Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Escaping the Vietnam War, But Getting Close to the Enemy

Viet Thanh Nguyen talks with Leonard Lopate of New York Public Radio about his debut novel, The Sympathizer, which examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today. 


U.S. Navy SEALS repel down ropes from a U.S. Army Bell UH-1B Iroquois helicopter to set an ambush in the jungle below during operations in South Vietnam.

In April of 1975, a South Vietnamese general draws up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that their captain is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.



Listen to The Leonard Lopate Show here or read the full transcript below:

Speaker 1: You’re listening to the Leonard Lopate Show on AMH 20 and 93.9 WNYC.

Leonard Lopate: When the People’s Army marched into Saigon on April 30th, 1975, thousands fled the incoming communist regime. Throughout the years, many American veterans have told their stories, but most of the stories of the Vietnamese who fled to America had been lost. And Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, a communist spy flees Vietnam, and must start a new life in America while keeping his allegiances hidden. It’s published by Grove Press. I’m very pleased to welcome Viet Thanh Nguyen to our show today. Hello.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me.

Leonard Lopate: You were born in Vietnam. How old were you when you moved to America?

Viet Nguyen: I was four years old, so before I really had any memories of Vietnam.

Leonard Lopate: So it was your parents brought you?

Viet Nguyen: Yes, we had the typical refugee experience.

Leonard Lopate: But didn’t they have to leave your adopted sister behind?

Viet Nguyen: Yes. Basically what happened was my mom, my brother and myself were in our hometown of Ban Me Thuot, which has the distinction of being the first town overrun in the Northern invasion. And my dad was in Saigon, so my mom had to make a life and death decision. And she basically thought that the world wasn’t going to end. It had been going back and forth for a long time. This was just another setback. So she left my adopted sister behind to take care of the family house and business, and then left with my brother and myself and didn’t see her again for 20 years.

Leonard Lopate: Well, there have been films recently about how difficult it was to get out. The planning was rather slipshod. How did you get out?

Viet Nguyen: Desperation and hard work by my parents who I really owe a lot to them for doing what they did. my mom walked 120 miles downhill to the nearest port town with myself and my brother, and then caught another boat to Saigon where she found my dad. And then by April, the communists caught up with us and we had to jump on another boat to get out of the country.

Leonard Lopate: Did your family have a tough time adjusting to life in America? Many immigrant families did, especially Vietnamese families.

Viet Nguyen: It was a very difficult time. I think it was very traumatic for everybody who came over. You lost your country, your family, many relatives, mental health, peace of mind. It certainly happened to my family. My parents were very successful business people and they lost almost everything when they came over to The States and had to start all over again.

Leonard Lopate: But you said that your family lived the American dream, although only on the surface.

Viet Nguyen: Well, they became wealthy again. My brother is now a doctor and on a White House committee, and I’m a novelist and professor. But my mother has been stricken with mental health issues, depression, things like this. We left behind my adopted sister. My parents were shot because they ran a grocery store. And these are very common experiences for Vietnamese refugees. The violence that had touched them in the war continue to hunt them here in the United States.

Leonard Lopate: Did they continue to speak Vietnamese at home?

Viet Nguyen: Yes.

Leonard Lopate: So you grew up bilingual?

Viet Nguyen: In a sense. They spoke a very unique dialect of Vietnamese, which I never understood until I went back to visit my Homeland and realized that I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying.

Leonard Lopate: And you say you didn’t go back for 27 years because you were scared?

Viet Nguyen: Well, because I didn’t know what I would expect. My parents didn’t go back because they were afraid of communists. I wasn’t afraid of that. I was afraid of the emotional impact that going to this country would have for me.

Leonard Lopate: And what kind of impact did it wind up having?

Viet Nguyen: Well, on the one hand, it was a lot of fun. If you’re young and you just want to go hang out in nightclubs and eat good food, it’s a great place to go.

Leonard Lopate: Did they spot you as a foreigner?

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. Because of my white skin and I’m tall. But oftentimes they mistake me for Korean. They know I’m Asian, but I don’t look Vietnamese to them.

Leonard Lopate: Your book opens with your narrator fleeing Saigon, but you don’t give them a name.

Viet Nguyen: Well, he’s nameless because I wanted him to be an every man, but he’s also nameless because in the American imagination, Vietnamese people and other others are often nameless as well.

Leonard Lopate: But you do give other people names. He’s fleeing with his best friend Bon, also with the general he was assigned to work with as a sleeper agent. How do they escape?

