APRIL 9, 2016
FOR SUBJECTS that loom large in history, literature, film, and nonfiction — such as the Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the American War — it can be tough to find fresh narrative ground. Viet Thanh Nguyen resoundingly says otherwise in his debut novel, The Sympathizer, which deftly explores multiple sides of the war and its aftermath through its narrator, a Vietcong captain spying on remnants of the North Vietnamese Army, exiled in America after the fall of Saigon. The book has much dramatic heft, exploring the psychological retooling required of all immigrants, especially of defeated soldiers adjusting to postwar life. But this is no quiet novel about immigrant life in a new country: there’s plenty of intrigue, betrayal, and violence driving the story, and the war, in several ways, has not exactly ended.
The novel has been selected for more than 30 best-of-the-year lists, including those from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. It won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, awarded by the American Library Association. And now it’s a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel (the Edgars are the most prestigious awards in the mystery genre), the PEN/Bingham Prize (past winners include Jonathan Safran Foer and Pulitzer Prize–winner Paul Harding), and the LA Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category. The variety of accolades reflects how the novel successfully moves between genres and, at times, seamlessly blurs them.
Nguyen’s upcoming book, Nothing Ever Dies, is a scholarly exploration of how “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” For those of us interested in how stories and memory define culture, history, and identity, it’s a particularly fascinating read — especially in relation to The Sympathizer, as it delves into many of the same themes.
I met with Nguyen after a reading of his novel and a thorough Q&A with the audience, where he was energetic, witty, and composed. He seemed unfazed by the media attention he’s received and confident about his novel, which unflinchingly tackles controversial material and delivers strong criticisms. As we chatted on our way to the interview room, Nguyen was equally confident, while being very approachable and down-to-earth.
RICARDO HERRERA BANDRICH: Let’s first talk about music in The Sympathizer, which really electrifies your characters. It briefly helps them forget about their traumas and their otherness in a new country while also reminding them of those issues, in both nostalgic and empowering ways. And this happens with Western and Vietnamese music.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Yeah, and I think it was important for me to include that because, when I was growing up in the Vietnamese diaspora, music was really crucial for us. My parents, for example, listened to Catholic music and church music — which I found utterly boring — but at the same time, it was impossible not to hear Vietnamese pop music, as well as Western pop music that the Vietnamese were listening to. That was part of the affective — the emotional texture — of being a refugee, of being a member of this community. It was as important as the history of politics and war. And in the novel, I wanted to convey the politics and the history of this community, as well as the emotions that people were feeling, which not only included melancholia and loss and rage, but also pleasure, sadness, and pop culture as well.
Were there any pop songs or aspects of pop culture that were exciting for you to write, or that appeared unexpectedly as you were writing?
Well, I tried to recreate that excitement with the wedding scene, for example, where our narrator is invited to attend a wedding of people he doesn’t even know, which happened to me all the time — my parents were invited to these things and I just got dragged along. These wedding banquets had at least three or four hundred people, and there was always a very, very loud rock or pop band, and foreigners who would come to these Vietnamese weddings were completely stunned because they don’t understand that these things typically don’t start until an hour after the time of the invitation, so they show up and everyone else trickles in an hour later and they can’t talk because the music is so loud. But it’s fun because people who go to these weddings all know each other. So, it’s a community gathering of old friends and your extended network, and you get to sing and dance and drink a lot of cognac — at least if you’re a man — and then you get to dance the twist. This is what everybody does: either the cha-cha or the twist. So I wanted to convey the sense of community that was being built around that singing, dancing, and drinking during social rituals, like weddings, or, as in other scenes of the novel, in nightclubs. This was how refugees were building community in very quotidian and pleasurable ways.
A lot of readers have praised the anger in the novel. It made the book pulse, and many of the novel’s criticisms — of Vietnamese communist and expatriate culture, of how America told stories about the war — were, well, fun to read. Where does that energy come from?
I’d been working on a short story collection for 10 years and writing it was a real struggle. Then I got to the novel and it felt like a dam broke. I had all these things I wanted to say that I hadn’t been able to say in the story collection because it wasn’t the right form and they weren’t the right stories. But then I created a character for the novel that could say all these things, but who wouldn’t be me, because if he was just me the book would be really boring. In his persona, though, these things could come off in a different way because my protagonist was a womanizer, a spy, a killer — a sort of bad James Bond.
