their land.

Tonight we have the great pleasure of having Viet Thanh Nguyen and Shankari Chandran  join us to discuss the new books and the art of refugee storytelling. Please join me in welcoming Shankari and Viet.


Viet was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His new book, A Man of Two Faces, is a genre bending memoir that dissects his own life as sharply as it does racism, colonialism and cultural power. Before that, he wrote The Committed, which continues the story of The Sympathizer, a gripping novel that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and is now a fantastic HBO series.

And I'm sure a lot of you out there, like me, are hanging out for episode seven to drop on Sunday. He's also the author of the short story collection The Refugees, the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, and the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. He is Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and received prestigious fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation and Guggenheim Foundations.

Shankari is a Tamil Australian lawyer and celebrated author, and also an alumni of UNSW Law School. Her work uses literary fiction to explore injustice, dispossession, and the creation of community. Her new book, Safe Haven, is a riveting and emotional exposition of the harsh realities of Australia's refugee policies. Her previous novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, won the Myles Franklin Literary Award in 2023.

She's also the author of Song of the Sun God, The Barrier and Unfinished Business. She's the Deputy Chair of Writing New South Wales. An accomplished lawyer with decades of experience working in social justice and sustainability issues. Viet and Shankari, it is such a huge honour to share the stage with you, and I have to start with a bit of a fanboy confession.

You are literally two of my all time favourite authors. I honestly, I couldn't believe my luck when I was asked to get up here and interview you. And judging by the size of this crowd, I'm sure I'm not alone. The themes you explore in your book resonate so deeply with my own experiences and the way… so particularly grappling with my identity and sense of belonging, growing up in an Iranian refugee family here in Australia. And you know, your writing seems to tap into feelings that I'd long buried making them and this physically vivid. And it was mind blowing for me, the way you put words to things that I just never seen anyone else able to do. But it made me reflect that maybe it was because stories like these just weren't getting published.

And it seems that was almost the case with your own work. Yet I was shocked to read The Sympathizer was rejected by 13 publishers. And Shankari, your first book, Song of the Sun God, wasn't published until recently in Australia after you won the Miles Franklin Award. So to kick things off, I wanted to ask you whether you think that the barriers you faced in getting your work out there with the same barriers that all new writers face. Or was it something different because of who you are? Or perhaps the stories that you were telling that would you like to kick us off?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh well, thanks so much. It's such an honour to be here with you, Daniel, with you, with Shankari, as well. And this whole audience here, speaking to about a topic that's close to my heart, the refugee experience and the experience of displaced peoples, because I was a refugee. And I often say that I am a refugee because even though technically I'm not a refugee anymore in a legal or sartorial sense, that experience of being a refugee really imprinted itself on me, psychologically and emotionally, as it has on so many people I know who've been through the similar experience.

And I grew up wanting to be a storyteller, because I saw how the stories that were being told by non-Vietnamese people, were setting out to destroy us as Vietnamese people and as refugees. So the power of storytelling was really, really crucial. And I wanted to become someone who would tell stories about Vietnamese experiences. And that was my first, short story.. that was my first fiction book, The Refugees, which I actually wrote before The Sympathizer.

So even though getting The Sympathizer was published was difficult, as you said, rejected by many publishers. In fact, it took me 17 years to write The Refugees, and no one wanted to buy that book, which was about Vietnamese refugees. And, in writing that book, I was really conscious of both American audiences and non-American audiences, but also Vietnamese audiences as well, worried about how all of them would think about these stories and react to them.

And that's a very crucial emotional and intellectual response, but also one that I had to dispose of once I started writing The Sympathizer in The Sympathizer, I wrote purely for me. Now, the problem is, no one wants to read a book that you write for yourself. But I think that part of the challenge for, someone like me who wanted to write about Vietnamese refugees was, how do I write about them as honestly as I can, while knowing that so many audiences have preconceptions about who refugees are and what kind of stories they should tell.

I don't know how it is in the Australian context, but in the American context, the narrative of the ‘American Dream’ is very powerful. And if you're a refugee and you come to the United States, I think generally what American audiences want to hear is how grateful you are to the United States for rescuing you. And this, and I have said many times, I am grateful for being rescued, but maybe I wouldn't have needed to be grateful if the US hadn't bombed us in the first place.

The second part…


The second part is what American audiences don't want to hear. But that's exactly what I talk about in my own writing. So I think that incorporating that complexity of thinking and storytelling about what it means to be a refugee, that of course, we want to be saved, we want to be living a life of comfort with our families and so on, is important, but acknowledge the historical reasons why we were even created as refugees in the first place makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Both our host audiences, but also sometimes, frankly, the refugees themselves, who often want to not think about the past and not think about things that might make them feel uncomfortable in a place where they want to assimilate.

So the pressure was coming from all sides honestly, in writing these books.

Shankari Chandran: And then a lot of the time, they don't want people in our own communities, don't want us to stick our head above the parapet and to talk about these things, because it is counter to that ethos of being grateful for being accepted into this country. And so the idea is just keep your head down and work really hard and get on with it.

And at the same time, what's been interesting for me is the difference between my first book and my third book, is that a lot more people from my own ancestral community have felt comfortable owning their pride in that story, even though that story is really critical – that’s Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens - is very critical of what it means to be Australian.

