Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” with Charlie Rose.
Charlie Rose: Viet Thanh Nguyen is here. His debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It examines the Vietnam War through the eyes of its narrator, a mole for the Viet Cong embedded with the south Vietnamese government. Nguyen has been critical of past literary and film depictions of the war. He’s called Hollywood “America’s unofficial ministry of propaganda.” The Guardian described “The Sympathizer” as a bold, artful, and globally minded re-imagining of Vietnam War in its interwoven private and public legacies. The book’s non-fiction companion, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” was also a finalist for the National Book Award. I am pleased to have this author for the first time on this program. Welcome.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me.
Charlie Rose: Tell me a sense of how you came to write this, was it —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because I grew up in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. I was born in Vietnam but I came here when I was four. And I grew up well aware of how Americans thought about their Vietnam war. And what that meant for me as a Vietnamese person was to know that the American side of this totally excluded the Vietnamese experience.
Charlie Rose: Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And I grew up with Vietnamese people who were always talking about the war, or thinking, or were feeling about it.
Charlie Rose: And they all felt like their sense of what they felt, what it meant to them, how it impacted them, how it changed their life, was not reflected in the American experience.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely not. And their fears that their history would be forgotten. The Vietnamese refugees here in the United States had fled from Vietnam. They had been defeated. They definitely knew their stories were gonna be erased in Vietnam. And then they came to the United States and saw that Americans were not interested at all in what the south Vietnamese had gone through, and they fear their children would forget those kinds of stories. That was the kind of environment that I grew up in.
Charlie Rose: I mean, there are many answers to this question, but in essence, what was it about their lives? Was it simply the totality of their lives was not there or was it one part of their lives?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it was the totality, I mean, they’d lost the war, but they lost a country, and then many of them had lost family members, property, identity, prestige. All of that was wrapped up in what it meant to be a refugee in the United States and then to witness their children being Americanized and growing up in a way that was radically different from whatever they had imagined their lives to be. All that then became centralized around the fact that the particular story of the Vietnam war was being told differently than how they had experienced it.
Charlie Rose: This is also your story, too.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Partially. It’s not auto-biographical.
Charlie Rose: No, of course not, but it is your story.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: But it is my story because it is a part of my history. And when I say my history, I mean both the Vietnamese experiences but also the American experiences, because I grew up with both. And I wanted the novel to be an intervention into both how the Vietnamese and the Americans were remembering this history.
Charlie Rose: Did writing come easily to you or was it a hard-earned craft?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Very hard-earned craft. (LAUGHTER)Writing “The Sympathizer” was actually a real pleasure, it took two years. It was an amazing experience. But before that, I’d spent 15 years struggling with a short story collection and that was a really horrible experience for the most part.
Charlie Rose: But out of that suffering comes ability.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I didn’t know that. You know, 15 years of banging my head against the wall, writing these short stories, and then when it came to the novel, I suddenly felt free and liberated as if this was the right form for me after all this time.
Charlie Rose: Why this title?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, the narrator of the novel, the protagonist, is a man who sees every issue from both sides, that’s what we learn from the first line of the book. He is a communist spy in the south Vietnamese army, he’s been educated in the United States. So he’s able to sympathize with everybody and, of course, as a communist, he’s also potentially labeled as a sympathizer, so that word has two meanings for the narrator. And so the theme of sympathy, of what it means to be able to not only sympathize with the people we love and we care for but to sympathize with our enemies, that’s what he struggles with throughout his entire story.
Charlie Rose: I want to read the first line. I just love it, having just seen it. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly I’m also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent.” Wow. How long did you struggle for that line?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That took about three months.
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, the summer of —
Charlie Rose: I am a spy, sleeper…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right.
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I knew that the entire novel would be driven by the voice of this narrator because it’s all from his perspective, so it would be crucial to nail down that opening line. So it took me all of summer 2011 experimenting with different things, but when I found that line, I knew this was it, this was going to be the voice for the novel.
Charlie Rose: But then back to the question of why “The Sympathizer”?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, because this war and probably all wars deeply divided people. And people were not able to sympathize with the people they disagreed with, whether that was Americans versus Americans when it came to war versus anti-war movement, whether communist Vietnamese and anti-communist Vietnamese or Americans and Vietnamese. There was a lack of sympathy on all sides. And you need a lack of sympathy in order to fight a war for very obvious reasons. And so my narrator’s talent and his tragedy is he actually can sympathize with the enemies that he’s spying with. That’s what allows him to be a great spy but it also sets him up for great tragedy, too.
