TOM LUTZ CHOSE The Sympathizer for the LARB Book Club in June 2015, long before anything like the Pulitzer Prize was on the horizon. He has good taste! But in all seriousness, it was great to get early support from Tom and to participate in a terrific online discussion with the engaged and careful readers of the Book Club. Here’s an edited version of our expansive conversation on Facebook.
Many thanks to Zoë Ruiz for the transcription.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen
LISA SANCHEZ POWERS: I was thrilled when Tom selected your book for the book club. Reading through for a second time now, I am swept up by the emotion and the meticulous detail of this novel. I am thinking of the incredible narrator you created and wonder: How did you conceive of the captain and what were your influences?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Thanks, Lisa! I’m gratified to know you read it twice. Regarding the narrator’s genesis, I knew I wanted a spy, so that the book could be a thriller. I was inspired by a very famous spy named Pham Xuan An, who studied in Orange County, became friends with many Americans, was silenced after the war, and shuttled easily between two worlds. This type of character seemed perfect for being knowledgeable enough, and situated properly, to criticize all sides and ideologies. I made him of mixed-race descent partially to address the lack of such kinds of characters, especially in roles that are not just the tragic mulatto/divided-between-two-cultures-irreconcilably type — although my character skirts with that. Mixed-race heritage also obviously puts him in the situation of being torn, of being the object of suspicion of who he is, not only because he’s a spy. As a figure, the mixed-race spy allowed me to address many of the divisions of the Cold War, or of any situation where extreme positions divide people and force them to choose. As for the narrator’s voice, I was influenced by many sources, including and especially António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World and Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.
CATHY MCGREGOR WEINGEIST: The central character seems to me to be the loneliest and most alone person I can imagine. He is not what he seems to everyone in the community, including one of his two true friends. If this is a novel about a community, is the captain part of the communist community? Does he want to be? Does he really care about and feel connected to the communist community that he left in Vietnam? Or is he condemned to be a man apart?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Yes, he’s lonely. Partly by dint of being a spy and hiding from nearly everyone. Partly because his loneliness can be read as existential. Partly because I saw him as a magnification of tendencies that seemed to me to be widespread — division, alienation, loneliness, despair, desire, which many may experience to some degree or another. But for him, those things are felt much more acutely. I think he does want to be part of a community, sees himself as belonging to different groups, especially the revolution, but each community and group casts him out or mistreats him in different ways. Every community and group does that to somebody; it’s his misfortune to feel that he can’t find any group or community to which he wholly belongs, even the one that he thought he did fully belong, the revolution.
LISA SANCHEZ POWERS: In Chapter Four, you have a devastating line that sums up the experience of a generation: “Joining a line to turn in our trays to the dishwasher was the coup de grâce, pronouncing us no longer adult citizens of a sovereign country, but stateless refugees, protected, for the moment, by the American military.” This line resonated with me in regards to our actions on the global stage. I wonder if you would like to comment on similarities and differences between past and present American interventions, or any interventions.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I see the Vietnam War not as a discrete incident, a chapter to be closed, but as part of a continuum of American war since the 19th century that has sought to expand the borders and powers of the United States. Other interventions or invasions can be compared to the Vietnam War, and the narrator’s situation can be transposed elsewhere, because what we are really dealing with is what the novelist Gina Apostol calls a psychological disorder (speaking of the military industrial complex) — that is central to American culture and character. The Vietnam War just illustrates that and stands out because American ambitions failed.
BRIAN MCGOVNEY: One question that occurred to me while reading: How can a nation move ahead while clearly seeing and acknowledging the blood on its hands? How can we move past this insistence of our own innocence?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Certainly there is a critique of American innocence in The Sympathizer, which has a particularly American character in the way that it’s expressed through privileging the word “innocence.” But I also wanted to make sure the Vietnamese of all sides were criticized too, because they are also invested in their own innocence. Although that word “innocent” is not what characterizes their beliefs. All nationalisms are based on the idea that “we” never did anything wrong; each nationalism has its own unique way of expressing that. Criticizing only American innocence would, in an inadvertent way, keep Americans at the center of the story.
TOM LUTZ: There are so many genres at work here: thriller, war novel, immigrant novel, Romeo and Juliet–style family-frustrated love story. Part of its appeal is this mix, right?
BOGDAN SUCEAVA: And political fiction.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: All these genres were in my head, because each of them touch on some aspect of Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American culture or history, all of which happen simultaneously, in my experience. The hooks of the novel, though, are definitely the thriller and “Vietnam War novel” genres. The Vietnam War is still, for better or worse, it’s own kind of genre, deeply fixed in the American (and world) imagination. I knew my book would be classified in this way and would draw attention because of it. I wanted to subvert it even as I used it. As for the thriller, I like plots, and this genre offers the opportunity to deploy strong plotting with crime, violence, and sex, all things I like in my fiction. I didn’t get as much sex in as I wanted. Or drugs. Those have to wait for the sequel.