And that's been a wonderful transition, I think, for our own community as they feel more comfortable in telling their story, because there are now many more storytellers than they used to be. what was your question again? Sorry, I was he distracted by him, by Viet. If you could be less charismatic, that would be excellent.

Daniel Ghezelbash: I mean, I'll put it in a different way. Shankari, I the feedback you got on your first book, where you were told that it was not Australian enough. Now, how did you take that feedback?

Shankari Chandran: Oh, really well.

Daniel Ghezelbash: And what I hope, and, and I guess what did you take it to mean? And connecting to what you were saying earlier, you know, that you, it seems, are stories, not only more accepted now by the drinking community, but also the wider Australian community. So it seems as shifted shifts in both regards there.

Shankari Chandran: Yeah, absolutely. So when I wrote, Song of the Sun God, one of the reasons that I wrote it was that I'd come back to Australia after ten years in London, where South Asian culture in London and in other parts of England, is mainstream culture. It's really accepted. It is, celebrated. And there are thinkers and politicians and journalists.

We are in, in all the places. And when I came back to Australia, having brought our three and a half children back here with my husband and promised them the ‘Promised Land’, because Australia is my home, we got here and the streets of Australia were multicultural, but the places of power and arts and culture were homogenously white, and that was very confronting.

And there were other parts of the story that were also confronting that led to Safe Haven. But on that particular issue, I thought, well, I would like to write my way home. I am Australian, my children are Australian. I'm going to write myself back into our cultural landscape through this novel about a family, a Sri Lankan Tamil Australian family who, face colonisation, face civil war, genocide, forced migration and the creation of home which to me seems are typically one of many Australian stories.

And that will be my contribution to helping my own children navigate their way into this new country, which is now to be their home. And I also wanted to prosecute the war that had happened in Sri Lanka and the injustices that our people had faced, because there was never going to be an adjudication of that in Sri Lanka or outside of Sri Lanka, in the international community.

And so I wrote this book. I thought it was brilliant. And then I was told… and in fact, to be fair, it actually wasn't very interesting, but because it was a first draft but it was rejected. The first three chapters, you know, I reworked as you do, I reworked and reworked and reworked until I had something that I was really proud of. And the feedback came back that actually it was well-written, interesting characters.

But we don't think we can sell this in Australia, that it's not Australian enough for the Australian market. And that was devastating. I mean, that's incredibly repudiating of my place in this country. And I, you know, I've been raised here. I came here when I was three, raised here and was wanting to give this home to my children. And so I felt rejected and repudiated and angry.

Daniel Ghezelbash: And what about now? So you both literary superstars, you've got a platform and I'm sure that comes with its own challenges. Viet you mentioned that you were writing for yourself in The Sympathizer. Who are you writing for in A Man of Two Faces?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That's a good question. you know, when I, when I was writing The Sympathizer, I was writing for myself. And it was enormously liberating to do that because I felt a great sense of obligation to my people in my community, the Vietnamese people, and so on. And I thought I'd pay that debt with writing a book called The Refugees.

And while that's really powerful to write for, your community is also very limiting in a lot of ways, too, because they have such expectations and they can be proud of you, but they also oftentimes don't want you to talk about certain issues that contradict their self-image. And so with The Sympathizer I wrote purely for myself, and I've talked to so many authors that this moment of writing purely for yourself is actually psychologically very hard to achieve.

Because myself, I'm a human being, I have certain, vanities and weaknesses. And I would like, you know, readership and recognition. But ironically, writing for myself gave me access to a certain kind of conviction and truth that did, in fact, appeal to certain numbers of readers. And that's the experience I've shared. But sometimes I'll be reading a book and I think, ‘Wow, that experience is so intimate, so vulnerable. I can't believe someone else felt the same thing that I did.’

And in order to do that, I think as a writer, I did have to tap into my own, inner truth and inner vulnerability. So after that, you know, in writing A Man of Two Faces and The Committed, the sequel to The Sympathizer, I had a choice.

If some of you may know that The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize, and, I wrote that book to offend everybody. Except, apparently, the Pulitzer Prize committee. So in the aftermath, I had a choice. I think I was like, well, I won a Pulitzer Prize. Should I try to do it again? or should I do what I had set out to do in the first place, which was to write for myself? And so that was… that's really that's been the driving impulse, ever since.

Shankari Chandran: Oh, I'd wanted to ask you just on that, you said when you were writing your refugee anthology and the first book, do you feel or how do you feel now about, like what your community's reaction to you writing for yourself? And the reason I ask is because… so the thing that you didn't mention in that list of things about being human is a sense of duty.

Right? And I feel a very strong sense of duty. And I'm also really gendered to be a Sri Lankan Tamil woman. Okay. And I acknowledge that, I grapple with it and, you know, often after my father reads a book, one of the first things that he will say to me is, ‘Why do you swear so much?’ And the there is a pull to keep writing in a way that honours your community and does not reveal all of those contradictions and flaws. And so I'm curious to know how you handle that, I suppose.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think I mean, I totally share the sentiments, honour filial duty to the parents, especially, for many of us who are refugees or immigrants, the awareness that our parents sacrificed so much in many, many different ways, which then becomes the substance of our stories, and yet can also be a betrayal of them as well, because, you know, in A Man With Two Faces, for example, I talk about my mother's visits to a psychiatric facility. Now, that is not something you're supposed to talk about. In fact, was not something I could talk about until my mother had passed away. So there's no easy answer to this problem of truth versus betrayal. And, you know, you are as a writer, I feel you're nothing as a writer if you're not committed to the truth.

