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Good Refo + Bad Refo = Two Faces

Pauline Hanson miscalculated. Bay 17 is not swamped by Asians. Instead, the theatre is filled with private school girls, elderly inner-west folk and Dangerfield-clad uni grads. It’s noon on a Thursday. Shirley Le reminds you: “Real Asians are busy making money. Duh.”

Lights dim to reveal a fitted green blazer on tan trousers. Benjamin Law’s radio voice proceeds his spotlight smile and slicked-back hair. Emerging from blue velvet in a navy suit combo is Viet Thanh Nguyen – high cheekbones and smooth American accent. Screen-worthy.

Wolf-cut perm loc of hair tickles against your left ear lobe. Ben is asking a question and Shirley leans forward in her seat, waiting for Viet Thanh Nguyen’s answer. What was the first thing she ever said to you? Oh, yeah. “Read The Sympathizer. This guy’s Viet but everyone’s listening to him. That means something.” Wipe the snot off your nose. It’s your own fault you’ve been lying to her for years, saying you’re gonna borrow it from the library. But it’s okay cause Viet Thanh Nguyen reassures you (and the 300+ crowd) that if you haven’t read his seminal work, you can now watch it on Binge. 

The Silver Screen is the main focus of Ben and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s in-conversation. Hollywood’s pop culture soft-core power enhancing the military industrial complex. Apocalypse Now making Viet Thanh Nguyen question if he was the Vietnamese being killed or the American doing the killing. How Keanu Reeves, a Native Hawiian-Chinese-English-Irish-Portuguese-Canadian, was first pitch to play one of the main protagonists in The Sympathizer, a character who is “simply” Vietnamese-French. The crowd laughs until Viet Thanh Nguyen soberly reminds us, “Before the adaptation, Vietnamese people had no role in our own drama other than being killed, raped or saying thank you.” 

Sniffles in your left ear. The Vietnam War affected Shirley’s parents just as much as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s parents. If Vietnamese-Americans weren’t getting their say, Vietnamese-Australians aren’t getting their say. But you’re sitting here like you’re watching some movie. Gross. Was it the accent that lulled you into an American Dream? 

War. Writing. Women. These are the themes of great Hollywood blockbusters. So why shouldn’t Viet Thanh Nguyen give his life such treatment in his new memoir? Written in a voice-over like tone that clashes poetics and screenplay. A Man of Two Faces remembers a young Viet Thanh Nguyen plucking his mother’s grey hairs while she tells him about seeing a starved-dead baby on a doorstep; rewatching Star Wars on a bootleg VCR; an armed robbery at his parents’ grocery shop gone wrong; his high school friendship group self-proclaiming themselves “Asian Invasion”; how he found Phillip Roth and soft-core porn in the San Jose public library; and, when he got older, attending Berkeley University only to fall asleep in front of Maxine Hong Kingston. Epic stuff. Ben says ah and hm in all the right places, easily carrying Viet Thanh Nguyen into his next sentence. Thanks to Hollywood, Americans will always be infinitely charming you reckon. But lucky Ben has the most rizz of any Aussie ever. Sucked in Chris Hemsworth. 

At the beginning of the event, Ben prompted the crowd to log into Slido, an app the festival is using to gather audience questions instead of the usual awkward mic runs. It’s not enough that you’re blogging, you also have to full put your two cents in. Nerd.

Read over your first question: “The largest refugee population currently are Palestinians. Palestine is going through forced starvation as well. How does this resonate for you both?” Click submit. Surely the most famous refugee in the world has something to say. Check Slido half an hour later only to see Waiting for review still tagged to the question. Hm. Okay. Maybe it’s just cause you asked it anonymously. Repeat a similar question in the last fifteen minutes with your full first name: “Palestine is the most decisive genocide (not really war) currently happening. How does this resonate with your own history of war and famine?” By the end of the event, both questions are still Waiting for review.

Censorship feels like your appendix burst.

In the last few minutes of the panel, Viet Thanh Nguyen reveals his second face… the real face behind that suave West Coast mask. He brushes his lips until they are winter-dry, says history is full of forgetting. Not too long-ago, Vietnamese refugees were drug dealers, gangsters and welfare cheaters; a generation of shopkeepers turned into a generation of doctors, lawyers and sometimes even writers; and when Vietnamese people became the “good refugees”, those of a browner hue became the “bad refugees”. Viet Thanh Nguyen tells us, “As unreliable as narrators are, they still have a responsibility to remember.”

Rude dash but what else can you do when you’re busting? Concrete halls turn into reflective doors turn into a locked red stall. On the inside of the cubicle door are the sticky remains of a Palestinian flag. Waiting for review.

Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer and editor from Mount Druitt. She is also the General Manager of Sweatshop Literacy Movement. Winnie's debut novel is Dirt Poor Islanders.

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