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Interview With Pulitzer Prize Winning Author and Vietnam War Refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen; Rupi Kaur on identity, writing and social media. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 9, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, we're looking back at some of our favorite interviews this year. And this edition, migration in

the Trump age. The Pulitzer Prize winning author and Vietnam War refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen joins the program.

Plus, my interview with the millennial Instapoet sensation Rupi Kaur.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

The US government says that it has lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied, migrant children last year after placing them in sponsor

homes. This, as the Trump administration implements even more policies that will likely lead to even more children being separated from their


Amid this anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping the United States and the West, my next guest says that his family could have been the poster

children for how refugees make America great.

He is Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer, professor and the winner of both the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark novel

"The Sympathizer." And, yes, he was a refugee from Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So, you wrote an article - you're talking about refuges and migrants and it's caused a lot of, I don't know, controversy, let's say.

What was it that sparked that from you? What moved you to get involved in this highly polarized debate?

NGUYEN: Well, I've always been interested in refugees and immigrants because I am a refugee. And, of course, right now, in the United States,

we're going through a moment of high anti-immigrant and anti-refugee feeling.

So, it was really recent actions on the part of the Trump administration, John Kelly calling undocumented immigrants uneducated and a harm to

American society, and Jeff Sessions arguing for the removal of children from undocumented immigrants.

And these are really crises in our society that I wanted to respond to.

AMANPOUR: And let me just - before I play this John Kelly soundbite to remind everybody exactly what you're talking about, just remind us of your

story. Obviously, it's a long story. But you are a refugee, an immigrant. You came with your family from Vietnam, right? When was it? How difficult

was it to assimilate back then?

NGUYEN: Well, it was 1975. I was 4 years old. My parents were in their 40s. And, of course, the Vietnam War ended and we were on the losing side,

so we fled as refugees to the United States and ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania in 1975.

And while it was a great gesture of hospitality on the part of the United States, what happened to us personally was that I was separated from my

parents at 4 years of age in order to leave that refugee camp - and that's a very traumatic experience and it's stayed with me for a very long time -

as well as this understanding that refugees and immigrants are in need of hospitality and help. And, again, it seems like, at this time, in the

United States and in many other parts of the world, that that sense of hospitality has been fading.

AMANPOUR: So, then I want to play the Jeff Sessions soundbite because this goes to the heart of the matter that's a big story today as well, allegedly

the US government losing track of something like 1,500 kids who have come across the border from the south. But this is what he said earlier.


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: It's an offense to enter the country unlawfully. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the

border, then we'll prosecute you for smuggling. If you're smuggling a child, then we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated

from you probably as required by law.

If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally. It's not our fault if somebody does that.


AMANPOUR: Yows. That is the opposite of sympathy, right?

NGUYEN: The exact opposite. And I think that we can have a reasonable debate about borders and the legality of immigration and so on, but the

idea that we're going to take children away from their parents as a way of deterring immigration is inhumane and immoral.

So, it's a moral question that I don't think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they

stick to this rhetoric of legality.

AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you again, based on this issue and based on what happened to you, in a way, the US did something in Vietnam. That's

why there was a need for people like you to flee and come to the United States. It was sort of a direct reaction to a US intervention. So, I

wonder if you can comment on that?

[14:05:01] And then compare what the United States has done in Central America over the decades that might have prompted even generations since to

be refugees.

NGUYEN: Well, of course, the United States fought a very controversial war in Vietnam. And one of the strangest and weirdest parts of that was that

it was recorded on TV and in many newspaper photographs. So that war felt very intimate to a lot of people, including many Americans.

So, when the war ended, I think a good number of Americans felt that there was an obligation to help south Vietnamese people for whom the United

States had been fighting.

Now, the situation with immigrants coming from south of the border is not any less complex, but it's less visible to some of the Americans. And it

comes from these issues where refugees and immigrants coming from south of the border are coming for economic and political reasons.