But if the truth then commits you to betrayal, what do you do? That's an ethical problem that there is no solution for. And every writer has to feel that in their own gut and heart, and then try to figure out a way to deal with that. So I… my solution, maybe, you brought up gender. Maybe it is a probably it is easier for a man to do certain things.

Nevertheless, I had a recent event, a young Vietnamese American woman came up to me, and she actually likes my writing. But she said… not always true, not always true. But she said, ‘Do you know you are the second most hated person in my parents household?’

Shankari Chandran: The second?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The most hated person?

Shankari Chandran: Yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Joe Biden.

Shankari Chandran: Yeah.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So and, you know, my own, my own students come up to me and say, ‘My parents say you're a communist.’ As if it's a bad thing. And I'm like, okay, well, and so I, I think that for me, I had to be I had to be comfortable with this idea that I would be hated by some people in my own community. And that's not, again, not a solution for everybody. But that was something that I had to reconcile with.

Shankari Chandran: Yeah, I think… and collectivist culture is, it's different, right? You do… I don't operate as an individual. I operate as an entourage, an ecosystem of cousins and everyone's and auntie. Everyone's an uncle. Everyone has an opinion. My dad is on the world's largest WhatsApp group, like a global WhatsApp group. And everybody has an opinion about my work.

So in answer to your question now, who am I now?

Daniel Ghezelbash: Yeah, in particular for Safe Haven. Yeah. What was the audience you had in mind when you were writing?

Shankari Chandran: Who is the audience that I had in mind?

Daniel Ghezelbash: Yeah.

Shankari Chandran: So for Safe Haven, by the time I started to write it, I had finished Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens and had no awareness that I was going to… that Robert had even put me in for the Miles Franklin Award. Right? So I'm writing it completely without any self-consciousness. And I was writing it initially, as I always do, from a place of anger and confusion.

So I was really writing it to try to understand why, from the time we moved back to Australia, when I first really became aware of the country, because I suddenly had more skin in the game. Right? I've come back. I'm now going to raise my children here. Why? When we returned, and for the more than decade that followed, was there this political narrative about asylum seekers that was so vicious, that was so lacking in compassion and in curiosity that positions them as a threat to the Australian way of life?

And yet this country is entirely made, with the exception of First Nations people, of migrants, many of whom are refugees. And I couldn't… I felt, I actually felt really broken by it because I thought, well, I have brought my family back here. What is the moral… kind of what is the moral fabric of this country?

What is our… what, where is our soul? And is this who we are and who are these politicians speaking to when they say these things? Who are these people and where are these people? And what would they think of my children? And why don't they think of these people that they place in these places that are so remote, so full of despair?

How can you do that? How can we do that? And who are we voting for? How are we complicit in that? And so I… in Safe Haven, I really wanted to explore that. And at the same time as I was doing my research for it, I was starting to see another side of Australia, which was this side of people in communities and in organisations like the Kaldor Centre, civil society organisations, human rights organisations, and people, just everyday people that were resisting those policies and were trying to reach out to detention centres onshore and offshore, and were advising and helping and being family and friend to people when they are at their most vulnerable and at their most alone.

And I thought, ‘Well, maybe that's also what it means to be Australian’. And I wanted to not just sit in the horror of life in a detention centre, but also elevate the greatness of what it could mean in Australia, what we could be, and indeed what we are. And with that, then I was writing initially for myself.

And then, as is always the way with writing for me, I end up wanting to have a conversation with others and it feels like… it actually feels like a friendship that you have with a reader, with the unknown reader. You and I are having a conversation. I hope that it will be respectful and loving. I am curious. I assume that you are two. How is it that we can come together if not go together on that journey?

Daniel Ghezelbash: Shankari, sticking with Safe Haven for a moment. One of the things I really love about the book is the way you weave in to this critique of Australia's refugee policies. It's a really beautiful story - one that you describe as a love story and murder mystery set on an offshore detention centre. How do you balance politics and storytelling in your writing?

Shankari Chandran: So, so just from a craft perspective, actually, I find that… I'm going to take that went back. So I actually find that really pretentious. Just from a, you know, sitting down and putting words on a page perspective, I like, I smash out a first draft and I will edit a couple of times, and then it will go to my book club and to a close inner circle of readers.

And one of the questions that I'm probing for is, is the tone of the novel didactic? Is the tone self-righteous? Because I am self-righteous, but mostly at home. And I know that if I speak to someone in a didactic manner, I will lose them as they will lose me. So I'm trusting myself to bring back the tone, and I'm trusting a certain inner circle of readers to bring back the tone and to help me with that.

I do think, though, that everything is politics. And so if you're paying attention, if we're paying attention, then we see it everywhere. Everything is power and everything is politics. And it's I think it's really one of the things that writers do really well, the best writers, is to pay attention to that.

Daniel Ghezelbash: Viet you similarly tell a roaring and intimately personal story in A Man of Two Faces. But you also really don't hold back, and I don't know if you feel it in the same way that Shankari is filtered, because I know he is really quite didactic in places, and you call out everything from racism to colonial imperialism, cultural power imbalances and the way America treats migrants and refugees can you talk us through your process and the choices you made to lay everything out so barely in the pages of a book.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is this will go back to the first question you asked about, you know, how difficult it is to publish my own work and everything like that. And part of what A Man of Two Faces is addresses is what kind of expectations are placed upon the so called ethnic immigrant, refugee, minority writer. And so on. And again, in the United States, there's a template that's there, spoken and unspoken.

