Against Textual Tourism: An Interview with Nguyễn An Lý (Part Two)

Socio-cultural, literary, and political news relating to the Vietnamese diaspora and to Việt Nam

In Part Two of this two-part conversation, Rachel Min Park and Nguyễn An Lý continue their discussion of Nguyễn An Lý’s most recent translation, Thuận’s Chinatown. They talk about the way history figures within Chinatown and how literature might gesture towards more ethical renditions of history. They conclude with a broader conversation on the translation and publishing industry and how general readers might support translated literature as a whole. Chinatown by Thuận and translated by Nguyễn An Lý is out now by Tilted Axis Press in the UK and New Directions in the United States.

Chinatown by Thuận; translated by Nguyễn An Lý | Books : TANK Magazine

RP: Another powerful aspect of Chinatown and your beautiful rendition of it is the way that it delineates historical experience. I think that there is also an almost ethical stance in how Thuận describes individual characters’ relationships to History. The book doesn’t set out to recreate or tell history in any kind of objective or empirical manner, but there is still a way that Chinatown incorporates history by alluding to it in an elliptical manner, such that history or historical events inevitably seep into the lives of individuals. There are mentions of various wars, French colonialism, đổi mới, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so on. Yet these events are always relayed on a more interpersonal scale, defying (even mocking at times) “official” historical accounts that determine how history should be understood.

How did you sense the historicity within this novel and your own relationship to it in translating?

AL: My immediate thought in response to your question was that, you made me realize how History with a capital H is astonishingly absent from the immediate action of the book—astonishing, that is, against a literature that is so used to putting history first and individuals second. The very way you described historical events as seeping into the lives of individuals wouldn’t have been even possible from a generation of writers immediately preceding Thuận, to whom History was still a very much lived, breathed everyday reality: war(s), colonialism, 1950s land reform and Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm, exoduses and displacements, lives lost in forests, villages, at sea. In narratives from those times, History is often at the foreground and individuals are (of course, I’m grossly oversimplifying here) either cogs in the machine with magnanimous illusions, or helpless leaves in impersonal storms. For a few decades after the official, or should I say the textbook version, end of war(s), literature in Vietnam was still dealing with the war, either in continuation of the Marxist metanarrative (we have cleared out the ground and can now focus on building socialism) or as more or less revisionist reckoning, e.g. Bảo Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. And then there’s another group of authors, especially after the beginning of Đổi Mới, who threw themselves into portraying lives after the war, life as it was lived “now,” as if they wanted to say: enough with the wars, we want to talk about peace, and about the possible reasons why that peace has not delivered what you all promised us will come after the wars. But then it was still an urge to understand history that drove them, the writers as caretakers of the collective conscience, to find new ways to think about history in this new chapter, and of course, to write about history under the ever-changing moods of the authorities.

In the early 2000s, the atmosphere had become quite different. There was a sense that we were already at the end of history; the new authors, mostly living and writing in an urban setting, were more concerned with their immediate surroundings and fates. No longer swept away by or helping to advance the massive national or sectarian progress, their characters had to forge their own way in uncharted territories, the same way the authors struggled to make their names in the now commercially driven market, out of the old structures of government-sponsored and -supervised creative and distributing models. History as previously understood (I would argue that history raged on in Vietnam no less violently, in the forms of economic or discursive histories, but they were yet to birth important literary works capable of capturing the national imagination) was again absent from most of their writings, but this time not due to a subversive will to do away with the wars, but to the authors’ own apathy to those topics.

(Now I am going to pause here and add a glaring, somewhat ironic caveat that these are my personal observations, unattested by rigorous research, so take them with as much salt as your heart can manage.)

The way history figures in Chinatown is interesting, I think, because it is different from all three of these representations. History is not something you have to engage with, or deliberately turn away from, or are totally ignorant of. History is something that’s simply there, in the background, like the crossroads and lampposts on the streets that you notice and navigate around when necessary, and when history raises its head in your life, it is mostly in the form of echoes and rumors—echoes of the Chinese cannons, rumors about the Chinese spy from Beijing. News of the collapse of Soviet Russia. Stories that Mlle. Feng Xiao relates. You don’t really engage with these events; there’s no fighting or running away in the main narrative of the book; the watershed of history when the USSR collapsed was just an obstacle to your life plan, which you solved by finding another piece of soil to sow your brilliant red dream. I recognize the narrator’s parents in many of my real-life acquaintances and the narrator, given the way she was starting out at life—perfect family (and relatives), perfect results at school, perfect obedience and conformism and inaction—should have been well poised to grow up into another copy of her parents, going forward in life with history just a faint rumble, at times intrusive but easily done away with, in the background. This relation to history via echoes was normal and, I thought, relatable to most readers at the time the book was published; I knew it was to me.