And, in many cases, they're fleeing from situations that the United States has had a hand in, in terms of the United States' involvement south of the


But these kinds of actions that the United States has been involved in have been relatively invisible to many Americans. And so, therefore, I think

many Americans don't feel that they do have any obligation to these particular immigrants, and so, therefore, it's easier to behave towards

them in an inhumane or a callous fashion.

AMANPOUR: So, let's just go back to these children. It is incredible what's happening to them. The United States says it's trying to place many

of them with family members, if there are, or with people who are known to the children, if possible, or else they go into some sort of state control,

so to speak. But all obligations end once these kids are put in so-called sponsored units somewhere.

What happened to you? Just the emotion of being separated from your family, or being put in a sponsored family, who you say treated you very

well, but, nonetheless, it wasn't your family.

NGUYEN: Well, now I'm the father of a 4-year-old and I was 4 years old when I was separated from my parents. So, I can see through him what had

happened to me.

And I certainly remember at 4 years old that this was a traumatic experience. When you're 4, you have no understanding that you're being

taken away from your parents possibly for your own good. All I felt was this tremendous loss and pain. And that has stayed with me through four


Now, I look at my son, and if I'm away from him for a day or two, I find that to be painful, he finds that to be painful. And so, I can completely

imagine that, for these children who are being taken away from their parents under situations of coercion, that the trauma is even greater,

especially if they're being taken away for many, many months. I was only gone for three months from my parents.

And if they're being taken away with strangers who may not be particularly hospitable to them, which was, actually in my case, not what happened - I

ended up with sponsors that were quite nice to me. But even that barely mitigated the situation of being taken away from my parents.

AMANPOUR: And, look, you are a real success story. Obviously, highly educated. You are right now a professor of English. You're a Pulitzer

Prize winning author for "The Sympathizer." You've written many books.

But I want to play for you what John Kelly, the chief of staff to the president, said about the quality of immigrants who are coming from - this

time from south of the border, but perhaps he means in general. Let me just play this and we'll talk on the other side.


JOHN KELLY, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the

United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS- 13.

But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They are overwhelmingly rural people. And the countries they come

from, fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They're coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws

are the laws.


AMANPOUR: So, again, it's pretty brutal. I mean, he says that he sympathizes, but you've pointed out that he doesn't empathize. He is

essentially saying that, hey, they're not good enough for us.

Your mother, she went through a hard time, right, learning English, learning to assimilate.

NGUYEN: Yes, absolutely. And it's not as if we can simply change our immigration laws, so that we only admit Pulitzer Prize winners. There's

not enough of those around.

And when I look at someone like my mother, she's exactly the kind of person that John Kelly is describing. She was born poor, in a rural area and she

had a sixth grade education. And, nevertheless, she was a heroic woman who transformed her life, both in Vietnam and in the United States. She was a

refugee twice, once in each country.

And it was because of her hard work and survival and courage that she produced people like me and my older brother, who went to Harvard, and so


And so, we have to remember that in American history, we have had a pattern of this, which is that new immigrants, new refugees to this country have

always been welcome - not welcome, but have always been greeted with suspicion by the majority of Americans.

And after a generation or two, these populations actually do become Americans and do produce people, like myself and also people like John

Kelly, whose grandparents were Italian and Irish working class laborers whose English was also suspect.

But, of course, I think either he's forgotten that or he thinks that Italian and Irish immigrants are somehow different from Vietnamese and

Latino immigrants, but really they're not.

AMANPOUR: Yes, there is that. There's either a collective amnesia or there is a collective sort of selection, natural selection, where they

think perhaps white immigrants are better than other immigrants.

[14:10:09] But let's face it, when the boat people, as you say, because you were all known as the boat people because of how you had to flee Vietnam,

when you came West, you were considered the good immigrants. I mean, you did come here and work like the blazes and make huge successes of

yourselves, for your communities as well. But you take issue with that, right? You don't think you were necessarily the good immigrants?

NGUYEN: Well, first of all, I take objection with the term "boat people," which I find sort of dehumanizing. I think in my own work, I call them

oceanic refugees, for example.