And so I lay out the template in A Man of Two Faces. If you want to write the ethnic immigrant minority bestselling memoir, I tell you how to do it in five steps. And then, of course, I don't do it myself. but, you know, again, like we who come to the United States, it's not as if Americans are not aware that they have a racist country. They are aware of that.

And so the narrative that a refugee or an immigrant is expected to tell is you came from some war stricken, poverty stricken, famine stricken hellhole or other hole, as our former president would say, you've come to this country and we know you've experienced racism. Your parents have struggled, your grandparents have struggled. We apologise for everything we've put you through.

But then look at you. You've become a success. You've won a Pulitzer Prize. You're a living embodiment of the American dream. And that's the narrative that is expected to be told. And so for me, the challenge is always, how do we, as writer… how do I, as a writer, refute that form that the refugee or the immigrant or the minority is supposed to pour themselves into?

And so the telling the story of refugees and displaced people is not simply, for me, a matter of content. Of course, there's lots of content, there's lots of trauma, there's lots of drama. But for me, the more interesting challenge is formal. Like how do we find the right form to provoke readers and to express one of my core convictions, which is that I don't want to be included in the nation state?

I don't want to be included in the United States, because what does it mean to be included in a military industrial complex that wants to be the global hegemon? And that's, you know, we as refugees, we come to the United States. We're expected to be grateful for what? To become settler citizens on Indigenous land? And to become the alibi for the exercise of an imperial machine?

And so my own writing is trying to figure out ways to refute that, to tell refugee stories, but to find forms that will break that idea of putting ourselves into that machinery. And so if you read The Sympathizer and The Committed, these are novels, but they're masked as confessions. So, in fact, when you're writing a confession, you don't have to follow fictional conventions.

You can rant as much as you want, and I do, you know. And in A Man of Two Faces likewise, there's a very different form than the than The Sympathizer and the committed. But really, what it, what the form, is designed to do is to both show and tell. and so I don't know how many of you have taken craft workshops and writing workshops and so on, but the general dictum in the West is show, don't tell.

Have you read the Bible? There's lots of telling in the Bible. There's lots of didacticism in so many of the things that we grew up with, from fairy tales to biblical texts and so on. But it's only in the sort of the narrow constraints of Western, literary writing, contemporary literary writing, that we're not supposed to be didactic.

And so I think didacticism is okay if it's framed in a certain way that makes it acceptable to the reader. And so in a case of A Man of Two Faces the way that's done instead, it's a very playful text, I think, and in many ways, I hope it's a funny text because it's telling some very tragic stories.

But at the same time, I'm also making jokes at the same time. So that's how I think my relationship to didactic didacticism works. The doctor ism works really well in partnership with things like satire. Like satire is telling, not showing, for example. And so again, the challenge for a refugee writer is to find ways formally, to refuse the expectations that are put on us.

And generally the expectations that are put on us are show, don't tell because we don't want to hear your didactic lessons about our country. We just want to see stories of your suffering, which we can then absorb and feel better about ourselves and do absolutely nothing about.

Daniel Ghezelbash: Viet, sticking to this idea of form. Why a memoir and specifically why I decided to write the memoir now.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Okay, I'm a reluctant memoirist. I mean, I never wanted to write a memoir, and you should be grateful for that, because if you ever meet an enthusiastic memoirist, run the other way. So I was a reluctant memoirist because I didn't want to betray my parents. I didn't want to betray these really deeply intimate, personal stories that they would not have wanted to have exposed, and yet that I felt needed to be told not simply because I love my parents.

And I thought that they were heroic people who had gone through all these horrible things and survived and saved our lives and saved the lives of so many people in Vietnam with the money that they sent back and so on and so forth. But I also wanted to tell their story because I thought they were also not extraordinary.

Now, that's hard to get your mind around. Many of us who love our parents would want to think that they're extraordinary, and I do, but I also think they're utterly ordinary everything. My parents have been through 40 or 50 years of famine, warfare, colonisation, racism, becoming refugees, twice rebuilding their lives, twice hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people and other Southeast Asian refugees did exactly the same thing.

And so the challenge in writing a memoir, it's again about form, because the temptation in the West to write a memoir is to write purely about yourself. But as you said, that's not possible for us who come from these communities where in fact we're a part of our families, we're part of these larger communities. So I wanted to write a story that wasn't really about myself, but also about the entire nation of the United States, about my parents, but also about how they were completely normal for Vietnamese people, and that what was so moving for me was not only knowing that they had gone through this as individuals, but that so many other people had gone through these same experiences as well.

Daniel Ghezelbash: But you also really play with the format of a memoir. It's not a conventional memoir, and maybe you can talk to us about some of those stylistic statistics choices that you made and how you've had fun up turning the genre of a memoir.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: So if you've read The Sympathizer, the first line is “I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” And The Sympathizer is not an autobiographical novel. If you've read it, you know it's about a murderer, a spy, a traitor, a womaniser, an alcoholic, and so on. Only the last part might be true. but I took autobiographical feelings of feeling always inside and outside, a person of two faces.