But then I re-examined these thoughts and I realized that the very possibility of uttering the phrase “the sense of the end of history” betrays an incredible privilege and total obliviousness to the Other(s)’ ongoing struggle. Surely history has never ended, or even reached a respite, to a LGBT+ person, a Black or Asian American, a Ukrainian, a Syrian refugee. Surely the stories of the boat people began at precisely the point that the Vietnamese war(s) tentatively stopped (this is indeed a frequently made point). And surely the end is still far away in the case of the ethnic-compatriots of Thụy. But it’s a history outside of textbooks. For all practical (read: exams) purposes, History might as well have ended in 1975 and in that pre-Internet era, I don’t think I had much notion about the border war with China or the plight of the Chinese in Vietnam, which simply wasn’t talked about in government-sanctioned outlets—which is also something Thuận often remarks about her younger readers.

RP: Yes, I think you illuminated precisely the ethical dimension of Thuận’s view of history that I mentioned in my question—it seems to revolve around how textbook versions of History contribute to the construction of Other(s), while simultaneously erasing their lived experiences. And her writing seems so much to try and be a recuperation of those erased or marginalized experiences, while also demonstrating the very flawed and human ways her characters try and contend with them. Perhaps most importantly, we can see this in the way she mentions and incorporates the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 which gives rise to the various forms of racism and prejudice that encircle the narrator and Thụy’s own relationship.

AL: Even now, over a decade since the Sino-Vietnamese war first underwent something of a gruesome rediscovery in the press and in Vietnamese national consciousness, with the heightening of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam (or at least, in a large part of Vietnamese population), it’s still in the old style of revisionism: the grandiosity of war, the pathos, the courage, the cowardice, the betrayal and heroism, the warriors and the commanders brave or inept. People like Thụy, suffering from the unique fate of late-generation immigrants from a large and belligerent nation to a smaller but no less belligerent country, the historical victim of the first but also historically a swift and merciless bully to these “aliens,” have long learned to lay low, to express themselves through smiles and silence. It’s too easy for their neighbors and friends to forget their Otherness when the going is well, with only a faint awareness that they are Chinese (người Hoa, as opposed to the “Chinese Chinese,” người Trung) but apart from that they’re just like us (but with infinitely more Instagrammable buildings and festivals), and when the going gets tough, to suddenly wonder: “What are they really like? What are they talking about in their illegible scripts? Will they support the newest Chinese aggression in the East Sea [South Sea in Chinese discourse]?” (Indeed, there have been cases when ethnically Chinese people quickly distance themselves from the government across the border every time tension in the sea flared up.)

This kind of mild discrimination may well be what the narrator would grow into—even if by disposition she is not likely to embrace her parents’ brand of extreme Sinophobia—if not for her decision to take that step towards Thụy. That school trip when she lends Thụy her shoulder marks the moment when she steps away from the non-historical linear path towards personal success and wealth (as defined by her parents) to the messy sinuous path of history in the making, signaling, I wouldn’t say a will to understand the Other (Ally Le in her Mekong Review review mentions “fetishistic symbols”), but the will to look beyond the dichotomy of Self/Other, to see this one boy, albeit with a very Chinese name, hair and slanted eyes, but first and foremost his own.

This Red Riding Hood project of hers, however, is half-baked and she pointedly doesn’t choose to be more proactive by either preventing or pursuing him when Thụy escapes to the South (his unwillingness to confide in her, of course, also deepens the sense of exclusion). At that moment, I’m tempted to argue, for all the ostracization and abandonment visited on her, the narrator’s suffering is just a fraction of what comes down upon Thụy. He bears the brunt of history’s wrath, while she can continue with her life more or less on the central path, with history just a nuisance to circumvent or even possibly a boon: history may have destroyed her Sino-Vietnamese family, but then gives her the opportunity of a new Franco-Vietnamese family, if she chooses to act on it.

But if her physically following Thụy is hindered—first by silent smiles when she promises to carry his Chinese-Vietnamese ant baby into exile with him, then by silent tears during the family meals before his departure—her mentally stepping towards him carries on, not least in dreams where she screams “I’m not Vietnamese;” this time not to signify solidarity with the excluded, but as a plea to be included in the imagined Chinese community. Hers is also an ongoing project, and it’s ironic that it’s in France that her becoming-Chinese comes to pseudo-fruition, thanks to the hospitality and myopic nationalism of Mlle. Feng Xiao and the racist ignorance and indifference of the French colleagues and authorities. She is accepted as Chinese the moment being Chinese ceases to have any social meaning to her. But when it again counts—in her fantasy of a Paris-wide and then world-wide network of Chinatowns—she finds herself outside, excluded, while her child and estranged husband walk hand in hand upon the linear path towards a brilliant future for Chineseness.