Viet Nguyen: The general, well, they escaped in a very dramatic way, which was in the airlift on the day before the end of the fall of Saigon. And this was based on real history where artillery and shells are falling on the runway, and yet there’s still planes taking off. And that’s what they do.

Leonard Lopate: Does he have any plan for what he’ll do if he gets to America?

Viet Nguyen: Well, he has a mission. The mission from his handler is to spy on these remnants of the South Vietnamese army as they try to take back their Homeland, which is also based on reality.

Leonard Lopate: But it was obvious that that wasn’t going to happen. There were no attempts to re invade Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: There were. I remember growing up in San Jose and seeing these exhibits devoted to these guys in camouflage uniforms in Thailand and the community was being asked to donate to support their efforts to take back Vietnam. And when I went to Laos in the national museum there, there’s an exhibit devoted to how those guys had a very bad end when they tried to go through Laos to Vietnam.

Leonard Lopate: So it’s like the Bay of Pigs.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. But much a less one now.

Leonard Lopate: The narrator, Bon his friend and a communist friend named Man have all grown up together. Bon is the only one who’s anticommunist. He has no idea that his two friends are communist?

Viet Nguyen: And that reflects some realities in Vietnam too, which is that oftentimes there were people who were hiding their real allegiances. There were communist spies in the highest ranks of government and the military. So it’s not impossible that he wouldn’t know.

Leonard Lopate: They had to lie to Bon in order to get him to go to Los Angeles but Man stays behind.

Viet Nguyen: Well, Man is the most high ranking of the communist in this group of people and he has a role to play later in the novel.

Leonard Lopate: Your narrator had attended Occidental College in California before returning to Vietnam. Why did he choose to even attend a school in the United States?

Viet Nguyen: Well, he was a communist before even, he was a foreign in the United States. So his mission was to learn about American culture. His war, as he says, is psychological. His job is to understand how Americans think so that he can better manipulate them.

Leonard Lopate: But he wound up being a mole to a Vietnamese general.

Viet Nguyen: He serves as the generals cultural translator when the general has to interact with Americans. The general depends on our narrator to tell them again, what do Americans think and how should I respond to them?

Leonard Lopate: And they develop a fairly close relationship. Does the narrator like the general?

Viet Nguyen: Well, the narrator’s talent is this capacity to sympathize. So he is able to like people, even those he considers to be his enemies. So even though the general’s a complicated figure, our sympathizer finds in him a character who he can understand, someone who’s devoted to the nation and the cause.

Leonard Lopate: And when they leave Vietnam, the general’s shocked when people in Guam are critical of him because he fought in the war. Was he expecting to be regarded as a war hero?

Viet Nguyen: Probably, but a lot of the refugees who fled the country, some of them had resentments towards the South Vietnamese military and government officials. The vice president on his way out of Saigon, went on the radio to say, “Fight to the last man.” And then he escaped to an American carrier. So there was good reason for some people to resent these officers and politicians.

Leonard Lopate: Now, the general seems to eventually decide that he really doesn’t want to continue the fight. So why does the narrator continue working as a mole in Los Angeles? Shouldn’t his job be over by then?

Viet Nguyen: No the general plans this whole counter invasion to take place and cahoots with a US Congressman. And our narrator feels that he has to continue spying, but also Bon volunteers to go back on this suicide mission. And because they’re blood brothers, our narrator feels like he has to go along with him to try to save his life.

Leonard Lopate: My guest is Viet Thanh Nguyen. His novel, The Sympathizer, which has gotten fabulous reviews and Maxine Hong Kingston writes, a magnificent feat of storytelling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical and political importance. The narrator was born to a French mother and a Vietnamese father, and he’s kind of ashamed of being of mixed race.

Viet Nguyen: Well, Eurasians as they were called or the American version would be Amerasians were much looked down upon in Vietnam as bastards and he’s often called a bastard in the book and spit upon. And that’s just the reality of the racism that was deeply entrenched in Vietnamese society.

Leonard Lopate: Did it get any better? Does it get any better when people come to this country? Because we’re a much more racially diverse place.

Viet Nguyen: Yes and no. I think that mixed race people in this country still have a hard time historically, you can see some that happening with Barack Obama. And especially if you happen to be Black Amerasian, they had a really difficult time because they got anti-black racism from both the Vietnamese and the Americans when they came here.