And I put it into The Sympathizer. And then when it came to A Man of Two Faces again, I'm a reluctant memoirist. I didn't want to write about myself. So the trick was to pretend that I was the sympathizer writing about me. And so, you know, at a certain point in the memoir, it opens up in the first person, but then it slides into the second person.

And I had this weird little person, weird little boy Viet, and all the weird, strange things that happened to me or to him, which were really traumatic. But the only way I could survive those experiences as a little boy was to think that they were utterly normal. My parents getting shot in their grocery store - normal. Me being separated from my parents at four years of age and taken away - normal.

This happened to everybody, and that's how I survived. But as a… so then I met my future wife, my then girlfriend, and I told her ‘I'm a very well-adjusted person’. And she said, ‘No, you're not’. And it would take me decades to realise she was right. But in order to write this memoir, I had to look at myself from the outside.

And so for about two thirds of the book, it's me addressing you. This odd person who has poured concrete all over himself in order to survive this emotional, emotional turmoil. And then by the last third of the book, I come back to myself in the first person, finally ready to confront who I am.

Daniel Ghezelbash: Shankari, has Viet sold you on a memoir? Can we…  the future reluctant memoirist?

Shankari Chandran: He actually he had me on first person satire, in The Sympathizer because I adore the confessional fictive memoir, because you do exactly what you just said. You do. You tell, tell, tell. And I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, we're not supposed to tell’. And so it's a very liberating style or mode, really. And I think, my next novel may well play with that, so thank you.

Not a memoir, though. Yeah. There's really nothing interesting going on here. It's laundry, laundry and more laundry.

Daniel Ghezelbash: I tried very hard to squeeze some information our of Shankari about her new book, but she's very tight lipped about it - but we are all very excited.

Shankari Chandran: Thank you. And I'll continue to be tight lipped about it.

Daniel Ghezelbash: Viet, you already mentioned the role that humour plays in your writing. But I mean, this is something that really struck me is that you both really very funny writers and Shankar. Shankari, maybe you would like to reflect on the role of humour in your writing.|

Shankari Chandran: So I'm obviously a naturally funny person. And, like Viet, I don't have to work too hard at it in writing. And I think I do write about very dark things. Right? I write about trauma and generational trauma and genocide and dispossession. And no one's going to buy that book. So it's… I think life is funny.

The people that I meet that I've grown up with, who've experienced these things, who survived these things and have thrived, part of how they've done that is through humour. And it's always present, and therefore it is naturally, I think, part of, I would hope, naturally part of my storytelling. And it gives me relief because when I'm sitting in the trauma of what I'm writing, that is… there's a heaviness to that, right?

It takes its toll. And this the humour of it can bring me out and I hope brings the reader out into the lightness. Before you go back into the dark.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I'm going to tell it to, in a roundabout way, you know, the TV series The Sympathizer is being directed by the Korean director Park Chan-wook, and if you’ve ever seen Park Chan-wook’s work, it's like, fantastic and vivid and weird and dark and funny and violent. And he did an interview recently for The New Yorker where he described making his movie Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which is I certainly watched, and it's a dark as you can tell.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a dark, dark movie. And he said, I, ‘I giggled the entire time I was making that movie.’, And I feel the same way about my own work, like, you know, running my books. There's a lot of dark stuff in there, you know, there's like war and violence and murder and torture and all these kinds of things.

And I just had a blast writing these books. And I think the opening epigraph of The Sympathizer is from Nietzsche is like, you know, even I forget exactly what I said, what he said. But ‘We can find humour even in torture’. And that's the challenge. and it's possible. And so, you know, for me, putting humour into the writing serves certainly a political purpose as satire of the of the absurdities and hypocrisies of our societies when it comes to war and refugees and so on.

But humour also serves, a function of alleviating the pressure on the reader. Shakespeare did it. If Shakespeare can do it, you know we can do it, too. And, we can find humour in these, these horrifying experiences, because that's part of how so many generations have been able to survive.

Daniel Ghezelbash: I guess the sad reality is that there's this overwhelming narrative, both in Australia and in the United States, that dehumanises refugees. And, through your writing, through your playfulness, through your humour, through your didactic-ness, how do you think books, literature like yours can shape new narratives?

Shankari Chandran: Why do you look at me for the hard question?

Look, I think, you know, when I was doing the research for, for Safe Haven, it struck me that there is so much information out there in the public space about detention centres, about the impact of that on people, on families, on children. I access the incredible reports and research from the Kaldor Centre, Human Rights Law Centre, Australian Human Rights Commission.

There are tremendous memoirs written by people like Behrouz, those who have survived terrible things, who left terrible things, and were then left on a detention centre and survived terrible things in these detention centres. And there are advocates who do an extraordinary job of speaking with them and for them, because many times these people are their own best advocates, as they should be.

We should be listening to their lived experience, and we should be elevating their lived experience. And yet, at the same time, it's human nature to look away. While we don't want to watch the news because we don't want to see children dying, we don't want to read these reports. We don't want to remember them or hold them in our bodies.

And I understand that. I don't want to do it either. And I see though, the role of fiction, I think fiction is an extraordinary opportunity and an extraordinary tool with which, not to force people to look, but to invite people into looking, to help them feel uncomfortable, to give them the discomfort of what we do to each other in an environment such as a novel, which is in fact actually inherently safe.

