Qui Nguyen is a playwright, screenwriter, and a self-described geek. His work is known for its use of pop-culture, stage violence, puppetry, and multimedia and has been praised in the New York Times, Rolling Stones, and Variety. He received a 2016 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for his work on the PBS show Peg + Cat. His website is at www.quinguyen.com
In this interview with Xin Chào, Qui talks about his upbringing, his inspiration, and why he writes. His play Vietgone, a modern retelling of his parents’ love story, has seen rave reviews across the country. At once a product to honor his family’s past and an attempt to dispel modern stereotypes, Vietgone is uniquely Vietnamese and unquestionably American.
Vietgone is currently on production at Seattle Repertory Theater through the end of December. Tickets are going fast. Grab yours soon!
What’s your immigrant story?
Before they met at Camp Chaffe in Arkansas, my parents each had their own families. My mom had a fiancé and because she was working in the embassy, she got to evacuate early. Her English wasn’t great so she thought she was going on vacation. When they showed up at the bus, her fiancé was wearing his army uniform and he was told that he couldn’t go because he was an active soldier. They weren’t able to explain that he was actually no longer active. My grandmother ended up getting on the bus with my mom.
My father was a South Vietnam Air Force pilot. After Saigon fell, everyone was escaping and the Americans had taken all the cargo planes, filled it up with people, and flew off. My father took a gunship and also filled it up with people and flew to the U.S.S. Midway. He also lost his wife and kids in the process of trying to escape.
My dad actually wanted to go back to Vietnam. There was a period of time when, if you wanted, you could go to Guam and the Vietnamese government would let you go back home. Through the process of trying to go back, he met my grandmother. My grandmother introduced him to my mom and my dad was like, “Hold up, she’s cute. I want to keep talking to her.”
Is Vietgone an homage to them? A retelling of their story?
It’s a retelling of how they met and the romantic trappings of that. Often the immigrant story in America is told in the context that people are chasing better opportunities but there are also people here because their homes were taken away from them. My parents met as refugees and, through trying to get over the shock and suffering of losing people, they found that they really cared for and loved each other.
How have your parents responded to your career?
It’s one of those things that have evolved throughout my career. They used to always offer support if I wanted to go back to school and do something more practical. But once they see that I’m doing well and made a career out of it, they’re super proud.
For a long time, I thought they’d never understand me. I remember the moment we stopped fighting about it. I said something like, “If I die tomorrow and never became a success as a writer, as long as I still tried, I will die happy. If I had given it up and done something else and never tell good stories, then I wouldn’t die happy.”
For some reason, me telling them that what makes me happy is the journey of trying to do something regardless of making it got them to understand and we never talked about it again and their narrative changed.
Who do you write for?
Vietgone is told in a very modern contemporary American way. As a kid I watched documentaries and movies about Vietnam and it’s always from the White perspective and the Vietnamese characters were always being shot at or being saved. We were always an instrument to further the White protagonist’s story. It made me feel alien and super foreign and I hated anything related to Vietnam because of that.
So I wrote this making sure that the Vietnamese characters are the main characters. They speak clearly while the Americans speak in gibberish and catchphrases. It was a way to get the audience to relate to the Vietnamese characters more than the White characters.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. Even as a kid I was attracted to it. But as most first born kids, I was encouraged to be in the sciences and engineering. When I got to college, though, I hung out with all the hippie kids and I just wanted to write and be poor. Luckily, both my brothers are really practical and my parents were like, “Well at least your brothers will do well and if you fail as a writer you can always borrow money from them.”
I actually wanted to be an actor but I realized that there were no good Asian parts. Whether conscious or not, it was hard for people to see me in any role because of my skin color. So I started writing my own things to address that and my plays tend to have leads be female, people of color, or LBGTQ.
Who did you look up to?
Like so many Asian American kids, I looked up to Bruce Lee. He transcended race. He is an icon like Mickey Mouse and Spiderman. When I sit down to write anything, I try to create something as big as Bruce Lee. Something that was really important to me in Vietgone is that the Asian American male lead is a strong, sexually driven, and powerful character because I never saw that [except Bruce Lee].
What’s your connection to Vietnam?
I’m definitely an American kid. I grew up by that music and culture. But I’m very much influenced by my parents and I write about them and Vietnam quite a bit. I can’t speak Vietnamese and I haven’t been to Vietnam so there’s still a distance to it but without a doubt my interest has grown because I have children that are half Jewish and half Vietnamese. There are a lot of positive images and stories to feed their White Jewish side. The other half that’s Vietnamese, there’s a huge lack of that. I need to know these stories so I could tell them and if the stories aren’t out there I’ll write them so they could feel proud and be balanced in their dual identities.
Where do you go from here?
Vietgone is only the first of a 5-part series. It’s a story of my family and what they went through but I also think it’s part of the American narrative. Vietnamese make up part of the American fabric and that square of the quilt is often not looked at. I’m trying to show more depth to it.
Like any Asian parents, mine were like, “Why write about me? I’m not special. There are thousands of stories just like ours.”
And I tell them, “I know. But you guys are my parents.”
What do you hope your work accomplishes?
I just hope that people dig my stories the same way they might with Quentin Tarantino or Josh Whedon. Hopefully my stories allow the audience to have different perspectives about Asian Americans.
I get an email once every other day and one that comes to mind is one from a Vietnamese kid who wrote me after seeing Vietgone. He said being Asian American it feels like the world looks down on him but when he saw Vietgone he felt strong for the first time. I started tearing up. It’s been really cool and interesting to have that connection with my audience.