GERALD SATO: How memories are made and the reliability or unreliability of memory seem to be prominent themes in The Sympathizer.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: The novel is very much about memory, both of the coerced kind (the narrator is being strongly encouraged to remember) and the uncoerced kind (he very much wants to remember certain things and people). I was influenced very much by W. G. Sebald, in particular by Austerlitz, and the way he so compellingly turns remembering into a narrative that wanders in unexpected ways. I couldn’t do that as well as he does. I’m too fond of plot and forward action.
BRIAN MCGOVNEY: You clearly have a love/hate (perhaps mostly hate) relationship with Apocalypse Now. The narrator’s and Bon’s feelings about the (disguised) movie are explored in depth in the novel. How, if at all, do Nguyen’s thoughts on that movie differ from the narrator’s?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I have not so much a love/hate relationship as a respect/hate relationship with Apocalypse Now. I saw the movie when I was about 10 and it traumatized me. I respect it as a work of art but find it deeply problematic in terms of how it represents Southeast Asians. Apocalypse Now’s condemnation of American behavior also keeps the focus on Americans. For Americans, it’s better to be the villains or antiheroes of their own story than to be the extras. Although I’m well aware that Apocalypse Now is a complex work with a complex history of production and shouldn’t be reduced to a caricature, I feel that I’m well within my rights to ignore nuances given how un-nuanced Apocalypse Now is in its depiction of Southeast Asians.
TOM LUTZ: What do we think about the film sequence?
GERALD SATO: There seems to be several things going on in the filming sequence. There’s the narrator’s critique of the long history of Hollywood being Haolewood. White actors portray vicious stereotypes of Asian characters described in the novel, white actors play benign Asian characters, which is no less whitewashing and insulting and fraudulent. Yul Brynner played an Asian man, Luise Rainer played an Asian woman, and Linda Hunt played an Asian man, and they all won Oscars.
But the filmmaking sequence focuses on the narrator trying to find some way to recapture and “represent for those who cannot represent themselves.” He knows whatever he achieves can’t last. He has a small but significant victory when he is visited by some of the Vietnamese extras at the hospital, who recognize just how heroic he has been. They’ve enjoyed a triumph even though their voices won’t be heard in the movie.
LANCE HEARD: Gerald, I see those themes. Something else struck me about the deification of the director and his punishment of the captain for defying him: first to kill him and then to remove his name from the credits, a virtual death. The other image that struck me was the rape scene, which “had” to be part of the film and graphically detailed. I am compelled to wonder about it being a symbolic representation of the land defoliation, the mass maiming and killing of the people, the total disruption of the society, the complete upheaval of the nation as it was. I wonder if so many would have been killed, oppressed, or exiled to the United States without foreign intervention.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Great comments. To add a few more things: I wanted to talk about the actual war but didn’t have the room in the plot to do so. And I wanted to get my revenge on Apocalypse Now. Satirizing the moviemaking allowed me both to have fun with the movie and depict war through allusion or refraction. The effect is hopefully tragicomic. Such a method allows me to avoid having to write war scenes that would inevitably be compared with the ones written by those who were actually there, of which there are already many. I didn’t feel that I had anything to add to “actual” battle scenes, but that I could create a different effect in satirizing the racial and national attitudes that underlay both the filmmaking and the warmaking on the part of Americans (and to show them as connected). Lastly, the Hollywood section ends up foreshadowing the ending. Instead of tragedy and then farce, the novel has farce and then tragedy.
BOGDAN SUCEAVA: The novel touches briefly on the connection between the French Left in the 1920s and the Vietnamese students in Paris at that time. Some details about Ho Chi Minh’s early days are well known. I believe one can trace the origin of Viet Cong’s ideology back to those days, to the ideas of the French Left from the Interwar period.
TOM LUTZ: Pol Pot, other Khmer leaders, Zhou En Lai, and many others made it through Paris in those years.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I’m very interested in Paris and radicals. The novel does allude to the radicalization of young Southeast Asians in the metropole, and the sequel to The Sympathizer is set in Paris and deals with the long-term consequences of that history. I was/am very much interested in not only the Vietnam War and its related issues but also in politics, aesthetics, radicalization, the ideals and failures of revolutions. But for the author to just spout that kind of stuff isn’t that interesting in fiction. I had to have a dramatic reason for that kind of discussion to take place. So creating a narrator who would reasonably have these kinds of ideas and attitudes was key to the novel. He is someone both central to history (in terms of having these attitudes and revolutionary convictions, sharing them with the great revolutionary movers and shakers) but also marginal (in his rank, but also in his flawed ambivalence and hesitation).
BOGDAN SUCEAVA: The small group of former South Vietnamese military preparing and then executing a political assassination recalls Dostoyevsky’s Demons and Verkhovensky’s revolutionary society. How important is Dostoyevsky’s literature for you?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: He is a very important influence. I looked closely at the Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov for the interrogation scene in my novel. I also read Notes from Underground for the first time, because it was a major influence on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was a major influence on this novel. Although I didn’t reread Crime and Punishment, I’m sure it was lurking in the back of my mind.
