Vietnamese American Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his debut novel , The Sympathizer, a spy thriller about politics and wartime memories with ABC’s Late Night Live host, Andrew West. Listen to the full episode on Radio National or read the transcript below.
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and fled as a refugee in April of 1975 with his family to the United States.
He grew up as an American, but the shadow of the war and of history hung over him. His debut novel The Sympathizer is a spy thriller set in Vietnam and the USA after the end of the Vietnam war.
Here is the transcript of the interview:
Phillip: Well, Gladdies and Poddies, tomorrow, tomorrow LNL is heading off to Vietnam and Cambodia for a few weeks of program making. Back in 1975, my next guest made the journey in reverse except he went from Vietnam to the U.S. Viet Nguyen was only four years old when he fled with his parents in April of that year. The very month that the North Vietnamese Army moved into Saigon, and what the Americans call the Vietnam War was over.
Phillip: Now, growing up in a Vietnamese refugee community in California, Viet says that the shadow of that war and its history has always hung over him, because, of course, he was constantly hearing stories about what had happened from his parents or from the extended Vietnamese community that he was living in.
Phillip: His work now is as a literary critic, an American Studies professor, and a novelist. It’s all based to some extent on memories of the war. His first novel, The Sympathizer, a spy thriller, is no exception. It’s a companion piece to another non-fiction book called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.
Phillip: His day job, associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He joins us via Skype from his home in L.A.
Phillip: Viet, welcome to our little wireless program.
Viet Nguyen: Hi Phillip, it’s a pleasure to be on the show.
Phillip: I must warn you, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you’re the only person I know who shares my loathing of Apocalypse Now, and for pretty much the same reasons, and we might get a chance later to have a natter about that.
Phillip: You come to America as a four-year-old with your parents, tell us about where you were from in Vietnam, and how your parents escaped. We’ve recently done a program on the literally millions of boat people who died.
Viet Nguyen: Right, well, my parents were actually born in North Vietnam in a place not far away from where Ho Chi Minh was born, and that region is famous for producing hardcore revolutionaries and hardcore Catholics. My parents were the Catholics.
Viet Nguyen: In 1954, when the country was divided, they were refugees. They fled with 800,000 other Catholics down South and settled in a small town called Buôn Ma Thuột which was famous for coffee, and for being the first town overrun in March 1975. My parents had to flee again as refugees for the second time, and that was when I fled the country as well.
Phillip: It’s true that your mum walked 120 miles to get to Saigon?
Viet Nguyen: What happened was that when the Communists invaded Buôn Ma Thuột, my dad was in Saigon on business, and we were in our hometown, and that was … We were cut off from all kinds of communication.
Viet Nguyen: My mom had to make a life-and-death decision about what to do, so she decided to flee the town without knowing what had happened to my father. She picked up myself and my brother who was seven years older, and, yes, she walked mostly downhill fortunately to the port town of Nha Trang and, from there, caught a boat to Saigon. Fortunately, we were able to find my father. A month later, we had to flee again.
Phillip: Now, your subsequent life is proof of the saying, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
Viet Nguyen: Absolutely, I think that even though I have only very fragmentary memories of Vietnam, I grew up with that war, because my parents had been deeply affected, all of my extended family had been deeply affected, and I lived in one of the largest Vietnamese communities in exile in San Jose, California.
Viet Nguyen: The presence of the war was always making itself felt either explicitly or implicitly, and so I felt that I was the carrier of what the novelist W.G. Sebald calls secondhand memories. He was using that to describe what happened to Germans and Jews during World War II and afterwards, but it’s really applicable to so many people who’ve been through traumatic experiences.
Phillip: Have you been back?
Viet Nguyen: I first went back in 2002 as a tourist, and, since then, I’ve been back five or six times spending over a year all together in Vietnam doing various things: learning the language, being a tourist, and doing research.