And when the dam broke, I also felt I had to channel everything that suddenly burst forth. I had a very unique experience writing the book because I had two years off, and all I had to do was just sit there and write the book, so I could be very focused. The energy never dissipated; it was one constant stream over two years. It was really a matter of channeling that. Of feeling the energy, the emotion, and just letting it emerge in the prose.
The book doesn’t apologize for its characters’ bad behavior, and yet it also deeply explores their psychology, especially the Captain’s identity issues and his guilt.
That was really important for me. Oftentimes, when you’re a minority writer in the United States, especially if you’re an Asian-American writer, you’re put into the position of apology, of being the cultural ambassador, of being the translator. This is how I would’ve been classified. This is how Asian-American writers are made legible in the publishing industry, so the novel’s very deliberately designed not to do any of those kinds of things. I wanted it to be a confrontational novel, one that wouldn’t try to hold people’s hands or try to translate things. I worked on the assumption that, if I did it well, readers would go along with that.
They certainly have, but since the critiques in the novel are strong, I wonder if you were ever concerned how people would react to that confrontation. Then again, you’ve said that you wrote this book for yourself.
I did write the novel for myself, I was its foremost reader, and I believed that I was right. That sense of self-righteousness drove me along for those two years while I wrote the book, and of course, it was ameliorated by the sense that this work isn’t just a rant. I had to channel this self-righteousness and anger in certain ways to make them entertaining. What sustained me then was the belief that, if I said these things, who wouldn’t agree with me? Maybe, in fact, I’m right, and maybe I’m wrong, but that was the psychology behind the writing of the novel.
Minority writers, as you say, can feel pressured to be cultural ambassadors and write characters that fit expected minority narratives, especially regarding victimhood. In your upcoming book, Nothing Ever Dies, you write that exploring the inhumanity of characters helps them escape victimization. And yet, for the author, there’s always the possibility of betraying one’s family and community as a result of this exploration. Did you worry about this while writing the novel?
Authors typically feel they’re in danger of betrayal if they’re speaking about their families and things very close to home, and I didn’t have to worry about that because my novel isn’t autobiographical. At the same time, I was raised in a Vietnamese American community, my parents are deeply embedded in that community, and I’m writing a novel that’s very critical of the South Vietnamese country and culture from which they come. The novel criticizes the politics of that community and its attitudes, and that can be construed as betrayal. People have been literally assaulted in the Vietnamese American community for saying things like this.
In my case, it’s a betrayal in the sense that the novel doesn’t agree with the dominant political viewpoints of the South Vietnamese, and the people from that dominant perspective will think that you’re a traitor — it’s an either/or perspective. But I’m insulated from that because I don’t live anymore in the Vietnamese American community. If I was someone who lived in San Jose, or in Little Saigon in Westminster, I would probably be a lot more worried, especially if that was my social network. Living in Los Angeles, and having a different life, I’m quite distanced from it. My wife, however, always tells me, “Don’t you go and read in Orange County,” for example, “because they’re going to get you.”
You’ve also mentioned that a lot of Vietnamese Americans have appreciated the anger and directness with which you address these issues.
That’s because the community is heterogeneous. It’s somewhat dominated by a certain kind of faction with a certain take on history and politics, but there are a lot of other people who feel that their voices and perspectives are suppressed because they can’t talk about them in the hearts of these ethnic communities. So, for them to get a book like this that is able to say, “Everybody that was involved in this war screwed up in different kinds of ways,” I think they find that refreshing to hear.
Nothing Ever Dies explores the rewards for minority writers when addressing historical events that defined their populations, and the likelihood of being artistically pigeonholed as a result. You’ve also said that you chose to write about the Vietnam War because: “this is where it hurts.”
Worrying about being pigeonholed is always difficult for writers, and yet there’s a historical reality for why pigeonholes exist. We have them for minority writers because we’ve had horrendous historical situations that have created minority populations and minority writers. So, on the one hand, it’s important to not just voluntarily stick yourself into the pigeonhole and do what’s expected of you, but it’s also important to figure out how to address this history if it’s really crucial for you as an author. In my case, I felt that: yes, it’s expected of me to write about the Vietnam War; yes, it’s a sellable point and it’s a hook that readers will understand. But I’m going to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before, and that’s what made it acceptable.