You have to remember that people who took to the oceans had about a 50 percent survival rate in crossing that ocean, which is much, much worse

than what the astronauts have faced.

Now, the other thing is that when the United States accepted Vietnamese refugees, you have to remember that only 36 percent of the American

population wanted to take these refugees.

The perception of us was that we were the so-called boat people, for example, and that we would bring all kinds of problems and contamination to

this country.

Now, 40 years later, because of the successes of many Vietnamese Americans, that whole past has been forgotten by many Americans and also by many of

the Vietnamese Americans themselves, some of whom oppose accepting new immigrants and new refugees, and so they're repeating what John Kelly

himself is doing.

But I grew up in the Vietnamese refugee community of the 1970s and 1980s in California. And I can testify that there were many of us who were actually

pretty bad refugees doing things like welfare cheating and insurance scams and much, much worse. And we've overcome that, or many of us have.

And the point is not that Vietnamese Americans are perfect or that undocumented immigrants are perfect, but given the opportunity in the

United States, these populations tend to succeed.

AMANPOUR: So, in the end, you're a storyteller and the story is very important, the narrative is very important. And you say that Donald Trump

has succeeded in dominating the narrative and that people like yourself need to get better at countering the narrative and the storytelling.

NGUYEN: And we're all storytellers. I really truly believe that. And when Donald Trump says make America great again, he's telling a story in

four words that is very seductive and very powerful to many, many people and they repeat that story and they do so over the dinner table and over

Thanksgiving and so on.

And so, it's up to us who believe in a different kind of story about an inclusive American, about a welcoming America, about an America that is

about all kinds of people, from working class white people to people of color, it's important for us to give another kind of story, such as, make

America love again, which is something that America has been capable of in the past and can be capable of today.

AMANPOUR: Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you so much for joining us on this Memorial Day.

NGUYEN: Thanks for having me, Christiane. It's an honor.

AMANPOUR: My next guest has channeled her life challenges through her cathartic collection of poetry. She is Rupi Kaur, who at just 25 years old

is one of the brightest stars of her generation.

She was born in India. She moved to Canada with her family when she was just 4. And her poetry, which she first began posting on social media as a

teenager, has attracted a huge fan base. She's often labeled the "Instapoet." And today, she has 2.6 million Instagram followers.

And she's the author of two books, "The Sun and Her Flowers" and also "Milk and Honey", a "New York Times" bestseller which has been translated into 30


I found out from Rupi that it's not been all smooth sailing. She joined me from her home in Canada.

Rupi Kaur, welcome to the program.

RUPI KAUR, POET AND AUTHOR: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: So, Rupi, I have to start - because you're a millennial rock star. You're a phenomenon and people have called you, have dubbed you an

"Instapoet." Is that a new genre? What is it?

KAUR: So, I think that title, "Instapoet", has been - it's a new genre, but for me, it's not because if you look at poetry throughout history, the

style in which I write has existed for so long. You see it in the way that poets like E. E. Cummings wrote or, one of my favorites, (INAUDIBLE).

And, I guess, the term "Instapoet" originates from poetry, which is a very traditional form of art, that's been married to something that's really

non-traditional and new, which is Instagram.

And so, over the past couple of years, we've seen dozens and dozens of young writers, who are using Instagram as a platform to share and publish

their work.

AMANPOUR: And you have almost 3 million Instagram followers, which, again, is huge. But let's

just start at the beginning. You were only 4 when your parents brought you to Canada, right? Your father came as a refugee. What was it like growing

up in that sort of other environment, that other world?

[14:15:00] KAUR: I think the biggest thing was growing up without my dad there. And so, what I do remember is when we landed at the Montreal

airport, and I was 4 years old, and my dad was there to greet us, and I had no idea who he was.

And he was all like, oh, hello, daughter. And I was like, who are you, strange man, get away from me. And like, that was the start of my journey.

AMANPOUR: And, of course, you didn't start speaking English till fourth grade, which is around 9 or 10 years old.

