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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, a major debut, is one of our selections for the Best Books of April. Amazon’s Al Woodworth described this novel about a Vietnamese man who leaves his homeland for the United States as follows: "Political, historical, romantic and comic, The Sympathizer is a rich and hugely gratifying story that captures the complexity of the war and what it means to be of two minds."
Read on for an interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s an interview that goes places you might not expect:
Your family immigrated to America when you were four years old. Can you tell us about your parents, and how that experience shaped you?
My parents’ story is atypical for many Americans, but very typical for many Vietnamese. They were born poor in a small village near where Ho Chi Minh was born in northern Vietnam, a region famous for producing hardcore revolutionaries and hardcore Catholics. My parents were the latter. When they were teenagers in 1954, the country was divided, and they chose to flee south as refugees. My mother’s entire family went, but my father went by himself. He would not see any of his relatives again for forty years, until he and my mother returned in the 1990s. My parents settled into a small town called Ban Me Thuot and worked very hard to become successful merchants. When the communists invaded the south in 1975, this town was the first one they captured. My mother decided to flee with my eleven-year-old brother and four-year-old me. She left behind our adopted sixteen-year-old sister, believing that this was just another bad turn in the war and that we would be back. We walked several hundred kilometers to the beach town of Nha Trang, got on a boat, made it to Saigon, reunited with my father, who had been away on business, and then fled by boat a few weeks later when Saigon fell.
We were resettled at a camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. A few years later, we moved to San Jose, California, where my parents opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city. They worked extremely hard, and I remember this as a bleak time, marked with anxiety, stress and violence. The Vietnamese community was large and suffering from various consequences of war, including mental illness and intra-community violence like home invasions by young Vietnamese men. All of that permeated our house.
At the same time, on the surface, we lived the American Dream. My parents’ business flourished. My brother and I both became successful university professors. But still—I have an adopted sister I’ve seen once in the last thirty-nine years, my mother suffers from a debilitating illness that I can’t help but think is related to the horrific stresses she underwent, and I’ve been shaped indelibly by both the war and its impact on my communities and my family. Yet at the same time that much of this history was traumatic, there were also great things about the Vietnamese American community that I wanted to convey in the novel. We really are a hospitable, fun-loving people who love drama, sentiment, pop music, and nostalgia, with intense family and friendship bonds that transcend ideology, and a great propensity for self-sacrifice (and vengeance).
In what ways do you feel your novel is a “re-education” or a corrective to the accepted representation of the Vietnam War? What issues does it address that have been previously ignored?
I’ve read a lot of American accounts of the war in fiction and nonfiction, and seen many of the American films about the war. I began in my adolescence because I was curious about the history that had brought me here, and because I had a fascination with war stories. Like many Asian American youths encountering American war stories set in Asia, I had a dislocating experience—I identified with the protagonists of these stories until the moment when they said “gook” or killed these “gooks” in mass numbers. Clearly I was a gook and that was confusing because I was also an American. This was the beginning of political consciousness, the confusion that needed to be resolved, the sense that these stories might be wrong in some fundamental way about history and the humanity of “gooks.”
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Apocalypse Now was a very important movie in this regard, because it is a major work of art whose force is based on depicting both the savagery of white men and the pathetic quality of the gooks they kill. I saw it when I was young and have never forgotten it. I wanted to pay back Francis Ford Coppola for scarring me, by writing a work that would satirize how Americans can both recognize the inhumanity of their deeds while also refusing to allow the humanity of those they kill to take center stage. In one sense, my novel is an effort to give humanity to these gooks and to present history from their point of view. But I also feel that the war demonstrates how the human and the inhuman exist simultaneously within all of us. All of us have the potential to do “good” and “evil,” even if we would prefer to think that we are good and human and “they” are neither. I wanted a protagonist and narrator who is capable of great insight and intellect and emotion, all the signs of being human and complex, while also being capable of doing great harm, which is both human and inhuman.
In this regard, Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann was the other important work to me, because it features an awful rape that also scarred me when I read it at too young an age. Heinemann is to my mind more sensitive than Coppola to the Vietnamese, but what he does in this novel that is so difficult to confront is that he refuses to editorialize about what these American soldiers do. As a young reader, I wanted the comfort of the author saying that this is bad. Coming back to his work as an adult, I appreciate that he let the horror stand. Heinemann doesn’t glamorize violence, turning it into an entertaining spectacle, which Apocalypse Now does. My novel satirizes that movie to show how American culture as a whole has always looked at the Vietnam War as a gigantic spectacle playing out for American interests and audiences.