Charlie Rose: Are you surprised at all about how Vietnam has turned out?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think yes. I mean, we’ve seen alternative path in Cuba, for example.
Charlie Rose: I just returned from Havana two days ago but it’s —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think maybe what happened with Cuba, they had a charismatic leader who stayed alive. In the case of Ho Chi Minh, very charismatic leader, but he was dead by 1968, and he had been out of power by the late 1950s, early 1960s.
Charlie Rose: Here’s what’s interesting, too, on the comparison. I mean, clearly there is a line that suggests Ho Chi Minh came to the United States for help in his war of — his war — his war of nationalism, I mean, his war was about nationalism, rather than being a communist war.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This is going to be one of the great mysteries obviously that we’ll never figure out.
Charlie Rose: It might have been different if the United States had been receptive to him.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Right.
Charlie Rose: When he came and said, you know…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: He was clearly a communist, but he’s also a nationalist and he’s a pragmatist as well. The people who succeeded him were hard line communists. That’s why the nation turned out the way it is. The irony of that is that those hard line communists eventually turned the country into a capitalist country, that’s what you see when you go to Vietnam today.
Charlie Rose: Because you think — because they realize that was a superior economic model?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: They tried to implement the Soviet and Chinese collectivist model from 1975 to 1986 and it was a disaster.
Charlie Rose: Hasn’t worked anywhere else.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So they had no choice, I think, but to turn to the next thing. And they were following China. China was already going in that direction.
Charlie Rose: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So that is one of the great ironies and one of the great surprises of history is that it’s now sort of a state-run capitalism in these two countries.
Charlie Rose: Having just been there in Havana after Fidel’s death, I said to my friends there, there are two questions, one, what might have been — and we don’t know the answer, as you said we don’t know about Vietnam and where it might go now — you know, after Fidel and Raul is going to leave in two years, so there will be no Castros in power, although there are people who now say they will uphold the Castro… but will Cuba go the way of Vietnam?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think it’s very hard for them not to go to the way of Vietnam.
Charlie Rose: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Because now, there are economic and political relationships with the United States. This is what happened in Vietnam, too, you know that the U.S. reestablished these relations in 1994 and ’95. And after that, it was basically over, because that’s how the U.S. really won this conflict, right? That it’s able to introduce capitalism, dollar, investment, all that kind of stuff, tourism. So if Cuba opens its doors in that direction, those influences are going to be transformative on Cuban society.
Charlie Rose: What is it you don’t like about Vietnam today?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The weather. (LAUGHTER) It’s hot. It’s very hot and humid. I hate — I do not like traveling there for that reason. But, no, I think that it’s, whenever a country is undergoing transition like this and has been in transition for a couple of decades now, some great things happen like, you know, people are less in poverty than they were 20 or 30 years ago. But some bad things happened. The wealth gap is enormous. There’s a class of climbers and strivers. There are the kinds of problems you think happen with excessive profit, that’s happening in Vietnam, too. And it’s still a politically restrictive country. There is no free speech. There is limited freedom of religion. These kinds of issues are still very crucial.
Charlie Rose: They’ve chosen economics to focus on not politics.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: They’ve chosen not to focus on political transformation.
Charlie Rose: Economic change, yes. Political change?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: No.
Charlie Rose: No.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. Very moderate political change.
Charlie Rose: Exactly.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The debates are really within shall we behead line communists or shall we be sort of, you know —
Charlie Rose: But China is a bigger enemy than anybody.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, they’re terrified of China. They’re trying to negotiate with China.
Charlie Rose: Is it just terror or is it…
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s a very long and complicated history.
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: You know, it’s a thousand year history of colonization that China enacted on them, and so on the one hand, they know they have to placate China and China was an ally during the Vietnam war, at the same time, they don’t want to give too much away to China.
Charlie Rose: They don’t want to be dominated by China.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: They don’t want to be dominated by China.
Charlie Rose: China is so big and so huge and so rich and powerful.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: They want to remain independent and they want to maintain good relationships with China, so it depends on how far China wants to push its dominance over the region.
Charlie Rose: Because you are so steeped in this, what do you think the Vietnam war did to us?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: To Americans?
