非漂 [Fēi Piāo] Quote of the Week: “An Expanded Capacity for Empathy”

. . . I began thinking one of literature’s tasks was to give voices to the voiceless, and to humanize people . . . so my first book of stories, The Refugees, worked exactly in that register, trying to humanize the Vietnamese people. But eventually I realized that this was a task that was doomed to defeat because we are already human. Why would we need to humanize ourselves?

When I came to writing The Sympathizer, I thought I’m done with trying to prove

“I realized that the way Americans were telling stories about this war were completely erasing Vietnamese experiences.”

the humanity of Vietnamese people. Instead, I want to show them in all their complexity, which means their inhumanity too. Not inhumanity as a stereotype, but inhumanity as a fundamental part of human character. And that was really the more important project for writers such as me, writers who belong to subjugated or subordinated populations . . . our task is to claim the same rights and prerogatives of subjectivity, and identity and complex humanity, and inhumanity, that the majority reserves for itself.

So, I hope that what people take from my work is the necessity of thinking and feeling from the position of people who are not like them. It’s a natural human tendency to think and feel for people who we think are like us, and this is both very human and very disastrous. This is partly what gets us into war and conflict, because we can’t imagine the perspectives of other people . . . not simply to say ‘Oh, we need to revise the history of the Vietnam War so that we know more about Vietnamese people.’ The problem there is that the Vietnamese people don’t want to think and feel about other people either, so the larger project is really about an expanded capacity for empathy.

(Text from a video by the winner of the 2017 Macarthur Fellowship, Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, and himself a refugee resettled in California)

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