The book is not like what American writers have written about the Vietnam War, and it’s not like what Vietnamese Americans have written about this war and this history. I felt that, as long as I can say something original, different, and provocative, then it’s okay to dare put myself in that pigeonhole.
Most of my family is Cuban, and they, as well as many in the Cuban diaspora, resent that the US didn’t help them fight Castro, but they’re also immensely grateful for being welcomed into this country. Given Vietnam’s history, I’m curious if you share any ambivalence regarding American intervention in Vietnam, if perhaps there was something good about it.
By the way, before I answer that question, I hope someone’s writing the Great Cuban-American novel about Rubio and Cruz! That is rich territory outside expected narrative. It’s going to be great material for somebody to write about one day. Perhaps you will.
Maybe! Though they sometimes scare me a little bit. Well, at least Cruz does.
That’s why they’re fun. You can’t make them up.
But about Cuba, Vietnam, and American meddling: I come from a South Vietnamese American community, and they’re sort of similar to Cuban-Americans in the sense of feeling both aided and betrayed by Americans. In public, the South Vietnamese or the Vietnamese American community will talk about feeling grateful to the United States for fighting in South Vietnam, for rescuing them and bringing them to this country, but they only talk about their sense of betrayal in private since they don’t want to seem publicly ungrateful. A lot of people, though, do feel that America made all these promises and then it didn’t follow through, and when 1975 came around, they wondered: where are the Americans to rescue us after getting us to fight this war for so long?
That’s an important part of the novel — this very ambivalent sense that the Vietnamese had towards Americans. Our narrator, who’s a communist Vietnamese, obviously shares that sentiment but at an even deeper level because he doesn’t even see the aiding part. He only sees the invasion part. The South Vietnamese, on the other hand, see it as a failure of the United States to follow through on its promises. Both of these layers of a sense of betrayal are embedded in the book.
I know you’re not a historian, but I’m curious: since The Sympathizer was your first novel, and one with such a strong basis in history, were there any battles between you, the literary scholar/critic, and you, the fiction writer?
Not really. I actually found it very liberating to write the novel, partly because I was very confident of the history in the book. I’d spent 20 to 30 years of my life thinking about this history as a scholar and as someone who’s simply interested in it. When the time came to write the novel, I had a very good sense of the politics and the history of this period I was engaging. Given the mechanics of fiction and how scenes operate, what worried me as a novelist wasn’t the big historical backdrop, but getting the historical details right. The opening of the novel, for example, which takes place during the fall of Saigon — well, as a novelist, I had to get this right. I had to do additional research and read 15 books on the fall of Saigon to figure out what was happening week to week, day to day, hour to hour, and then minute to minute by the end of that section. That wasn’t a conflict as much as a challenge. As a literary scholar, you don’t worry about those kinds of details, but as a novelist you do.
You’ve talked about the empathy you gained as a fiction writer, which hadn’t been as important in your work as a critic.
In the particular subfield of the humanities that I come from — the critical approach that’s rooted in minority discourse, ethnic studies, postcolonial critique, and Marxist theory — there often isn’t a lot of empathy because you’re engaged in serious political critique through the act of literary and cultural criticism, so empathy is the last thing you need. You need to be hardheaded. You need to dissect texts for what they tell you about politics. The frequent drawback of such an approach is that sometimes critics make the text fit into their critical vision. As a writer, I sometimes read these criticisms and think: “that’s one way of reading it, but it’s not the only way.” Or, I think: “these texts are much more ambivalent than some critics would make them out to be.” For me, that requires a certain kind of empathy for the writer and for the text, so as to approach the work as its own aesthetic object, as well as through a political orthodoxy. That makes my work harder as a critic, since it’s not a matter of shoehorning a text into an approach.
The other way that empathy has transformed me as a critic is that I do worry about the writer. If you’re a critic who never deals with artists, then you’re probably not going to care how the writer feels, you know? I actually just wrote a book review for The New York Times and I thought: “I don’t really love this book, but I respect it.” Do I have to say I don’t love it? I suppose I don’t because I feel for that writer.
Some critics would argue that such an approach is bad. I know one critic who said to me: “I don’t become friends with writers because then I have to pull my punches.” There may be some truth to that.
Let’s switch gears a little bit. In Nothing Ever Dies, you write that “no one is innocent of forgetting,” that all sides make heroes of their own people and vilify or “disremember” their enemies and, at times, even their allies. Is that process of forgetting, of narrative flattening, a symptom of trauma or shame?