I want you to read from your book, "The Sun and her Flowers", about the immigrant, about the other in the way you describe it.

KAUR: "Perhaps we are all immigrants, trading one home for another. First, we leave the womb for air. Then the suburbs for the filthy city in

search of a better life. Some of us just happen to leave entire countries."

AMANPOUR: I'm really interested watching you say your poetry. And I know that when you go to bookstores or readings or when you're giving onstage

presentations, you are mobbed.

What do you think it is about the way you construct language, about where you come from that resonates at this time with that group?

KAUR: Before I was sharing poetry like this that you see in the books, I was more of a performance poet. And so, that's where I built my sort of

first connection with my readers.

And I think it's - I heard somewhere and it was many, many years ago when I first started writing. And I don't remember who said this, but the quote

goes something like, write what you fear the most, it's the thing that's most universal.

And at the time, there were so many things that I feared or that I was confronting, whether it was sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic

violence, like a great many things.

And that's all I wanted to write about and I was terrified of it. But I said, I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it. And I think that's why so

many people have gathered around my work because these are things that even though they seem like we're the only ones going through them, these things,

these emotions, whether they're sorrow, whether they're joy, all of the hardships, they are the things that are most universal regardless of race,

color, class and creed.

AMANPOUR: I want to then ask you again to read from your book, "Milk and Honey" from page 13, in fact, which is quite graphic in the language used

and the illustration that you use.

It is about the violation of a woman's body. And, I guess, as you know, there is a huge amount of concern about what's happening in India right

now, the rape of young children, the protests against it, the lack of accountability.

Read from this page because it is really quite profound.

KAUR: "You have been taught your legs are a pitstop for men that need a place to rest. A vacant body, empty enough for guests, but no one ever

comes and is willing to stay."

AMANPOUR: What were you saying there?

KAUR: From such a young age, I have been surrounded by - then it was girls and now they're women talking about sexual violence. These are things that

we have to whisper, right, because they only happen to a few people and we just don't talk about them.

But I remember that slowly, me and my best friends, we started to share our own experiences, whether they happen to our mothers, whether they happen to

our grandmothers, our aunts, our sisters. And suddenly, what I realized was this is way too common and this is not OK.

And so, in regards to what's happening in India and most of South Asia at this time, it's been happening for so long. I write because I think that

it's so necessary to heal from it, and that's the only way that we can, like, break the cycle and create real change.

AMANPOUR: You're really young. How much of this specific kind of writing is autobiographical? What sort of - have you had any encounters with

violence, with that kind of misogyny or sexism?

KAUR: Yes, I have. I think this is the question that I get the most because the work - I write in first person pronoun, and so the work is very


And so, "Milk and Honey" and "The Sun and Her Flowers", it's not 100 percent autobiographical work, but I've had my fair share of experiences

with sexual abuse and sexual violence, which is why I think I empathize with other people so much who've gone through perhaps similar acts of

violence. And it's why for a majority of my writing career, I focused on that specific topic.

[14:20:02] AMANPOUR: I just want to read out a few other lines from another of your poems and it sort of maybe goes to the heart of the #MeToo

era that we're living in right now.

You're writing essentially to women. And you say, "I want to apologize to all the women I have called pretty before I've called them intelligent or

brave. I'm sorry I made it sound as though something as simple as what you're born with is the most you have to be proud of when your spirit has

crushed mountains. From now on, I will say things like you're resilient and you're extraordinary not because I don't think you're pretty, but

because you're so much more than that."

It's gorgeous. That is so beautiful. And I'm sure many, many of your readers have responded to that. How have they?

KAUR: That is an all-time favorite. I feel like my readers are the best readers in the world because they'll recite that poem to me and they make

me like a total popstar. So, thank you to them.

That piece is really - it holds a really important place in my heart. I remember that I tried to not write that piece at all because I thought that

piece was just a little bit silly at the time. I wrote it years ago.

