The author of the bestselling novel The Sympathizer talks about reshaping histories of the Vietnam War and finding humanity in the inhuman.
June 29, 2015
The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago. A new regime rose from the battlefields. Families like mine fled across the Pacific. Many died at sea. Others wish they had. There’s no happy ending to this story—not when the losers ceaselessly obsess over their defeat by a people they regard as having little value for human life. This obsession, of course, dominates the ways Americans tell and retell their “intervention” in the Vietnamese peoples’ struggle for freedom. It obscures a story about Vietnamese people, their triumphs and tragedies, by placing the United States, its imperial imperatives, its altruism and delusional exceptionalism, at the center of the narrative. But Viet Thanh Nguyen’s shimmering debut novel, The Sympathizer, calls our attention back to the war’s primary actors. It opens a complex world where no one is on the “right side” of history. Leaping with lyrical verve, each page turns to a unique and hauntingly familiar voice that refuses to let us forget what people are capable of doing to each other. In a phone conversation last month, Nguyen and I spoke about writing a novel full of rage against US imperialism, how the Vietnamese can “fuck ourselves just fine,” and the individual in the wake of failed revolutions.
Read an excerpt from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer in The Margins.
Paul Tran: Growing up in San Diego, California, which is a setting in your book, I was the only one in my family who could read and write in English. My mother grew up in Hu?, in central Vietnam. She was born in 1954 and came to the United States in 1989 after spending nine years in a Viet Cong prison and being re-educated in the Philippines. I spent much of my childhood trying to find literature about Vietnamese people. It wasn’t until I went to college and left home that this dream began to be realized.
I want to begin this conversation this way because I have read interviews in which you express a similar sentiment: where you, as a child growing up in the United States, looked for narratives of Vietnam in literature and in Hollywood. One of the reviews of your book from the New York Times says that it “fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.” What void do you believe The Sympathizer fills?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that when the New York Times Book Review says The Sympathizer gives voice to the voiceless, it is inaccurate. There is, by now, a significant body of Vietnamese American and Vietnamese literature translated into English. The Vietnamese people and Vietnamese Americans have voices. It’s simply that Americans as a whole tend not to hear them. Nevertheless, even given that body of writing by Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, I do think that The Sympathizer fills a gap in what that literature talks about.
When I was imagining the novel into being, I felt that there still wasn’t a novel that directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view. Much of the Vietnamese literature that’s available in translation focuses on the perspective of the Northern Vietnamese or Communist Vietnamese or formerly-Communist Vietnamese. Vietnamese American literature tends to focus on the refugee experience, what happens to the Vietnamese once they come to the United States. We really have to turn to memoirs by first-generation Vietnamese people like Le Ly Hayslip and Mai Elliott to confront the war itself.
Even so, what was missing was literature with a more critical take on what the US did in Vietnam. That was the first instinct of the book—I wanted to be very critical of the role of the Americans in Vietnam and not adopt the usual position of Vietnamese Americans, which is either to be grateful to be rescued by Americans, or conciliatory, not directly confrontational in the literature.
I was also responding to a lot of Asian American literature, which I read a great deal of because that’s part of what my research is about. One of the things that characterizes both Vietnamese and Asian American literature is that it’s often times not very angry. There’s not a lot of rage, at least not in the past few decades. And if there is anger or rage, it has to be directed at the ignorant: the Asian country of origin or Asian families or Asian patriarchs. While all that is important, I sensed a reluctance to be angry at American culture or at the United States for what it has done. That’s why, in the book, I adopt a much angrier tone towards American culture and the US.
Finally, I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook, so the book is also very critical of South Vietnamese culture and politics and Vietnamese communism. Instead of choosing its targets selectively—only being critical of one group—it decides to hold everyone accountable.
My first engagement with your work is reading Race and Resistance as an undergraduate. While reading The Sympathizer, I was curious to see if tenets from the monograph found their way into this book. It is very clear that The Sympathizer rejects the bifurcated notion of resistance and assimilation by deploying a voice that is at once self-reflective and looks at everything critically, addressing everyone. When that voice addresses everyone, would you say everyone is the audience for this book? To be more specific, as a young writer I turned to Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark to think about the ways in which writers of color have been tempted to write for dominant gazes. That was not something I felt while reading The Sympathizer. By writing and addressing everyone’s complicity in the war, does the novel avoid turning to the dominant gaze?
I was very conscious of what Toni Morrison has said about how she writes. She always writes about black people and says black experiences are already universal. There are no apologies in her work. It was very important to me that there be no apologies, no translations, no explanations in this novel because these are signs of writing towards dominant culture. So instead, I deliberately structured the book with an audience inside, as a confession towards another Vietnamese person. To the degree that there is translation or explanation, it is not translating or explaining Vietnamese culture to Americans. It is translating American culture or South Vietnamese culture to the Vietnamese. That was a really critical move for me because it allowed me to adopt this critical and satirical approach towards American culture.
I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.