There is however another way that she has stepped towards him, and it’s not by becoming Chinese, but becoming an immigrant. We can assume that only when she settles into her life in France (as a non-academic!) does she get an inkling about how Thụy had lived his life in the margins of Vietnamese society. Also ironically, while Thụy’s exodus leads him back to what are presumably his elements, that of the narrator destabilizes her position, and towards the end of the book, when (a fantasized) Thụy has arrived at his end-of-history moment, the narrator is still very much trapped by the forces of history (in the form of a non-moving train and a suspicious package) as well as her own chronic inaction—and indecision as to whether to remain inactive.

RP: In that sense, how do you think that the novel more generally as a form or a genre configures our own (as readers) relationship to history or historical understanding?

AL: When I first read Chinatown all those years ago, I accepted it unquestioningly as a contemporary novel. The story is dated “2004,” roughly the time when it was finished (one of the reasons why I chose the present tense for the main narration). There are a lot of “historical” events in the book, but like I said, they are just the kind of rumors I often heard in meals and gatherings; noises, there but not there. The narrator’s life story—high school, then a Soviet college, dorm life and love letters with a long-distance beau—is a familiar one of my mother’s generation (indeed I often consulted with her on minor things concerning the USSR for my first draft), and I myself lived through and remember a few things from, if not đổi mới and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War themselves, then their immediate aftermaths. The narrator’s school life of studying nonstop and getting notebooks as awards is decidedly relatable. So the book didn’t read like history, but lived experiences—personal history, familial history. Only when I began to translate it did I realize it does function as a historical novel; to the young generation it must feel as quaint as the Korean TV show Reply 1988. (Nostalgia towards the 1990s is something I’m still trying to wrap my head around!)

In the same way, I think, the narrator in Chinatown operates from a twofold perspective: there’s that naïve girl (from 17 to 27 years old), who loved ardently but innocuously and accepted everything life threw at her with tears and silence, and then there’s the 39-year-old, who outwardly is still very passive but inwardly making frequent trips down history lane to understand her fate as an individual in the tempests of history. She does it almost unconsciously—in Thuận’s later novels, we have protagonists who embark on investigative journeys to uncover facts about the past of their loved ones—but very effectively. And it’s her sarcastic voice we hear making remarks about history, aided by her Chinese friend’s tales of the past and her son’s utopian visions of the future. Notably, it’s her story, not Thụy’s: this is on the surface a story about Thụy, but he is a “signified… [which] is perpetually absent,” in the words of Ally Le. It shows the limits of the narrator’s becoming-Other; but again, it also signifies a respect of the Other, not telling what is his to tell. Who knows what story he can tell us. Maybe it would be something totally different from what the narrator imagines. Maybe it would consist of silences.

The important thing, though, is that without the narrator, we wouldn’t even know of (the need to hear, the existence of) Thụy’s story. He would be another nameless face in the crowd, destined to vanish in the sediments of history, not meriting even a footnote. The task of bringing such sediment to the surface may belong to historians, but the task of bestowing them with human faces must lie with literary writers. And I think the novel form has an inherent advantage in this task. In Chinatown, it is foremost the narrator’s face that we see, of course, but we also come to see other faces through her eyes. She stepped out of her central place in her thread of history and into other histories, and this stepping, with all its inadequacies, allows us a hint of those. Encouraged by love, she bears witness to their possible stories, even to their silences and lacunas, and she also shows how suffering borne by the wretched of histories also pains the ones who love them, who may live in favored histories. This bond of love—trite as it may sound—is what makes that ethical stance possible, I think; not only love (a bit obsessive and unhealthy) for Thụy, but also for Mlle. Feng Xiao, or for her Muslim students. Chinatown, compared to Thuận’s later novels, is a book full of love and maybe that’s the reason why, even after she has penned eight other books, it remains a reader favorite.

RP: To conclude, I want to return to my first question where we briefly touched upon the working conditions of translation. In many cases, translators are also expected to work as the mediator between Anglophone presses and then the country of whatever language you work in, and there is so much administrative work, coordination, and all these other mundane tasks placed on translators that are often overlooked and unaccounted for in terms of our labor time and pay. What do you think are some changes we need to see in the translation / publication industry—how can we create a better community, an ecosystem for translators to really thrive?

AL: I think most translators, by definition the mediators of wor(l)ds, won’t mind too much playing the same role in nontextual settings, especially since there’s ample room for cultural shocks/misunderstanding/different expectations/language support needs. And especially translators from less translated languages that are also their native languages are simply too eager to advocate for their languages/works/authors (of course this creates opportunities for being exploited, but frankly speaking, being exploited is a familiar mode of existence for minorities or thirdworlders. I’m not saying that it’s the way it should be, just that more often than not you don’t have much bargaining power when you’re just another Tae, Đức or Haru). My perspective would perhaps be different from native translators in countries where you’re used to fighting loud and clear for your rights. And in my experiences working in Vietnam on both sides of the contract, it’s often the reverse problem, that the translator (mostly in a work-for-hire model) is sidelined and does not have much say about matters concerning the book’s presentation. Both models have pros and cons and lots of compromises, and it’s hard to say if either is inherently good or bad—it varies from case to case and depends so much on the type of publisher, the skills and expectations (and even personality) of the translator, the particular relationship between any given trio of translator-author-publisher(/editor), and a hundred other circumstances. 

