Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

“The Sympathizer” Offers Fresh Look at Vietnam War

Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed by Madeleine Brand, host of Press Play on KCRW-LA. Click here to listen to the full interview on KCRW. Or read the full transcript below. 


Madeline Brand: This is Press Play. I’m Madeline Brand. Forty years ago marked the definitive end to the Vietnam War. The Americans evacuated and on April 30th Saigon to the south fell to the North Vietnamese communist forces. Viet Thanh Nguyen was just four years old when his family then escaped Saigon and came to the united states as refuges in 1975. He was raised here and today he’s a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. He’s written a novel that takes place just after the end of the war. It’s called The Sympathizer, and unlike most all other American books or films about the war, The Sympathizer’s main characters are Vietnamese, but the books protagonist is not clearly defined. He’s half Vietnamese half European. He’s been educated in the United States and he’s a double agent. I spoke with Viet Thanh Nguyen recently and began by asking him how much of his novel is his story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Actually very little of it is my story. It’s not autobiographical in any way. I wanted to have a character who was in the middle of history, in the middle of politics, in the middle of all these traumatic times when people making difficult decisions. I was four years old when I left the country so I didn’t have to do any of those things. My autobiography isn’t really that interesting so I wanted to have a character who could be my alter ego, who could say the things I was thinking but wasn’t actually me.

MB: But what about your family? Because your family actually has a pretty dramatic story in terms of leaving Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

VTN: My family is very a-political. They’re anti-communists, but besides that they’re hardcore Catholics and devoted business people. That’s the background of my parents. So they didn’t want to get involved with any of these types of military or political activities and their major strategy during the period of the war was survival, which was heroic enough given everything that they went through from the famine in the 1940s that killed a million people in Northern Vietnam where they were. My mother recalls dead people on her doorstep at that time. And then they were refugees in 1954 when the country was divided; they fled south, and then they were forced to flee again in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended. So they do actually have a very dramatic life story with many ups and downs. Some of that does make its way into the novel when I talk broadly about what happened to Vietnamese refugees overall. But I’m glad to say that I was able to imagine most of this novel as a fiction which nevertheless draws on the emotions and experiences of many people that I knew.

MB: And the main character, you don’t name him. Why don’t you name him?

VTN: I think of him number one as a kind of every-man. He’s everywhere in this history of time seeing all kinds of terrible and wonderful things. And also the experiences he undergoes are very specific to the Vietnam War, and to his dilemma as a Eurasian and double agent and communist spy. But the basic choice that he confronts I think is a universal one. The choice that he has to make is “what is to be done”. He lives in historical times. He feels he must do something about the calamities that he witnesses. And the tragedy he confronts is not that he has to choose between what is right and wrong, but he has to choose between right and right. And for me that’s what was really tragic about this war is that it was being fought by people who had tremendous passions and beliefs and all sides felt they were doing the right thing.

MB: He has to make difficult choices everyday though, your character, because he’s living a lie. He’s pretending to be an ally of the US on the South Vietnamese side, but he’s actually his heart is with the North Vietnamese and he’s a spy for them. And then after the fall of Saigon he comes to the United States with the General, who he’s been working for, also not named, and he’s gotta keep pretending that he’s on the General’s side when the General goes to lead some kind of insurrection back home.

VTN: Much of that is actually based on reality on real historical events. I grew up in the Vietnamese community in San Jose as a little boy we would go to the New Year’s celebration and see these exhibits featuring these guys in ragged camouflage uniforms somewhere in Thailand and the request was for the community to raise funds to help these guys stage an effort to take back the country. So that was always on my mind growing up in the community, there were these stories about how the war really hadn’t ended for so many people. They were still traumatized, they had left people behind, people they knew had been killed and so on. And the most literal manifestation of that is this persistent feeling that we were all anti-communist, that we were still fighting the war—Americans wanted to put the war behind them but we could not. And that’s partly what the book wants to convey through this plot of a small band of devoted fanatics who still wanted to continue fighting the war.

MB: But what does that say in terms of assimilation and in terms of I guess the divided feelings I assume many refugees from Vietnam felt that here they were refugees in a country that they had been fighting alongside at home and once they came here they were treated as outsiders.

VTN: Well one aspect of the Vietnamese community that’s pretty well known is that some portion of us are extremely successful. My brother for example came at 11 years old and by 18 he was valedictorian and was going to Harvard. And now he’s on the white house committee, the chair of the white house committee. So this type of story is very well know, right, and that’s also the kind of story that Vietnamese-Americans themselves want to put forth. But beneath that it’s much more complicated. I know a lot of Vietnamese people, especially the older generation who lived through the war, who lost everything, who have not assimilated, who feel on the one hand grateful to America for having rescued them, on the other hand, feel rather bitter that America abandoned them. But they can say their gratitude out loud in the united states but they don’t want to express their bitterness or their attachment to the past. Instead they save those feelings for Vietnamese inside the Vietnamese-American community which is in turmoil still in many ways because of the events of the war.

MB: Still?