Everybody in this book, especially our protagonist, is guilty of some kind of terrible behavior. For me, the ability to acknowledge that we are all both human and inhuman at the same time is really critical because that acknowledgement also characterizes dominant culture. For example, in American movies about the Vietnam War, Americans want to be on screen regardless of whether they have to be villains or antiheroes. It’s much better to be able to do that than to be the virtuous human extra in the margins. Dominant culture is perfectly willing [to feature], and often claims, inhumanity as part of subjectivity. It makes for a great movie and it makes for great art. And that’s part of what I felt I needed to do in this book as well: claiming humanity was an insufficient and condescending gesture. Being able to present a narrator who’s both human and inhuman was my way of challenging our subordination in dominant culture.
In your interview with Hyphen you ask, “What would I have done if I had lived during this time period?” In representations of Vietnamese people in the dominant culture, it’s often the case that the Vietnamese character—who, by and large, has been a Vietnamese woman—stands in for the nation. These marginalized characters are treated in the movies and in texts as a metaphor or a portal to thinking about or displaying how Vietnam has been treated. I have my opinion about who in the book stands in for Vietnam. But I wanted to ask if you do as well?
I think I was trying to avoid that idea of having any single character stand in for the nation because the book is responding to something like The Quiet American where Phuong, the character in that novel, symbolizes the country over which people struggle. There’s often a temptation to put that burden onto the character, especially a woman. But I think the different characters in the book embody aspects of what happened to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, and one of the more tragic figures is the mother of our protagonist and our protagonist himself. You can read what happens to the mother, who’s impregnated by a French priest, as an allegory for colonization. She’s also there in the book to help humanize our protagonist. We have to give him some real human feelings for someone. Our protagonist, too, explicitly thinks of himself as someone who embodies Vietnamese history—as a bastard, descended from this rape. This molestation is again an allegory for what the French did, and being divided is an allegory for what happened to the country as a result of colonization. But I try to alleviate all of that weight by making these characters as complex as I could.
There’s a moment when I explicitly saw the protagonist standing in for Vietnam: a bastard child, divided. It was a vivid reimagining of the Vietnamese origin story for me, mentioned toward the closing chapters of the book. There was a second moment, however, where I felt a character explicitly made themselves known as Vietnam. It was the agent who, upon being raped by her police captors, answers their question “What is your name?” with “My surname Viet and my given name is Nam.” In that moment, which is terrific in its terror and horror, the agent looks at the narrator and doesn’t see him at all. In a way, one Vietnam doesn’t recognize the other. It’s a magical setting: taking place in a room called the Movie Theatre. I want to know how has Vietnam, then, been made unrecognizable to itself through Hollywood? And do these rooms stand in for popular culture?
Thanks for reminding me of that; you’re absolutely right. I was thinking about the tradition of representing Vietnam through women as something that not only foreigners do but something that Vietnamese people themselves do. The moment when the communist agent says that is an allusion to the Phan Boi Chau story, which is also a part of Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s movie, Surname Viet Given Name Nam. The young woman, when she encounters someone who asks her if she is married, says “Yes, and his surname is Viet and his given name is Nam.” I wanted to both allude to this moment and undercut it, because the agent is not married to the country, but she embodies the country. The setting, a movie theatre, is also an allusion again to the movie Surname Viet Given Name Nam, whch is a riff on how Vietnam, especially women, are depicted cinematically.
In the American imagination, it is typically Vietnamese women who serve the same function that film does in The Quiet American, which is to represent the country, to be raped, or to become the lover of foreigners, especially American soldiers. We see that repeated time and again on screen: the Vietnamese woman is made to suffer for the love she has for a foreigner and that is part of her tragedy, what makes her so attractive to the West. So in this moment in the novel, I wanted to show that this was something that wasn’t simply happening in terms of what the West was doing to Vietnam but what Vietnamese were doing to themselves as well. In other words, the rape of Vietnamese women was also being done by Vietnamese men. The Vietnamese are at least partially responsible for what they did to themselves. I didn’t want to turn away and put the blame squarely on the Americans or the French, although that blame is there. I wanted this to be very specifically a moment of Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese confrontation and responsibility because, again, this is part of how we reclaim our subjectivity: we aren’t just victims but victimizers as well. This is a part of our history that we all find very difficult to confront. We would much rather blame other people or other sides. That’s important, but we also need to look fully at how “we fucked ourselves,” which is one of the key lines at the end of the book.
I’ve been obsessed with ghosts and how ghosts appear in Vietnamese American literature. Scholars like Sharon Patricia Holland and Avery Gordon have looked at ghosts in texts about American race relations and examined the ways ghosts and ghostly figures travel in the periphery of the story, haunting the margins, complicating what we know to be true about the American master narrative. So who are the ghosts, would you say, in The Sympathizer?