But it came to me, in my mind, and it sort of replayed like - those 13 lines or however many lines there are, they replayed in my mind like a song

on repeat. And I was trying to write about other things, but all I could hear was that poem.

And after three months of hearing that poem going on and on in my mind, I was like, OK, I need to get this out of my system. So, then I wrote it and

then I put it to the side. So, I think it's so funny how sometimes those things aren't really - that we think aren't important end up being the

things that move us and other people the most.

And being a young woman, especially growing up in a place where how I look is not - doesn't fit into the standards of beauty depending on where I

live, that was a very big - it was a big issue. I grew up with very little, no self-esteem for many years and I would crave that compliment, I

would crave people telling me, wow, you look beautiful.

And when they told me, oh, Rupi, you're so smart or you're so intelligent, good job on this or good job on that, I was like, no, I don't care about

that. I want you to call me beautiful.

And I think it was in my early 20s, I was like, that's so odd. No, that can't be the thing that I want most and it also can't be the thing that -

the compliments that I give the most. I can't give this word so much importance.

And so, that's why I wrote that piece because I think that, especially being women, we're so judged on what's happening on the outside, but I'm,

like, there's so much beauty and so much grace and so much dimension on the inside that we need to discuss.

AMANPOUR: And I just want to go back to your mother as well because she was a stay-at-home mum. You were encouraged to speak Punjabi at home. And

at some point -

KAUR: We were only allowed to speak -

AMANPOUR: Only allowed. There you go. Well, great. You hung on to your culture. It's great. But you do talk about being embarrassed about the

accent, being embarrassed maybe about people seeing or hearing your mum speak.

And let me just read again to a beautiful illustration you've done of your mother. You say my mother sacrificed her dreams, so that I could dream. I

mean, it's so profound, and yet so simple and it sums up almost every refugee mother that I've ever encountered.

Do you appreciate now what she did for you then?

KAUR: Yes. I know this would sound so silly and it can even be a little bit cliche. But even like as you're saying these things to me, I can feel

it in my heart and in my stomach. It makes my stomach turn.

Like, her life, in the way that it's gone and the things that she's had to give up, so that I can have this life, it just moved me in so many ways and

it makes me feel bad at the same time because I remember being at the supermarket with her and being so embarrassed because I would be off, like,

buying some chips and candy and she'd be screaming my name. Punjabis are really loud people, you know.

And so, she'd be like, oh, Rupi, come here, in Punjabi. And I'd be like, oh, my God, I just want to disappear. And I would yell at her and I'd be

like, well, you're ruining my life. Dramatic teenager, of course.

And then, I remember she would go - we would go to check out the groceries. And she would pull out like a Ziploc bag full of change. And I would be

like, the woman wants to ruin my life. Like, why mom? Why do you have to try so hard to be different? And not realizing that she wouldn't buy

herself a wallet, so that I could have a backpack.

And so, now it's like - I reflect on that. And that's why I have an entire chapter dedicated to the story of my parents.

[14:25:00] AMANPOUR: I want to go back to the beginning and circle back to the notion of "Instapoet." You don't follow anyone back. What lies behind

that deliberate action of yours?

KAUR: There was a point a couple years ago, as I was gaining such a large readership, that so much of my time went into social media. And instead of

writing or doing the other things that I loved, I was absorbed in it. And so, that was my deliberate act of being like, I need to take a step back

from this and focus on what's important.

And I think they say that no good thing ever happened past 11, and it was 2 a.m., and I started hitting the unfollow button one after the other and

then suddenly I was following no people.

There's so much that comes with comparing your life to other people. And I think it was causing a lot of pressure and anxiety for me personally. And

I realized that my presence probably does the same to other people. So, I realized that I'm also a part of that issue, but I think the conversation

in the next couple of years needs to go around what social media does to the mental health of young people.

AMANPOUR: Well, on that note, Rupi Kaur, thank you so much indeed for joining us.

KAUR: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: And what a refreshing voice in these harsh times.

That's it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at and follow me on Facebook and


Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.