VTN: Still. For example, you know in a densely populated Vietnamese American community like in San Jose, my hometown, or Orange County, the heart of Little Saigon– if you do anything that some people perceive to be sympathetic to communism, even open to establishing relationships with Vietnam in anyway, you’re likely to get marked as a communist yourself and be protested, red-baited basically. So these anti-communist feelings are still very strong for some parts of the Vietnamese American community

MB: If you’re just joining me, I’m speaking with Viet Thanh Nguyen, he has a new novel it it’s called The Sympathizer. And part of the book he becomes a consultant to a film director, you also don’t give him a name. He’s called the Auteur???? And he’s making a movie in Vietnam. I’m wondering if you can read a passage when he’s just met the Auteur??? He he has some suggestions for him in terms of how he should portray the Vietnamese

VTN: Sure. And this section in the novel is based on my reactions to all the Hollywood war movies that I had seen in the 1980s where Americans got to win the war that they had actually lost, so anyway… He reads the screenplay and he’s outraged by what he has read…

Even so he said do you not think it would be a little more believable, a little more realistic, a little more authentic, for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language? Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English—you know what I mean, ching-chong English—just to pretend they are speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand? And don’t you think it would be more compelling if your Green Beret had a love interest? Do these men only love and die for each other? That is the implication without a woman in the midst. The Auteur grimaced and said, Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it, but I had a question. What was it. Oh, yes. How many movies have you made. None. Isn’t that right. None, zero, zilch, nada, nothing, and however you say it in your language. So thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas. (excerpt from page 132)

MB: And then he has a change of heart.

VTN: The Auteur does have a change of heart, he feels like he does need to have a consultant for authenticity for his movies, so he invites our narrator to go with him to the Philippines for seven months of black comedic highlights– hilarious experiences.

MB: So this is maybe not even a thinly veiled critic of Apocalypse Now?

VTN: That’s certainly the inspiration. Apocalypse Now is certainly a great movie, it’s a great work of art, but the difficulty I have with that movie is that the only place for someone like me in that movie is to be killed. So I saw that movie when I was about 10 years old on the VCR and it traumatized me deeply. And even years later when I would describe that movie to other people my voice would shake. I would be gripped by rage. By this feeling that the only place for me in American culture was to be the gook. And so to some extent this novel is my revenge on Hollywood, not just Francis Ford Coppola, but all of Hollywood, all of the American culture industry. For the distorted stories that it has told Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

MB: Why do you think it’s taken so long to get this side of the story?

VTN: I think it’s because Vietnamese-Americans have to tell their own story. I think Americans are interested, but Americans aren’t going to tell those kinds of stories. Americans are going to tell the kinds of stories that they naturally gravitate towards which are stories about Americans. And unfortunately that kind of ethnocentrism where Americans only want to hear stories about themselves repeats the same kind of logic that helped to get Americans into Vietnam in the first place without understanding what they were getting themselves involved with.

MB: Now your main character, as I’ve said, he doesn’t have a name. He’s also not fully Vietnamese. He’s called “the Bastard” and that is a mark of shame because he’s not fully Vietnamese. Why did you make him not fully Vietnamese?

VTN: Well he’s a man between cultures. He’s a man believe beliefs and ideologies he’s a man divided and I wanted to pick a character in that case whose background itself would symbolize that. There are many Eurasians and Amerasians in Vietnam who were produced as a result of French colonization and American intervention in Vietnam, so this is a real historical population that has been treated very badly. And their experiences do represent in many way the idea that East and west never shall meet. So that is part of his tragedy, part of his dilemma, it’s also what gives him the capacity to see things from more than one side. That’s a major theme in the novel. His one talent, he says, is that he can see things from both sides, he can sympathize with every side involved in this conflict. But that ability to be sympathetic is also going to be his downfall. I think for many Vietnamese and many Americans they have a hard time confronting what it is that their countries have done and what it is that their relatives have done, they know that their fathers and brothers went to war, they think of them as heroes, but they don’t want to confront what they might have had to do in the line of duty. And in his case, because of his capacity for insight and sympathy, he’s able to recognize that he is both human and inhuman. He is both capable of great human feeling for those he loves and even for his enemies, but he’s also capable of doing these really regrettable things.

MB: But he’s also writing to someone who’s reading his confession. And this is a big confession. He’s imprisoned, and he’s confessing, so I was always wondering “is he telling me the truth?” is he a reliable narrator? Is he being honest with us? And is he being honest with himself?

VTN: He’s trying to be honest with himself and obviously I think he is an unreliable narrator because this confession is being extracted from him under great duress so part of the narrative is his continual effort to reassure us, and to his confessor that he is being honest. But of course we need to take that with a huge grain of salt.

MB: And so then are you also saying we have to take all the narratives we tell ourselves about this war, and what happened, and out motivations, and about what happened, and who won and who lost with a grain of salt as well?

VTN: Absolutely. This novel is a critique of how Americans have told stories about the Vietnam war, but it’s also a critique of how Vietnamese people in Vietnam, the communists, have seen this war and how Vietnamese-Americans, Vietnamese refugees here have seen this war in a particular way that flatters themselves. So it’s really equal opportunity criticism of this tendency all share to think of ourselves in the most positive fashion. And to focus on our own victimization and to forget about the terrible things that we have done. And so he tries his best to look beyond his own victimization, to look beyond his own story, but it’s an open question about whether any of us can actually do that.

MB: Well alright thank you so much for coming in today

VTN: And thank you


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