There are little ghosts in the book. Without giving away spoilers, there are people who die and literally reappear as ghosts in the narrator’s imagination. The narrator is haunted by the past, by figures like his mother and father, but really by everything that has happened to Vietnam. We see him being forced to flee as a refugee to the United States and leaving so many people behind. As the book moves further along more and more of the history of Vietnam is revealed, so by the end of the book, at a crucial moment, our narrator travels back through history in his imagination to recount all the ways in which Vietnam has been traumatized or has suffered from history, and how that history continues to haunt him into the present and back to the origins of Vietnamese culture: We descend from a dragon and a fairy, 100 children divided so that one group has to go to the mountains; another group to the seas. Our narrator has to go all the way back to that moment of original sin in order to explain himself how he has arrived in this ghost-ridden present.
Each page of this novel opens up something different. It turns to history, with a cast of characters and events that has significance to both US-Vietnam foreign relations and the war’s aftermath. I’m particularly interested in the part towards the end, when the narrator revisits Vietnam and the Commissar asks him, “What is more important than independence and freedom?” He screams the answer: “Nothing.” I kept returning to the beginning of the book, when the speaker claims that he is nothing, given no name, recognized by his father as nothing. Can a connection be made between the answer the narrator gives to the Commissar’s question and the narrator himself? Is the narrator the answer to the question all along—which is to say that, as an individual person who is nothing, is the individual more important than independence and freedom? Or is it plainly nothing? Might it be something else altogether?
I didn’t want to present a binary between the revolution and the individual. I was thinking really explicitly about Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, which influenced me a lot. Ellison’s book traces a similar narrative of someone coming into consciousness, becoming a revolutionary, and then, discovering that the revolution has failed, turns back to individualism. And I was with Ellison all the way up until that point. The ending of the novel is my disagreement with Ellison, because even though the revolution fails our protagonist, he doesn’t feel the need to go in the opposite direction and claim that now all that’s left for him is to be the individual. The individual who is nothing might still be more important than the failure of the revolution. And so the individual continues to assert the importance of being revolutionary and practicing solidarity. Your question is pointing at something that I think is right, that in one aspect even an individual who is nothing has a great degree of value in this revolutionary society. But at the same time, turning only to individualism is not going to be the answer to the failure of the revolutions, something I was partially trying to express at the end of the book. There’s not really a solution that the book offers at the end, because for me the adventures—or misadventures—of our narrator haven’t been completed yet. He simply reaches one moment of terrible revelation and is then left with an opening which the novel doesn’t close at the end.
You’ve said this novel begs a sequel because, even after the speaker has been utterly destroyed, there’s a moment in which his reconstruction begins. In the same vein as the question I asked earlier about ghosts, you mentioned in an interview that in writing this novel, you were haunted by nightmares. Thinking about the ghostly nightmares that occurred both for you and the narrator at the end of the novel—where you write, “He struggled with many things he now understands.”—what do you understand about this narrator, or his adventures and misadventures, or about the Vietnam/Vietnamese narrative you’re writing into, and how might that begin your next project?
I think he is just barely beginning to understand himself and the person that he is. Throughout the novel, he’s very torn by things he’s witnessed and endured while he writes the confession. He thinks he knows who he is and how the world works because he’s a revolutionary. He comes into political consciousness, which has allowed him to make sense of himself and what he’s feeling. But that confidence is taken away from him throughout the course of the book. So he’s left unmoored at the end, and he needs to discover how to reconstruct himself after this re-education. I have some ideas about what that might entail, but part of the pleasure of writing was not knowing exactly how he would change as a person. I might have to actually write the sequel to discover how his self-education will unfold.
In your acknowledgements, you write that the last words of this book you save for Lan Duong and your son Ellison. I turned to the last words and they are “We will live.” As your son grows up in this world, where this novel exists, what kind of life do you hope for him?
Being a father is a revelatory experience. My son is a complete surprise in terms of how wonderful I find him to be, which is probably what every father, I hope, thinks of his children too. I don’t want to put any burden of expectation on him in terms of what we as Asian Americans are supposed to want from our children, which is an Ivy League education and professional success and all that. That to me is not important. I look at him and I see someone who is happy, and loving, and kind, and a joy, and I want him to retain all those qualities as he grows and lives. That to me is more important than any kind of external success that he might achieve. I think what I want for him is an outcome of my own experience and what happens to my narrator in the book. I certainly wouldn’t want my son to grow up like me or my narrator; and the last thing I would want him to do would be to become a writer!
What kind of political work do you hope this book does in the world, especially in the face of a dominant American culture that will relentlessly maintain its ideas about Vietnamese people and its involvement in Vietnam?
Another interviewer, when she finished reading the book, told me that she was rattled by the ending. I want readers to be rattled by the book. That might be the most I can hope for the book politically. I’ve really wondered if I, as a critic, have overestimated the political capacity of literature beyond the scope of people who read books. I hope it does, but I don’t dare to predict what impact the book will have except within the realm of literature and people who read books. I want this book to provoke people to rethink their assumptions about this history, and also about the literature they’ve encountered before—to make them uncomfortable in a good way.