And so you are both safe and you are uncomfortable. You are safe, and you must self interrogate. And I think it's, as I said, I think it's a tool and an opportunity. It feels like the universe gives us a gift with words, with books, with stories, in order to try to take people there. And I don't for a moment… I've worked as a lawyer. I've worked in the justice space. I don't for a moment think that literature can create justice. It is only the institutions of justice that can do that, and they fail over and over again. We see them fail. And what literature does, though, is that it reminds you. It reminds you of those failures, and it reminds you of our potential for greatness and for goodness.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: You use the word ‘dehumanisation’ when it comes to refugees. That's often the term that's used, right? And it's true. I mean, refugees are routinely dehumanised, almost by definition, by people in states who are people who are not refugees and states who don't want to welcome refugees. And then, therefore, the logical response on the part of refugees, many refugees and their advocates is they know these people are human.

I totally resist that narrative because once we say ‘We're human too.’, we've lost because then we're put into a position of apology and translation. We apologise for existence. Sorry, we're really human. Let me translate my humanity for you, the audience. And that's the temptation, the lure that's put before refugees, immigrants, so-called minorities and so on that we're offered the opportunity to prove our humanity to audiences that may not be aware of it or are skeptical of it.

But once we agree to do that, we've already lost the formal battle. And for me, when I when I look at refugees, what I want to do is not to try to make refugees again, be included in someone else's narrative, but to look at refugee experiences and to find out what is in refugee experiences that, as you said, can destabilise us.

Right? Because I don't think that the great writers of the West, whoever that may be in your mind, I don't think they sit out there thinking, ‘I'm going to try to prove the humanity of white people’. No. They take that for granted. So we have to take for granted as a starting point, the fact that refugees are already human, and what does that mean?

And you said that you want to write fiction. And I totally agree with this, that, that that makes us safe and uncomfortable at the same time. And when I look at refugees, what I see is that they're human and inhuman at the same time. I grew up in a refugee community, San Jose, California, the 1970s and 1980s. We were not all good people. We did terrible things. I think some of your Australian Vietnamese refugees did, too, from my understanding. And all the stories about drugs, violence, gangs that we did, all the things abuse, you know, domestic violence, alcoholism, all that we did, all those things. To tell those stories is not to make us human.

To tell the stories is to acknowledge the simultaneous humanity and inhumanity that exists within us, exists within you. It just exists within all of you as well. And that's the territory that I want to claim. I'll end with the last example, which is, you know, I you know, I remember very vividly going to the library as a boy, 11 or 12 years of age, reading a novel called Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann about the war in Vietnam and just being so utterly enraged by this depiction of the war in Vietnam, where Vietnamese people just came off as inhuman.

And I hated Larry Heineman. He was a US Marine Corps veteran who was writing about his war experiences. And if you've seen the movie Platoon, he was a part of that battle that was in Platoon. And I hated Larry Heineman because I thought, here he is. He's showing this how in showing people how inhuman the Vietnamese people are.

And then in preparation for writing The Sympathizer, I reread that novel and I realised Larry Heineman was correct. He wanted to show the humanity and inhumanity of the American soldiers doing this killing, because he wanted to make readers, especially Americans, deeply uncomfortable. That a lot of Americans would want to look at the Vietnam War and say, this is not America, these are not Americans.

We don't do these kinds of things. And Heineman was insisting, ‘Yes, we do’. This is the United States. This is what we do. And he created a great novel because of it. And that impulse is also what drives my own writing. I don't want to apologise for refugees. I want to say, this is who we are the good, the bad, the ugly all at once. And that's what makes us as close to you as our humanity is.|

Daniel Ghezelbash: Maybe one final question for me before I move to questions from the audience. Books have a wonderful audience, but HBO, a much bigger one. What do you hope the impact of The Sympathizer will be in its second life on screen?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Besides greater book sales? Yeah. Okay. Yeah, I'm just kidding. It's not about the money. It's about the art. Okay, sure. You know, when I was growing up, I watched almost every, all of America's Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War. And that's an exercise I recommend to nobody, especially if you're Vietnamese or you're Asian. and, you know, I think people can just walk away from some people can walk away from movies and say, ‘That's just a story’.

But when you grow up and that's all you have in terms of depictions of yourself, these horrifying images of Vietnamese people being murdered, raped, silenced and so on, that, in fact, is incredibly, traumatic, I think not as traumatic as being a refugee, but it has it did its own traumatic work on me, and it confused me, and it saddened me.

And it frightened me, and it instilled self-hatred in me. I remember, you know, my friends and I in high school who are of Asian descent, calling ourselves the ‘Asian invasion’. That was the only language we had for ourselves, and that was because we had absorbed these racist images from Hollywood movies and other kinds of dominant stories, and the irony is that Asians have never invaded the United States.

If anything, the United States has invaded Asia. But the power of narrative in pop culture is such that it can turn us against ourselves. So my hope is that by agreeing to have Hollywood turn this novel into a TV series, what's going to happen is that people will come for Robert Downey Jr- and he's great, and Sandra Oh and Park Chan-wook, and then they will get seven hours of a 90% Vietnamese cast telling Vietnamese stories.

A lot of which is actually in the Vietnamese language. And they will just be confronted by the sheer presence of Vietnamese faces, Vietnamese names and just the sounds of Vietnamese people. And I'm hoping that out there, there are going to be a handful of weird young people of Vietnamese descent thinking, ‘Wow, we could actually tell our own stories our own way’.