BOGDAN SUCEAVA: Related to the literary connection mentioned above, Lev Shestov’s perspective on Dostoyevsky’s characters incorporates a vision that takes into account the Eastern Christian theology, whose influence in 19th-century Russia was important. When a character prepares and executes a political assassination, there are important religious and psychological implications. Does the enlightenment described at the end of Chapter 22 have any religious implications, in the context of the traditional Vietnamese culture?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Christian and especially Catholic themes and symbols are important in the novel, including in the interrogation scene and the use of the Q-and-A format. Anything that invokes Catholicism has to bring forth the core narrative of sacrifice and redemption, or murder and damnation. The assassinations that occur do allude to that, particularly for a narrator who is so deeply affected by Catholicism. As for the enlightenment, I’m not sure if that exact idea is important in Vietnamese culture, but the idea of civilization versus savagery is. The novel certainly deploys the relationship between “light” and “enlightenment” in English, both in terms of vision and weight.
TOM LUTZ: Can you talk a little bit about the relation between your academic work and your fiction writing? You are very active as an academic writer and organizer, and academic work is often criticized for its jargon, its PC-ness, and its irrelevance. From what I know from my own case, when academics write books for a general audience, rather than for their disciplinary audience, they can be shunned by some colleagues. How are you finding the reaction to the novel in academic circles?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: So far my fellow academics seem delighted that I’ve written a novel (at least that’s what they say to my face). Those who’ve read it and said anything to me about it have been quite nice. But who knows what the long-term reaction will be? When I was writing the novel, I sometimes thought about my fellow literary critics and wondered what they would say, knowing how critical they could be, but I was successful in compartmentalizing that. I had some fun with academic satire with a couple of the professorial characters, and in my mind, the meeting with the Commissar and the whole idea of rewriting one’s confession was my gesture at the writing workshop.
My training as an academic was not a hindrance to me in writing fiction; I felt that all the theory and criticism I’d read, as well as the literature itself, all came to be very useful in thinking about what the novel was doing in terms of its allusions, its place in literary histories, and its attempts at certain kinds of aesthetic moves. Conversely, writing fiction has made me a better critic, in the sense of being more sensitive to writers, but also in terms of being a better writer as a critic.
TOM LUTZ: I find in American literary history a very constant interest, among literary readers, in new communities, in learning about populations of persons — whether it is Nebraskans in Willa Cather, the multinational black working class in Claude McKay, Jewish immigrants in Abraham Cahan, or gay hustlers in John Rechy — who had not been represented before. The post-fall of Saigon Vietnamese immigrant community, it seems to me, is one of those groups. Do you see yourself in that tradition — a combination of regionalist and immigrant fiction?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: American literature is definitely interested in the other, the new, and the different. Although to what degree, and if always satisfactorily so, is always in dispute. I do see myself as belonging to regionalist and immigrant fiction, although that doesn’t preclude me from also seeing myself as belonging to the national and hopefully the international. With this novel, I definitely wanted to emphasize strongly the regional (California, especially southern, Los Angeles, Orange County, but also “Indochina”) and the immigrant (but also the refugee, which overlaps with the immigrant but is not the same). I wanted to connect the war story to the region, the immigrant, the refugee because, for me, the war story is not only about soldiers, but about people who are driven to become immigrants and refugees because of war, and who connect their new regions to their old one.
GERALD SATO: Is there a plan to translate the book into Vietnamese?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I would like to arrange my own translation and send it out for free over the internet. It would be impossible to translate the novel officially in Vietnam, given the last third of the book.
GERALD SATO: I found the concluding scenes of The Sympathizer excruciating and still very satisfying. Themes pursued in the novel regarding memory and personal identities come to a very satisfying resolution; the captain has experienced some sort of redemption, and his outlook for the future is positive.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I did want to give the captain, and the reader, a little bit of hope.
BOGDAN SUCEAVA: Why did you feel a certain positive perspective on the character’s possible redemption was the best outcome for the end of your novel?
VIET THANH NGUYEN: I mentioned before that the book alludes to Invisible Man. At the end of Invisible Man, the narrator has a little bit of hope after the difficult journey he’s endured. In an afterword to the novel, Ralph Ellison talks about the novel (as a form) as being a raft of hope. So I wanted to reference that, but do it differently. Invisible Man turns away from communism and revolution, and toward, at the end, the individual. This fit well with American culture of the 1950s. It was deliberate for me to have my narrator, even as he has suffered tremendous disillusionment with communism and revolution, to insist that the response is not only to turn back to the individual but to acknowledge the importance of solidarity as well (hence the “we” of the end). That’s the hope, and Ellison’s raft becomes an actual boat. Besides all that, I do believe that there’s always hope, if even just a sliver. That’s how change happens, even if just a step at a time, taking us toward the big changes, eventually.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, from Grove/Atlantic (2015).
Zoë Ruiz lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, The Millions, Marketplace, The Rumpus, Salon, and the anthologies California Prose Directory (2014), Rooted, and Golden State.