The situation that you described though seems blatantly exploitative, and it sounds less a translator problem than a labor problem. But I can imagine how the conditions of the translator make them especially susceptible to it, either accepting the exploitation or ignoring the fact that their good will is being abused. We translators have long been taught to embrace, indeed to take pride in our invisibility, to be seen—or rather seen through—and not heard, like demure, ghostly Asian women. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as second-class creators (and this is something I myself didn’t even realize until I worked on our Zzz Review issue on translation, reading works such as Lawrence Venuti’s Translator’s Invisibility and Pierre Assouline’s “La Condition du traducteur,” which sound just like a slogan “Translators of the world, unite!”). In fact, a great number of my translator friends choose to be (and stay) translators because they won’t have to face “the public.” At the risk of sounding naïve, I think those who work with books are less comfortable raising questions about compensation and workload, especially to people that they may regard as friends and mentors, and especially if they are aware that editors/publishers are suffering from much work and little pay too. So ideally it should be the ones with (more) power, the publishers, who lead the way in publicly recognizing translators and treating them with respect, because even from a financial perspective, a translator who works alongside them as a friend, a peer, a partner is better for business in the long run. But I think it’s hard for established institutions to learn new tricks.

In this regard, start-ups and indie publishers are in a more favorable position to initiate changes. I cannot stress enough how lucky I was to have the wonderful Tilted Axis Press as my first Anglophone publisher, something I didn’t realize until reading further into the Anglophone translation debates. Not only are they committed to #namethetranslator, but they take treating translators well for granted, in the initial contract as well as in subsequent dealings. Again, mileages may vary, but I have better contractual rights as a first-time translator into English than I do after over a decade working in Vietnamese. They treat me with respect and care and in turn, I feel more entitled to voice my opinions—and contribute to the project. My experiences with TAP also made me reflect on my own treatment of translators in my capacity as an editor (which is surely still lacking in so many aspects) and inspired me to follow their leads, if I ever find myself in a similar position.

But with the translation market being what it is in Anglophone countries, there’s little incentive for publishers to invest in translation. Translators and even well-meaning publishers cannot keep up in a meaningful and sustainable way without help (financial, institutional, ideological) from outside. In fact, in both translation-averse countries such as the US and translation-worshipping countries like Vietnam, niche or even overly highbrow works can barely find a publisher without the support of cultural programs or translation funds, either in the target country or from the original country. Chinatown, for example, was made possible by an English PEN award. And this is a luxury that may evade smaller nations, or nations without too great a literary reputation. 

What about us, what can we translators do? I think first, we must get over the romantic but self-sabotaging notion of translators as starving second-rate artists toiling alone for little pay because we don’t deserve any better. As far as I know, full-time literary translators, or translators who can live by their craft, are few and far between; we mostly earn our living by other means, with translation being our side-job or maybe paying hobby, and we treat it as such (or at least I did, for a long time). But it’s a job and to manage it as a job, literary translators can learn much from industry translators, or indeed from the general discussions about workers’ conditions that have been picking up steam since the COVID era.

This is easier said than done though. Because translators are accustomed to working alone, perhaps even more than other types of writers, they often lack a support network, as well as access to practical information. Translators, especially emerging translators, need to actively find community and tap into available resources. Translation workshops are a good option, but most offerings that I’ve found are too expensive for new translators, so we’re back at the question of outside help (I joined the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School last year on a bursary and the sense of community and solidarity I got from it was just incredible). But conversations are opening up more and more, and following those conversations can really help illuminate where you are and to what reasonable extent you can push your claims. And we need the media to provide spaces for such conversations, to be an ally—spaces like this very interview. I want to express my thanks for your not only having given me, during our months talking back and forth, the time and space to reflect more deeply about my practice and the book that I thought I knew by heart, but also done with respect and care, whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say. Translators’ voices, as with any other type of workers, must be heard before translators’ working conditions may be improved.


by Thuận, translated by Nguyễn An Lý

Tilted Axis Press, £9.99

Nguyễn An Lý is on a perpetually delayed mission to understand Vietnam. She coedits the online Zzz Review and is still trying on political and cultural stances.

Rachel Min Park is currently a Ph.D student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. Her research interests encompass Cold War epistemologies of gender in Korea and Vietnam, as well as forms of gendered globality, transnational Marxisms, and postwar revolutionary women’s cultures.


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