And what they're going to produce is completely beyond my imagination. And that's what I hope the result of the TV series will be.

Daniel Ghezelbash: And Shankari, I understand there's a screen adaptation of Song of the Sun God underway.

Shankari Chandran: Yeah, but nowhere near as exciting. I mean, Robert Downey Jr is not in it yet. But yes. So we're the very early stages of adaptation, and, that we've got Charithra Chandran, the star from Bridgerton…It's not quite Robert Downey Junior or Sandra Oh, but she is young and upcoming, from Bridgerton in it. Charithra Chandran. No relation to Shankari Chandran.

They're like 100 million Tamils in the world, and for somehow we've both got the same name. and yeah, we're just in the very early stages. So we've got a pitch, and a Bible and, a lead and a really great team of people coming together. And it's an exciting experience for me because when I write a novel, I am literally in my pajamas for hours on end in a room with no windows by myself.

And television is an incredibly collaborative experience. And the you.. you're bouncing ideas off people. There are big, you know, butchers paper and post-it notes flying every which way. And to see something that you wrote many years ago be taken apart and then put back together really beautifully. And to be a part of that process. It's new skills.

It's a new way of working. And it has also given me extraordinary credibility with my children. So, yeah, no, I'm really looking forward to continuing to do that.

Daniel Ghezelbash: And do you have a directory in mind for Safe Haven, the movie too?

Shankari Chandran: I yeah... I mean... we... I don't think we want to have time to play that game. but I have I play a game with friends, which is the casting game where I get together and cast all my books and pick my favourite or preferred directors and so on. We can do that outside.

Daniel Ghezelbash: All right, let's turn to some questions from the audience. The first question, asks if winning awards gave either of you performance anxiety and does it impact what you write or how you write, or do you write for?

Shankari Chandran: Well, I have a question actually on that one. I would like to know if winning the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and the Pulitzer makes up for the fact that you're not a doctor.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Oh. Yeah. Gosh. Oh, okay. Good question. Yeah, well, I'll tell you a story, which is that, when I won the Pulitzer Prize, I was on the road, and it was a shock. But you know what I didn't do? I didn't call my parents. Yeah, because I was like, okay, we're supposed to do this, right? So I didn't want to brag to my hardworking Asian parents.

But the next day, my father calls me and he said ‘The villagers in Vietnam called. You won the Pulitzer Prize’ …

Shankari Chandran: Oh! So good,

Viet Thanh Nguyen: …and his voice was shaking with happiness. Yeah. So I finally made my father proud. And all it took was winning a Pulitzer. Yeah. Yeah.

Shankari Chandran: There, there. Well done. Well done you.

So, what was the question? Does it change…? Yeah. Look, it has changed, right? Because, I mean up until winning the Miles Franklin for Chai Time it was pretty much just my friends and family that bought my book. And sales have been impacted. It has created a spotlight for the kinds of things… for the issues that I write about.

And I think also for other writers who write about those issues in Australia. It feels like a platform that is not just for me, but a platform that is shared by other writers. And as I said the global diaspora went absolutely insane. And it’s, in terms of self-consciousness because I wrote Safe Haven without knowing anything about the Miles Franklin, there's no self-consciousness at all. And in terms of self-consciousness for my next novel, the only time I think like that is when I get asked that question, so thank you, Daniel.

Daniel Ghezelbash: It’s the audience member - don’t blame me. 

Shankari Chandran: It’s the audience. And to be honest I don’t think that there will be because when I face the blank page for the first time for a new manuscript, I do so with such anxiety and self doubt, that there’s nothing the Miles Franklin can do to me that I don’t do to myself. And the first 10,000 words will be agonising - I just know this - I’m going to be really hard to live with the 10,000 words. At ten thousand and one it will get better because I start to believe and trust that I can do this. And then I keep going to the 80, 000 word mark and then I start over. So - and when I’m writing, there’s such joy in the writing. It’s so much fun - I don’t actually care about anyone or anything when I’m doing it, I just care about the writing. And so I’m really looking forward to it, to starting again. 

Daniel Ghezelbash: We’re looking forward to reading it. I have a question from an audience member from a refugee background who's asking if you can reflect on the differences between the first and second generation refugee members in your family and the different opportunities that they have

Shankari Chandran: So I think for our generation, we felt and and still feel an incredible sense of responsibility, obligation and duty because our parents sacrificed so much for us to come here. And I feel like I carry that and I will probably carry it with me to the very end of my life. And for the most part, I'm okay with that, because there is something, beautiful in what they have given to us.

And in honouring that by how I live my life and how my generation of cousins lives, our lives. And at the same time, I want my children to take to effectively stand on the shoulders of the rest of us and to take the opportunities of this country, and with it some of the good things about the West, and the great things of where they've come from and bring all of that together and make different choices, avail themselves of different opportunities, and choose who they want to be unburdened by the guilt and the duty, but empowered by the fact that they come from an ancestral community that has given all of us so much.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When we speak about, Vietnamese refugees from the war, you know, the first generation was deeply affected and sometimes often quite traumatised by the war and have a hard time not thinking about everything through the lens of war and the refugee experience. I'm technically 1.5 generation, being born in Vietnam, but raised in the United States. But also my generation, I think is also deeply beholden to the war and its legacies as well, as you can tell from listening to me. And then the pure second generation, my own children born in the United States. They're different. You're different. You know, you know, my son, for example, we did a book together. It was his idea, and it's called Chicken of the Sea. And it's about bored chickens who run off from the farm to become pirates.