Leonard Lopate: The narrator’s forced to make some tough decisions after the general learns that someone close to him is a communist mole. And around that time the narrator falls in love with the General’s oldest daughter who has assimilated American culture and even plays in a rock band. Is that just because of proximity?

Viet Nguyen: Well, our narrator is a womanizer. He likes beautiful women. He’s tempted by things, by people he shouldn’t be tempted by, including the General’s daughter who is forbidden fruit.

Leonard Lopate: I’m afraid to ask the next question with that in mind, because you and the narrator seem to have a lot of similarities. Is his experience living in America anything like your own?

Viet Nguyen: No. Our narrator is a womanizer, an alcoholic, a murderer. I’m none of those things, so I had to imagine him. But the thing that we share in common is I think I am a sympathetic person. I do see things from many sides and I gave him some of those characteristics.

Leonard Lopate: And although he’s an antihero, you kind of want the reader to connect to him. That’s one of the most difficult things when you’re writing about somebody who is immoral and does things that we just don’t admire.

Viet Nguyen: It was important for me to do that because what I did not want to do was to write a book about a virtuous Vietnamese person in order to compensate for the kinds of stereotypes that Americans have created about the Vietnamese people. I wanted to create someone who was immoral and complex because that actually is a sign of humanity. Americans are perfectly willing to tell stories about themselves, where they’re anti-heroes. And it’s important for those of us who are others to to claim that same privilege.

Leonard Lopate: Now, this book is also about how Vietnam, the war, has changed in people’s minds over the 40 years since it was over and how it’s been depicted in the movies and literature. Do you feel that the story of the Vietnamese has not been told well enough?

Viet Nguyen: I think that we have been trying really hard. There’s a huge body of literature in Vietnamese and some of it has been translated into English, and there’s a growing body of Vietnamese-American literature, but at the same time most Americans don’t know this. We’ve been trying to tell our stories, but Americans are either deaf or monolingual, and so when someone like me comes along, then of course I’m described as giving voice to the voiceless, which is a label that I really reject.

Leonard Lopate: Ironically, you teach American studies, although your narrator has a job in the department of Oriental Studies.

Viet Nguyen: Yes. I teach American studies. I’m an American. I know American culture pretty well having grown up in it, but I gave him a job in the department of Oriental Studies because part of what I want to satirize is that tendency for Americans to think of Asians as Orientals.

Leonard Lopate: How much have things changed for Vietnamese in America over the past 40 years?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that they’ve done a very good job, some of them of assimilating into American society and establishing a place for themselves as Americans. And some of them have managed to let go of the past and others have not.

Leonard Lopate: I used to live in new York’s Chinatown and a fair number of people never learned to speak English. They just spoke Cantonese or Mandarin. Would that be true as well in various Vietnamese communities here?

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. For example, in Little Saigon in Orange County, which is the cultural capital of the Vietnamese diaspora, it’s totally possible to just speak Vietnamese and the plus side of that is the food is awesome. So there is that trade off in terms of having a strong ethnic community.

Leonard Lopate: I’m assuming that you’re writing another novel.

Viet Nguyen: I’m actually an academic, so I’m actually finishing an academic book right now, War Memory Identity, which is the companion to this book. But then after that I’ll write the sequel.

Leonard Lopate: When you say the companion to this book, while you were writing this book, you were thinking about those other things, or while you were writing that book, you were thinking about these things?

Viet Nguyen: Same. My academic and my fictional work are two languages and two worlds that I inhabit simultaneously.

Leonard Lopate: And how did the book actually arise initially? Did you know that he was going to be a communist spy from the start?

Viet Nguyen: Yes. My agent said, “You got to write a novel.” I said, “Fine.” And I love spy novels and I wanted to write an entertaining book.

Leonard Lopate: You mentioned earlier that your brother is successful. You are both professors. Do you understand why that happened in your family and doesn’t happen in other families?

Viet Nguyen: My parents were born to poverty and they literally pulled themselves up, worked really hard. They didn’t have higher education. So the thing they stressed more than anything else was that we needed to get our doctorates basically, and they were relatively liberal for Asian parents because my brother became a medical doctor, but my parents let me be an English professor, which is actually kind of unusual.

Leonard Lopate: They let you become one?

Viet Nguyen: They let me become one. Yes.

Leonard Lopate: Viet Thanh Nguyen, his stories have appeared in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and The Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the academic book, Race and Resistance, and teaches English and American studies at University of Southern California. His first novel is the sympathizer published by Grove Atlantic. Thank you so much for being on our show.Viet Nguyen: Thank you for having me.


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