I think it’s a function of nationalism and ethnocentrism. And it’s not just the Americans — the Vietnamese and everybody else who was involved in the war is guilty of it. You want to make your historical narratives and your own personal narratives of memory fit a particular vision of yourself or your nation. Often, that involves remembering yourself fairly positively and giving yourself all kinds of justifications that explain your actions, while not extending that same kind of empathy to the people who are your enemies or your others. In the book, I call that “the ethics of remembering one’s own.” We’ve been conditioned to feel that that’s the most natural reflex for how to remember people of our own side.
I’m assuming that writing fiction — especially the novel — opened you up even more to that idea of remembering your enemies and your others.
You would hope that’s what writers actually do all the time, but given my encounter with American literature about the war, that’s not true. I think there’s a lot of great literature written about the war, though most of it centers on the American experience. There’s still great empathy there — you still need to be empathetic to understand the people of your own side and to write a great story about it. In American literature, however, the empathy is constricted because American authors can’t or won’t extend that to the Vietnamese or to other Southeast Asians who were involved in this. For me, writing about the Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans — you could argue that was simply me doing what was natural. To some extent, it was. But I think it also required me to be empathetic to Americans as well because there are complex American characters in the book. It also required me to be empathetic to the Communist Vietnamese, who I don’t know personally.
Ideally, I think that is how fiction is supposed to operate. It’s supposed to encourage the writer to ever-greater acts of empathy.
Since you’re exploring all these perspectives in your novel, I thought that it was a tricky yet successful move to have your “man of two faces” tell the story — as opposed to, say, using third person or multiple perspectives. I’m curious to know how that choice helped or hindered you in that exploration.
When I decided to write the novel, I knew immediately it was going to be a spy novel. I have a genre inclination for thrillers, detective stories, and spy novels. Of course, they typically operate as first-person narratives for formal reasons — you’re embedded in this person’s point of view, creating an unreliable narration. But that also allows a great degree of intimacy with this person’s voice, and that’s the effect that I wanted to achieve. I wanted the narration to be extremely intimate, and that you would be carried along with his emotions and his ideas. While that meant I’d be shut off from dealing with other perspectives, it also meant I’d be forcing the reader to empathize with this person. Someone who’s probably quite alien to most people and does things that most would consider to be objectionable or reprehensible. That would be the narrative challenge in and of itself, even though I never actually thought of it as a challenge. I actually thought, as with the writing of the novel: “who wouldn’t like this guy?”
But then, my agent said to me: “He’s a pretty unlikable character.” When I asked him why, he said: “He kills people.”
Ha! Those are usually the most fun characters to write.
Yeah, and I wrote this novel from 2011 to 2013, and during that time I caught up on a lot of TV shows. I hadn’t watched TV for a decade, so I binge-watched The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, and these are all new TV classics that begin with the premise of unsympathetic central characters doing bad things. Same thing goes for Mad Men, right? So I thought, if these guys can do it, and these shows are about white guys of various backgrounds doing bad things — and we fawn over these shows and say how great they are — then I can do that, too.
Since we’re on the subject of having fun with bad guys: The Sympathizer is serious and tragic, but it’s also darkly funny, ironic, and absurdist.
The humor totally took me by surprise. I don’t think I set out to write — actually, I’m not sure what I set out to write. It’s now sort of shrouded in the mists of my own memory. I know I wrote a two-to-three page outline for the book and nothing in it said the novel would be funny. The outline contained the basic plot of the book and it was faithful until three-quarters of the way through. Then I came up with the voice of the book, the voice of the narrator. It took me about a summer to try different openings, different scenarios, different first lines. And then when I hit this opening line — which is the first line of the novel — I knew that was it. I had the voice of the book.
But that wasn’t necessarily a funny voice. I’m not sure what you would call it, but it was certainly an introspective voice. I also knew who he was as a character. I knew he’d be angry and knowledgeable. Then, it was just like setting the wheels in motion, so if you have an angry, knowledgeable narrator-protagonist, what’s he going to say when he encounters hypocrisies and absurdities, especially if he is, as I thought of him, a bad James Bond? He drinks, he womanizes, he’s melancholic. Eventually, all those factors added up to someone who was capable of saying some funny, scabrous things.
