Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War" (Harvard UP, 2016)

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According to Viet Thanh Nguyen, all wars are fought twice: first on the field of battle, and then in the struggles over memory. In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016) he explores the various ways in which the American War in Vietnam has been remembered and forgotten. But this wide-ranging, erudite, and joyously inter-disciplinary book is more than just a study of how we talk about this war. Professor Nguyen argues that we need to create a new ethics based on a “just memory” that recognizes not only ourselves and our own humanity but includes the humanity of others and also our own inhumanity. Nothing Ever Dies critiques what he terms the “industries” of memory production. As with the actual war which pitted lightly armed guerrilla fighters against the vast American war machine, asymmetry characterizes memory production. Nguyen contrasts the success of Hollywood films such as “Apocalypse Now” in globalizing the American narrative of the war with the more localized efforts of the Vietnamese Communist Party to promote their version of the war through monuments, museums, and massive graveyards. Nothing Ever Dies is a transnational project that engages both the United States of America and north and south Vietnam, but also brings South Korea, Laos, and Cambodia into the discussion. The book combines history, literary and film criticism, and museum studies into a larger philosophical exploration of ethics and a call for peace grounded in justice.

While Nothing Ever Dies is an impressive book and was a finalist for the National Book Award for non-fiction, Viet Thanh Nguyen is best known for The Sympathizer. This novel won the 2016 Pulitzer for fiction and a host of other awards. Professor Nguyen, who holds the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and is a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, was been awarded fellowships from the MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundations in 2017. Importantly, Nothing Ever Dies is a very personal work. The author places his identity as a refugee born in Vietnam but airlifted to the United States of America in 1975 at the center of the text. Growing up in San José, California, he learned about the war that shaped his life through American film and fiction. However, he often felt otherized in these often-racist depictions of the war. Nothing Ever Dies is his contribution to writing diverse Vietnamese experiences into our memory of Vietnam.

Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford, 2018). When he’s not quietly reading or happily talking about new books with smart people, Mike can be found surfing in Santa Cruz, California.

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