On Writing The Sympathizer

Viet Nguyen’s novel, THE SYMPATHIZER, will be published in April 2015. Here he talks about why he wrote it.

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The novel, THE SYMPATHIZER, begins in April 1975, as Saigon is about to fall to communist invasion. Soon enough it does, and the war is over. Or is it?

Black comedy, historical novel, and literary thriller, THE SYMPATHIZER follows a nameless spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army and is ordered to flee with its remnants to America. His mission: report on their efforts to continue their lost war. As the aide to a general who refuses to admit defeat, he observes the struggles of the Vietnamese refugees to survive in a melancholic Los Angeles. Among them, the general believes, are communist agents. So our spy’s double life continues, hunting communists while helping the general organize a covert army.

I see this novel not as a Vietnamese or Vietnamese American story, or even a Vietnam War novel. It is a post-Vietnam War novel. Set in the years after the war, it’s my fictional response to, and revenge on, all those movies and books that did such a fine job with the American point of view and a rather miserable one with the Vietnamese. I grew up reading books and watching movies about America’s Vietnam War, but among all of these, precious little was said about the Vietnamese, who were depicted as stereotypes and foils to American heroes and played by bit actors. This was one motivation for me to write this novel, but far from the only one. By the conclusion, the novel shows how some of the practices of our contemporary war on terror have their roots in the Vietnam War. In the end, I hope that what I accomplish, besides providing a good read with lots of violence, intrigue, drugs, music, humor and sex, is to conjure in our observant spy a narrator who can see the beauties and the horrors of both America and Vietnam.

I came to writing this novel after many years of scholarly work on the Vietnam War, and after having finished a yet-to-be published short story collection, EVERY WORD NEVER WRITTEN. The collection deals with the lives of those touched by the war, from Vietnamese refugees to the Vietnamese left behind, as well as the Americans who knew them, loved them, or hated them. Stories from the collection have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007 and TriQuarterly, and other stories from it have won prizes from, and been published in, Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune (for its Nelson Algren Award competition). In their own very different ways, the collection and the novel allow me to look at the domestic traumas and political histories which have made me the writer that I am, a refugee born in Vietnam but made, for better and for worse, in America.

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10 Comments

  1. Alexa says:

    My class is reading your book, and tbh it actually is killing me. I don’t understand what’s happening I’m on like chapter 15 or 16 and I’m so very confused. Could you please tell me about Sonny and Bon.

  2. Irene Mahler says:

    I finished reading The Sympathizer right before it won the Pulitzer. So glad so many others agree with me that it’s an excellent book. However, I’m puzzled as to why you describe the Major as “crapulent” when he wasn’t described as a drunk. His one “fault” was that he was fat! Why not the corpulent Major?

    • admin says:

      “corpulent” is fat, but “crapulent” is to indulge excessively in food and drink. It’s a key distinction. But crapulent does also bring up echoes of crap and corpulent.

      • Dan Le says:

        Congrats Viet on Pulitzer! Amazeballs for VietnAmericans everywhere.

      • Irene says:

        Thanks for your speedy and enlightening reply. We’re discussing The Sympathizer at my (25 yr.old) book club tonight. What distinction do you draw between crapulent( indeed a more evocative and colorful word than corpulent) and crapulous? Do you consider them interchangeable?

  3. Dan says:

    The whole use of the FFC/Auteur device to expose the failings of American perspective/ representations made through art is a delicious bowl of Pho on a cold winter day. Great to chat and meet up with you last night. To read an author that also lived that era/time of post war diaspora is a wondrous thing. To have that story be so well written, intelligent and funny..Du Ma!! (in a good way).

    • admin says:

      thanks, Dan! It was very nice to meet you. Good luck with your play!

  4. James R. Miller says:

    Looking forward to the book. I just read your OpEd piece published in the NY Times and was very impressed by your observations. As a retired Marine who went to Viet Nam 4 times, my one observation was that the biggest mistake made by the U.S. Government and the U.S. forces was the fact that they never got to know the people they were fighting for. All they saw was the people they were fighting against. With that limited view they wound up with a very jaded outlook on the reason and purpose for their presence there.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mr. Miller. I agree that most Americans never really got to know the Vietnamese, of any side. It seems we’re repeating that mistake today in the Mideast.

      • James R. Miller says:

        Repeating history seems to be a trend. The politicians first action is to see which way the political wind is blowing and then act accordingly. The troops are poorly educated on the customs, habits and religions of the host nation or of the adversary. Without this knowledge the are ill prepared for their mission. I was fortunate that I went to Vietnamese language school before I went to Vietnam and continued my education on the area and people after training. I think it prepared me for the time spent there and I came back with a much different outlook on what was going on from the other Soldiers and Marines I have talked to.