I also want to talk about your epilogue in Nothing Ever Dies, which I thought was very moving, full of images I couldn’t shake. One of them — “the boy who had lost his mother tongue, or who had cut it off in favor of his adopted tongue” — was powerful not just because it’s violent, but also because it evoked reluctance and inevitability as well as an assertion of power.
I was four when I came to the United States, so I had a four-year-old’s Vietnamese. I also have a family that, number one, is not inclined to talk very much, and number two, once they began to work really hard, they had even less time to talk. So, there wasn’t anybody to talk to in Vietnamese, and that made it really hard. I also think that, as a child, I never sat down and thought, “I’m going to stop speaking in Vietnamese.” I believe that subconsciously I felt that, “I’m not getting anywhere with this language. It’s hard to keep this up. It’s hard to use this. My parents are strange to me, and I need to focus on the language that I do well in.”
That gap between me and Vietnamese and my parents just kept growing. They tried to step in and do stuff about it. They had my brother teach me Vietnamese, they brought in people to teach me Vietnamese, but I was really resistant to it. I didn’t find it to be fun or enjoyable and that partially has to do with how Asian languages are taught in the US. Anyone who’s been through a language Sunday school program doesn’t usually have a positive memory of it. On top of that, I was either lazy and/or resistant to learning it. So I think that idea of cutting off the mother tongue isn’t too far-fetched. I think it’s something that I did and it’s something that I’ve been trying to recover from and deal with throughout my adult life. It’s been an enormous psychic and linguistic struggle to try to reattach that tongue.
Do you consider yourself close to being fluent now?
I consider myself capable of survival Vietnamese. I’ve been on my own in Vietnam and traveled through the country by myself — not on the tourist route but on the motorbike-and-midnight-train route, and I survived. On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to speak Vietnamese to intellectuals and I’ve winged it. So, somehow, it works!
And do you feel you’re writing in an adopted tongue, or your first language?
Well, I think those of us who fall under the classification of refugees, migrants, and exiles, oftentimes the feeling is that we’re perpetually in transit and in between. So these classifications of native and mother tongues are inadequate for us because, on the one hand, my native tongue is technically Vietnamese and my adopted tongue would be English, but the feeling is that it’s the reverse. I feel like English is my native tongue. I mean, I speak it like a native and I think I speak it better than most native-born Americans do.
Conversely, Vietnamese would be a tongue that I would have to readopt. But they’re both the same, simultaneously. I think that’s the psychic condition of being a refugee. Even though I’ve lost my native-born language, Vietnamese, I still feel a psychic attachment to the country and to the language. That’s why I just simply can’t be the stereotypical immigrant American and, like Jay Gatsby, decide to just forget my past. It doesn’t work for me, you know?
In your epilogue, you also talk about not returning to your birthplace because, one, you don’t want to disobey your father, and two, because the “specter of the unknown past is too unsettling.” I haven’t been to Cuba because my parents, like many Cuban parents, don’t want me to go. So when I read what you beautifully referred to as “the opposite of memory,” where “things will never be remembered, but also never forgotten,” I thought, even if I go, maybe my parents won’t have to revisit, as you say, those menacing “rememories that do not die.” Maybe this is a space where fiction can operate.
Absolutely. And obviously, my space of rememory is not the same as your space of rememory. Going to my hometown of Ban Me Thuot in Vietnam is very difficult for me. For you, it would be nothing if you ever find yourself there. Likewise, you have these issues going to Cuba, and I have a trip planned in July. For me, the trip is just, “Oh wow, Cuba, socialist paradise, let’s check it out.” It has no emotional connotation. Rememories are deeply subjective and embedded in the landscape because we have some attachment to that.
I don’t know how much power fiction has to help us exorcise those rememories. It’s helped me deal with some of the rememories through the novel and Nothing Ever Dies, but obviously there’s still this big one, sitting there around my particular birthplace, and I just don’t know how to overcome that at this point. And I actually don’t want to write a story about it, either.
Do you think you might, in the future, change your mind about writing it?
I don’t know. I think most of me doesn’t want to do it. Most of me doesn’t want to go back to Vietnam anymore. I’ve spent 13 years working on two book projects about Vietnam, and I just want to go to Cuba. I want to go someplace for fun because it’s been about Southeast Asia for the last 13 years.
But I know there’s one last thing for me to take care of and, well, maybe I’ll do it before I die.