Shankari Chandran: So great. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It has nothing to do with war and trauma, and that's a good thing. I mean, if the second generation was still writing the same stories as the first or the 1.5 generation, you know, we might have done something wrong. So it's a very tricky balance. Like I, you know, I think the second generation should be absolutely free to do whatever they want and write their own stories and so on.

And yet I still want to give them a little bit of the history so that they know where they're coming from and where they've been. And so and maybe, you know, feel a little guilt. I mean, I have a lot of guilt towards my parents. 

Shankari Chandran: Yeah, yeah

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I would like to just have a little bit of guilt.

Shankari Chandran: There's a lot of leverage in guilt, right?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, yeah. It's productive guilt sometimes.

Daniel Ghezelbash: Another audience member is asking about what the research process looks like for your stories, saying that they borrow from your own lives as well as the realities of your communities.

Shankari Chandran: Now, I'm looking at you now. You can go first. 

Daniel Ghezelbash: Yeah.

Shankari Chandran: I can't keep doing that.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, it depends, you know, I mean, the memoir, I don't think there was a lot of research for the memoir because a lot of it just came out of my personal life. the books, like The Sympathizer and The Committed. in some sense, they're born out of a whole lifetime of concern about the, you know, the Vietnamese experiences of war and colonialism and, and refugees and all the emotions and stories that I'd absorbed.

But in some cases, I really had to do a lot of research. So if you if you read the opening section of the of The Sympathizer for example, the first 50 pages, it's about the fall of Saigon. I was there for that, but I don't remember any of it because I was four years of age. So I had to actually go and read everything that was available about the fall of Saigon, so that I could literally map it out for readers month to month, week to week, day to day.

And by the end, literally minute by minute, I I've seen comments from people who've watched The Sympathizer fall of Saigon sequence and like, not that didn't really happen. There weren't really rockets falling on the on the on the on the air, on the airport as people were trying to fly out. And in fact, that did happen.

And so doing the research was really important and productive and creating the novelistic environment for readers into which I could improve the emotional environment that I already knew.

Shankari Chandran: Yeah. And you want to create it but not have it shouting at the reader, right. And so I and for me, with particularly with my first novel, it was very important to me that, that there was a real, authentic, not authenticity, historical accuracy to what I was doing. Because as I said, I really wanted to prosecute the war.

I wanted to think about and adjudicate the history of Sri Lanka, and therefore I didn't want someone to read it and say, well, actually, you got this thing over here in 1972 wrong. Therefore, when you describe the genocide of 2009, you're probably wrong there too. So I didn't want any errors to undermine the veracity of the rest of, of any part of the novel.

And so I was I did a huge amount of research for Song of the Sun God, and at the same time, it feels like I've been researching that and all my novels my entire life, because we've grown up with a very politicised community. we've we went on demonstrations, you know, we were we were at meetings listening to the stories of our community.

I have a very talkative family. And with this final novel, not final forever - my publisher is jus there - not final novel - with Safe Haven, though, I actually set for the first time parameters around my research because people said to me, ‘Did you go to detention centres?’ And I was very clear when I sat down to write this novel that I would not be going to be a voyeur on other people's suffering.

It is not a zoo. It is a place of unspeakable horrors, and it is a place that I am trying to bring into the light through fiction. But it is not a place where I am to spectate so I can feel, I can research, I can think and reflect and then try to honour with words. But I am not there to spectate.

And so for the first time ever in writing Safe Haven or in any novel, I sat and created boundaries around the actual field of research. And as I said before, there is so much information in the public space about Australia's policies and the impact of those policies. It's whether we choose to look at it or not.

Daniel Ghezelbash: That is the great place to end as we're out of time. Thank you for joining us tonight for refuge. Please join me in thanking Viet and Shankar for sharing so much with us.

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and the Sydney Writers Festival. For more information, visit

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He is the author of The Committed, which continues the story of The Sympathizer, awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, alongside seven other prizes. He is also the author of the short story collection The Refugees; the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, a finalist for the National Book Award; and is the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. He is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. He lives in Los Angeles.

Shankari Chandran

Shankari Chandran

Shankari Chandran is an Australian Tamil lawyer and the author of Safe Haven (2024), Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens (Miles Franklin Literary Award 2023), Song of the Sun God (2022), The Barrier (2017) and Unfinished Business (2024, Audible). She is the deputy chair of Writing NSW and lives in Sydney with her husband and four children.

Daniel Ghezelbash

Daniel Ghezelbash

Daniel Ghezelbash is an internationally renowned refugee law scholar, advocate and lawyer. He is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Sydney. His research transcends traditional disciplinary barriers, drawing on everything from law, computing, political science, behavioural psychology and data science. His book, Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World examines how restrictive asylum policies have spread around the world. 

His more recent work has focused on improving the fairness and efficiency of asylum procedures, and more broadly, how technology and data can be used to increase access to justice and counteract bias and discrimination in the legal system. He is Special Counsel at the National Justice Project, and sits on the boards of a number of not-for-profit legal centres, including Refugee Advice and Casework Services and Wallumatta Legal. Daniel regularly features and published in domestic and international media outlets on refugee and migration issues.

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