Charlie Rose: Yes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think it was a part of a larger transformation in American society. You already had the civil rights movement. You had the emerging black power movement of the 1960s. And then the Vietnam war just aggravated and blew up all these tensions. Not only did you have pro-war, anti-war Americans, but then you had Americans questioning the very fabric —
Charlie Rose: And it all exploded in the ’60s.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It all exploded. The very fabric and identity of what America was supposed to be, all that was wrapped in not just with, you know, racial conflict and class conflict but with how —
Charlie Rose: In terms of what we’ve just seen in terms of a political election, obviously about jobs and about establishment and about the system and about government, a protest because the kind of sense that there is no place for me or I’m losing my place, and things are worse rather than better, you know, in a sense had some beginning of evolution and change because of Vietnam, civil rights, and the cultural revolution of the ’60s.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, and I think we really need to take a 20th century view of what’s happening today, you know, that these changes had already been sort of implemented with the 1930s and so on. All these social changes undergoing in American society, the Vietnam war just made it very, very visible, and now for the last few decades, the right has been trying to reestablish the order that the Vietnam war disrupted.
Charlie Rose: In a review of your book, the New York Times called the Vietnam war — or Vietnam — a very literary war. You know what they mean?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: There were a lot of books written about it.
Charlie Rose: Exactly, I know that, but —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Nonfiction, journalism, fiction.
Charlie Rose: But does it somehow offer so much material, the Civil War did it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: The Revolutionary war did it?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Iraq —
Charlie Rose: Iraq and Afghanistan did it. Syria is doing it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. It’s going to be a literary war. I mean, writers need —
Charlie Rose: Because it’s life and death and —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Life, death, sex, politics, betrayal, manhood rituals, these kinds of things. All of this is wrapped up in what happens in a war, but it takes writers time to process it. We had enough time with the Vietnam war for that to happen, now we’re having enough time with Iraq and Afghanistan for the veterans to start writing about that as well.
Charlie Rose: It is true, it takes a while, then you’ll see a series of books coming out, different people with different experiences.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, it takes people at least a decade to process what happened to them. It took me two decades, three decades to try to figure that, figure out what’s happening.
Charlie Rose: You talk about the industry of memory. What’s that?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, we like to think that our memories are all equal, sort of a democratic notion, but in actuality, I think certain groups’ memories dominate over other groups, and those are the groups that have control over the industries of memory. Hollywood is one example of that, publishing is another example of that. This is why even though the United States lost the war in Vietnam, it won the war in memory because it controls these kinds of industries like Hollywood that the Vietnamese don’t control. The Vietnamese could win in their country, they can’t win globally. That’s why when people think about the Vietnam war, they think about how Hollywood has remembered it.
Charlie Rose: But are there great books and great movies written about the war from the Vietnam perspective in Vietnam, in Saigon, in —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. But these books like, “Bound in the Sorrow of War”, which is by any degree, a great war novel of the world, not just Vietnam.
Charlie Rose: Right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: People don’t know about it.
Charlie Rose: With Vietnam as —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: With that particular war as its focus. People don’t know about it, because the publishing industry in Vietnam doesn’t have the same reach that the American publishing industry does.
Charlie Rose: So we don’t know.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: How about movies? Are the movies made in Vietnam?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, there are a lot of movies made, a lot of them are not that great. Unfortunately, that is one of the ironies. You know, the industry of memory means that the U.S. — the military power of the U.S. is matched by its power to make movies. Vietnam can’t make movies like “Apocalypse Now”, right?
Charlie Rose: What’s interesting about this, too, is we’ve just seen in Hollywood over the last sort of five years, Chinese making a huge investment in Hollywood. Not only because it gives them the opportunity as an entrepreneurial effort, but also because of the power of movies and the fact that they have a huge market in China. And they —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s soft power.
Charlie Rose: Exactly right.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s part of how the U.S. sort of exports a certain kind of image of itself all over the world. China recognizes that.
Charlie Rose: From jeans, to music, to everything.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s been an enormous influence all over the world not just in — and even in Vietnam. If I go to Vietnam and tell people I’m working on the Vietnam war, I’ve seen “Apocalypse Now”, too. That’s how strong the impact.
Charlie Rose: In terms of the people in Vietnam today, I mean, how much of their — how much of their curiosity is about culture from the West?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: A lot of it. But I think it’s primarily driven by economics. The young people want to make a living — they can see through these cultural industries — you know, advertisements, movies, TV shows — all the riches and wealth of China and the West, and they want a part of that too.
Charlie Rose: They want their own smart phones, and everything else.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So culture is a part of that obviously because you want to wear the right fashion, you want to drive the right car, all that kind of stuff. But it’s driven by economics. They’re the generation that came after the generation that sacrificed and suffered horrible things. They don’t want to deal with that. They want to catch up to the rest of the world.