Do you see THE SYMPATHIZER as a political novel? Does its politics make it in some ways an anti-American novel?
It is very definitely a political novel. I’m the kind of writer who believes that art and politics overlap, and that art can be political without being limiting. In fact, making art political can enhance it. But is all art and writing political? In some sense, yes, just as everything is political. The trick is to strike a delicate balance. That’s why satire, humor, black comedy, and self-reflection are key to the novel, as a way of making the politics go down a little easier. Much of the political force of the novel is directed at American culture, although that’s not the only target. Still, some sensitive American readers might think the book is an anti-American novel, which I won’t necessarily argue with. But is anti-Americanism so bad?
As one of my characters points out, anti-Americanism still places America at the center, and if there’s one thing Americans want, it’s to be at the center, even of criticism. That’s why America’s Vietnam War films, even if they are often critical of American behavior, are still reassuring to Americans who want to see themselves in the foreground, even as anti-heroes. Of course, I thought I was trying to write the Great American Novel. But the tradition of the Great American Novel has an enormous power to assimilate all kinds of opposition and criticism into the great American heart. Perhaps it’s important to imagine a Great Anti-American Novel that can both criticize America while resisting its pull. Many works of African American literature could justifiably stake a claim to being both the Great American Novel and the Great Anti-American Novel equally. These have been the most influential works on me, particularly the books of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison.
THE SYMPATHIZER taps into a rage that readers more often find in African American fiction than Asian American fiction. Do you have some touchstones from that literary tradition?
There is an early tradition of Asian American literature that is full of rage, from the sixties, and it continues in some of the spoken word, poetry, and experimental fiction published by small presses. But the Asian American literature that has become well-known since the 1980s and published by major houses has very little rage, except most often rage directed against some Asian country or tradition, or against Asian immigrant families, communities, and patriarchs. I find this deeply problematic. At the same time, I recognize the importance of Asian American literature to my own world, that it was important to find these Asian American voices even if, in the end, I disagreed with many of them and found them too quiet.
African American literature played a key role because it does exhibit rage; it’s expected to be angry by American readers, anger being the emotion that these readers think African Americans have (too much of). But African American literature has more than just rage; it is also characterized by highly refined aesthetics. It’s the combination of rage and aesthetics that I was aiming for. Some of the most important authors who have influenced me have been African American—Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison. I’ve taken something from each of them. In the case of Ellison, Invisible Man" was very much on my mind. It’s my favorite work of African American literature, and one of my favorites of American and world literature, though I find myself disagreeing with Ellison on his politics and his conclusion. I wanted my novel to be in conversation with his and show that a disillusionment with revolution (as his protagonist experiences) doesn’t have to lead to a reversal into liberalism, individualism, and a claiming of the human. So my novel ends with a continued aspiration for revolution and the turn from an “I” into a collective “we.” When Ellison talks about fiction as a “raft of hope,” in the afterword to the anniversary edition of Invisible Man, I thought about refugees on a boat—not only individuals, but also an anonymous, unwanted mass.
Your depiction of confessions obtained through torture is chilling, and reminded me that what was perhaps once a dirty secret is now recognized as standard operating procedure. Can you talk about the line that runs through the Vietnam War to the War on Terror?
Torture was prevalent during the Vietnam War, used by all sides. It was a crime in all cases, but Americans prefer to remember, like John McCain, only the torture used against them. At best, Americans as a whole remember the torture used by their allies, the South Vietnamese. Alfred McCoy’s book, A Question of Torture, is critical in showing how the U.S. government deliberately developed torture techniques starting in the 1950s and refining them in Vietnam through American proxies in the 1970s and in Central America of the 1980s.
And of course those techniques were also used in places like Abu Ghraib. In short, the United States has never forgotten those techniques. They’re embedded somewhere in our war machine, waiting to be used in the right circumstances. Americans can no longer claim that they don’t know this happens, since the debate about torture has happened in public at the highest levels. They—we—are all now implicated.
Are there Vietnam War novels that you feel got it right?
I love Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War, Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn because I think they get this issue of how close the human is to the inhuman, and they are not sentimental. They are willing to show both the good and the bad when it comes to their own side. In the case of the both American and Vietnamese authors, they know they should know more about the other, even if they know only a little.