When each year concludes, the anti-man-about-town usually feels obligated to yack about his most rewarding columns of the previous 12 months. This year, however, one particular column stands out far above the rest because the absurdity continues to unfold.
Just a few weeks ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction maestro and former downtown San Jose denizen Viet Thanh Nguyen learned that his autobiographical short story set in San Jose, “War Years,” would be censored from the Vietnamese translation of his collection, The Refugees. Apparently the apparatus of state power in Vietnam did not enjoy the anti-communist sentiments he employed in the narrative.
“I agreed to the censorship only if the story’s absence would be signaled by blank pages equaling the story,” Viet told me via email, adding that he and his publisher eventually agreed on a few blank pages instead of the whole story length. But it still didn’t fly. “Then my publisher contacted me on the eve of publication and said the publishing house that grants the publishing license would not permit any blank pages and only a footnote acknowledging the excised story.”
When the original U.S. version of The Refugees came out last January, the column I wrote became one of my all-time faves. Viet had already won the 2016 Pulitzer for his novel, The Sympathizer, but this bunch of short stories resulted from his life as a refugee and his youth in San Jose. Together, the stories deal with war, memory, the erasing of history, global exile, estrangement, emotional distance and the collision of nativism and non-nativism on multiple levels. It’s a fantastic book.
The story “War Years” was the only autobiographical one, with Viet placing the narrative in and around his parents’ store, New Saigon Market, which for decades was located across the street from where San Jose City Hall now stands. The store was demolished around 2002, when San Jose decided to relocate its city hall back to downtown. The humble stripmall across the street had to go, so the city forcibly exiled Viet’s parents from their cherished shop.
Skip to 2016. Last year, in a textbook San Jose facepalm, the current administration brought Viet back to town and gave him a city commendation for winning the Pulitzer Prize. He had to stand in the building directly across the street from where the city demolished the very market his parents ran for 20 years, after they came to San Jose as refugees.
This is not an isolated incident, of course. In this town, multiple generations of family memories and livelihoods are often being destroyed by real estate greed and political indifference. It’s part of the San Jose condition. Some of us natives almost expect to feel like refugees in our own city. Or maybe it’s just me, who knows?
So, last January, when Viet’s short story “War Years,” came out, I had to write a column in this very space about the absurdity of it all because the situation captured so many themes I often explore in this column: San Jose destroying its own history in lieu of something much dumber; physical buildings merging with the temporal; serendipitous trajectories converging; ghosts of former businesses haunting the landscape; and the universal-in-San Jose conundrum of the aspiring writer trying to decide if he should stay or go. That last one has haunted me for 20 years.
Now Viet’s only short story taking place in San Jose is banned in Vietnam. If readers in Saigon want to read about the intersection of Fifth and Santa Clara Streets, they won’t be able to. Think about that for a second: After the U.S. botches the whole shitty, murderous Vietnam War in the first place, after Viet comes to San Jose with his family as refugees, after he leaves San Jose to launch an academic career, after his parents are forced to give up their business just so greedy real estate people can erect a skyscraper, after Viet subsequently becomes famous all over the world and wins multiple awards, after he finally publishes his only autobiographical short story about his youth in San Jose, the Communist government back in his original country bans the story. What a way to wrap 2017. Maybe I should be grateful to still live in San Jose.