Charlie Rose: “Apocalypse Now.” (LAUGHTER)
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I can’t go anywhere without talking about that.
Charlie Rose: Of course not, but because you have talked —
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I brought it up myself.
Charlie Rose: You did bring it on yourself.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I did. I saw it when I was a young boy, ten or 11, it made a huge impact on me in a negative way. It is a very powerful work of art but it is a powerful work of art partially because it silences the Vietnamese people. As a young boy growing up, I was both American and Vietnamese, and I was completely split in two by the experience of watching that movie and I always wanted to respond to it.
Charlie Rose: Split in two?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: As an American, I’m watching this movie, I see it through American eyes, I’m rooting for the American soldiers, and then they kill Vietnamese people. And at that moment, I think, am I American or am I Vietnamese? Am I the one I’m supposed to identify with or am I the one being killed? And that dilemma has driven me partly to write The Sympathizer.
Charlie Rose: Yeah. It really is one more example of how Hollywood has defined our sense of history.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, and I teach a Vietnam war class and my students take it, they’re all born in the ’80s or even ’90s, at this point. No, no, 2000, right?
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So shocking. But their history is defined, the war is defined through stereotypes and through one or two movies they might have seen. Even if everyone knows Hollywood shouldn’t be taken seriously, people still take Hollywood seriously, because it’s what they get access to.
Charlie Rose: Well, it’s also their reference point. Look how many people write about politics. And because culture is so prominent, their cultural reflections are basically from movies.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. And because that provides us with a common language. Even in this age of social media and Twitter and all that, we still go to watch movies. We think about World War II, it’s all defined by the greatest generation idea which is propagated by movies as well.
Charlie Rose: You are very much influenced by The Land at the End of the World.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. Not many people know that book. But Antonio Lobo Antunes is a Portuguese novelist. That some Portuguese think should have won the Nobel Prize instead of Saramago. But it’s a novel that is about Portugal’s Vietnam war except in Angola. And I was deeply influenced by the mood and style. And that was the novel I read in the summer of 2011 that made it possible for me to come up with the opening line for “The Sympathizer.”
Charlie Rose: You think of yourself primarily as a writer?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I do. To me that means different things, you know.
Charlie Rose: What does it mean?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It means that I write fiction, I write non-fiction. It means I write scholarship. And to me, all of these are related to each other, I don’t compartmentalize them, but each of these things inform the other.
Charlie Rose: They clearly do.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, “The Sympathizer” is fiction, a story, hopefully entertaining but also deeply informed by all the scholarship I’ve done as well.
Charlie Rose: And deeply informed by history.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: Everything your character thinks is a product of, you know, his own observations of the history around him.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah. And he himself is a writer as we find out — we find out the way he’s writing the confession, we find out two-thirds through the book, he’s writing a confession to a communist interrogator. Ironically, even though he’s on the side of communists and has been captured by communists and they’re forcing him to write the story. I think of him as a tortured writer, literally, to a certain extent, to much more exaggerated extent than I am a tortured writer.
Charlie Rose: What’s the next book?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The next book is called “The Refugees.” It’s a short story collection that is coming out in February. It’s those short stories I was telling you about that I was writing for 15 years. And those stories about the lives of Vietnamese refugees and the people they intersect with.
Charlie Rose: When you look at the migration crisis that we have in Europe, what do you think? Does it connect with anything in your own experience?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that people look at the current refugee crisis and insist that it’s different than other refugee crises so far.
Charlie Rose: It’s people being driven out of their own land.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, and I think that’s not new. And what’s not new also is that whenever that happens, other countries don’t want these people. So when the Vietnamese refugees first came to the United States in 1975, the majority of Americans did not want them. Now, when Americans look at Syrian refugees, they think, well, we don’t want them because they’re different than the refugees that came before including the Vietnamese and they forgot that 40 years ago, they didn’t want the Vietnamese. So that —
Charlie Rose: Has that been a reasonably good assimilation?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: For the Vietnamese refugees, I think so. Pretty successful group. There are ups and downs and everything like that. But that’s why I’m more optimistic that we should be taking in more refugees, Syrians or otherwise, because the conditions are not fundamentally different.
Charlie Rose: Thank you for coming.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Thank you for having me.
Charlie Rose: The book is called “The Sympathizer,” Viet Thanh Nguyen, now in paperback.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It is.
Charlie Rose: Thank you for joining us. See you next time.