A Different Kind of War Novel – Talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen, Author of “The Sympathizer”

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with Chris Schluep of the Amazon Book Review on his novel The Sympathizer.



One of our favorite books so far this year is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer, a book with one of the best first sentences of any you will come across (more on that later).

T.C. Boyle, among many others, describes the book in loving terms. “Magisterial,” Boyle writes. “A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic take on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath and a powerful examination of guilt and betrayal. The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”

The Sympathizer, which is on our Best Books of the Year So Far list, begins in April of 1975 and is the story of an unnamed army captain, son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, who lives in South Vietnam but is secretly spying for the Viet Cong. Having been college-educated in the United States, he escapes on one of the last flights out of Saigon. In Los Angeles, he makes a home, continues to spy on his Southern Vietnamese compatriots, and falls in love.

There’s so much more to write about this novel, but the interview I did with Viet Thanh Nguyen touches on some of what you can expect to find within its pages. Oh, and the great first line I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. Ok, that was two lines. I’m tempted to include the entire first paragraph.

Here’s my interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen:



Here is the transcript of the interview:

Viet Nguyen: I think it is a war novel. Obviously there are parts of the book that explicitly about war, about men and guns and fighting, but my experience of war is that it’s not simply something that takes place over there with a military, which is how Americans think of war. My thinking of war is that it encompasses so many other people, civilians, refugees. War takes place in people’s homes. People who come to the United States as immigrants and refugees, their stories are seen as immigrant and refugee stories here in the U.S., but for many of them, those experiences are war stories. They came here to the U.S. because of wars that were fought in their homeland, often times wars that United States had a hand in. I hope that this novel is seen as a war novel, not simply because it deals with combat and soldiers, but because it deals with why it is that certain kinds of refugee populations are here in the U.S. and the tragedies that they brought with them.

Viet Nguyen: I was born in Vietnam and when the war ended in April of 1975, my parents had to make a very dramatic escape by boat from Vietnam. We came to the United States by way of Guam and settled down initially in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania because the Vietnamese refugees were put into one of four military camps and one of those camps was in Pennsylvania. We stayed there until about 1978 or 1979 before we moved to San Jose, California for better climate and economic opportunities.

Viet Nguyen: Growing up in the United States, I certainly felt that I was an American because I was raised in American culture, but I also felt that I was not an American, partially because of the way that my parents were raising me with Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese language and living in a heavily Vietnamese community in San Jose. Also, through contradictions that I was experiencing in American cultures, specifically around the way that Vietnam meant something for Americans, which was primarily as a war. In the 1980s, I was reading a lot of American books about the war and watching American movies about the war and identifying with the American perspective, especially American soldiers, but there was always a disjuncture when the Vietnamese would appear on the pages or on the screen and American soldiers would kill them or rape them or abuse them or call them names. I would start to think, “Am I the American here or am I the Vietnamese person?” That was really the beginning of a kind of political consciousness that will eventually lead decades later to me writing this novel.

Viet Nguyen: I wrote this book for myself because I felt that there was so many things that I wanted to say that I knew other people were thinking about, but which really hadn’t made their way into American literature. At the same time, what I was worried about was that if I was to give expression to the passion and the rage that I was feeling, perhaps not everyone would want to follow that kind of a story. That was one key reason for including humor and black comedy in this book, but at the same time, I was also aware that by including those elements, I might be ailing any other readers as well. These weren’t really hurdles, but they were worries that I had about whether this book would speak to anybody else besides me.

Viet Nguyen: When I was thinking about these things in my youth, I didn’t find them to be funny, but I think the passage of time has allowed a little bit of distance. It allowed me to see that what was happening historical in Vietnam and what the American role in it and with what happened to the Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States, were in many ways absurd. There was so many contradictions and hypocrisies and bad decisions and poor behavior, which were tragic but which were also comic as well if you could think of those things in that fashion. By using humor, I didn’t want to make light of these situations, but I wanted to point out that oftentimes, humor, especially tragic comedy or black humor, are very effective ways to puncture the pomposity and the piety that accrues around those who have power and who abuse it.

Viet Nguyen: There was several inspirations in terms of writing the novel when it came to dealing with issues of race or tragedy or comedy and certainly African American literature was really important to me because it is one of the key sources that we have in American culture for a real passionate critique of central contradictions and problems in American society. Oftentimes it’s done very seriously, but sometimes also in a comic vein as well. I certainly was thinking in addition of the rich traditional of satirical literature around war from Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It also has elements of the tragic, the comic, and the absurd as well. It was this diversity, this textured approach to the problem of history and tragedy that I really wanted to infuse into my own work.

Category: Interviews


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