Viet Nguyen: It was a very eye-opening experience but also a very emotionally challenging one as well which is a common experience for many overseas Vietnamese who come back and meet their relatives and discover that there are a lot of emotional and economic challenges in terms of having people still there and their expectations of you as a wealthy foreigner.
Phillip: Of course, going as a tourist is very different from going as a journalist. As I mentioned, we’re off tomorrow, and the delicacy of negotiations and visa applications and the necessity to have minders hang over us.
Phillip: But let us get onto another point, and that is, of course, you realize that Americans see the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese see the American War as fundamentally and profoundly different.
Viet Nguyen: Well, yes, and when I say that or when people talk about that what they’re really talking about are not just the Americans but a certain kind of Vietnamese, and those are the Vietnamese who won the war, the North Vietnamese or the Vietnamese Communists or the Southern Vietnamese Nationalists.
Viet Nguyen: But what that really overlooks, and what I try to do in the novel and in my scholarship is to point out that the Southern Vietnamese who fought with the Americans do think of it as the Vietnam War, because they were fighting alongside the Americans. This was their cause. But they tend to get overlooked, because Americans are actually much more interested in the experiences of their enemies versus their allies.
Viet Nguyen: I think that’s also a historical experience that is shared by the Vietnamese who fled to Australia, for example. It’s ironic that the people the Americans tried to help are also the ones that they would rather forget.
Phillip: I was in New Orleans during the catastrophe of the BP oil spill and spent quite a bit of time in a Vietnamese fishing community. Once again, it was a Vietnamese Catholic community. I was impressed by the cultural tenacity. They were having terrible problems, of course, because the oil spill was wrecking their living. But the Vietnamese do have a great ability to cohere in foreign countries.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think we’re a people who love to hang out with each other. Vietnamese refugees who go overseas, they don’t like to eat the food that they encounter and so on, and they know there’s strength in numbers, and that they can use each other as emotional and financial resources. Wherever you go in the world, you’ll find these elements of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Viet Nguyen: The Vietnamese Catholic community in particular is a very strong one. We’ve been persecuted for a long time in Vietnam before the Communists and during the Communists and after the Communists. That sense of ethnic identity but also religious identity has helped to sustain this community and made it actually fairly significant overseas.
Viet Nguyen: When you go to Vietnam, you’ll see that if you step outside of Saigon, there’s a very large Vietnamese Catholic community just a few miles outside of Saigon with literally dozens of churches that have all been built by overseas Vietnamese Catholic money.
Phillip: Of course, Vietnamese Catholicism is Vietnamese. I assume that within that culture, there’s the same feeling about ghosts as you find in the non-Catholic community.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think that it’s true. Vietnamese people do believe in ghosts. They believe in spirits. They are especially concerned about the phenomenon of wandering souls. That’s the idea that if you die, and you don’t leave anyone behind who can take care of your spirit, or if your body has been lost and never recovered, and it can’t be taken care of properly, then you’ll be condemned to wander the Earth.
Viet Nguyen: This was particularly, obviously, important for Vietnamese people in a time of war, because so many people died bad deaths, or they died far from home, or their bodies were never recovered. In the years after the war, as you mentioned, hundreds of thousands of people fled as boat people, and many of those people, 30 to 50% according to some estimates, vanished at sea. Those people are also condemned to be wandering souls as well.
Phillip: Before you tell us the story of The Sympathizer, I wonder if you’d be kind enough to read the opening few lines, “I am a spy … “
Viet Nguyen: Sure. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I’m not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a 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. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.
Phillip: Are you in fact a man of two faces in the better sense? You’re certainly a man of two cultures.
Viet Nguyen: I think that The Sympathizer, the narrator of the book is somewhat inspired by my own struggles as someone who feels that he was born in Vietnam but made in America. That I’ve always felt that I’m a person with two cultures and also with two minds in the sense that I’m always seeing things, as my narrator does, from at least two perspectives. Which, on the one hand, is an advantage in many circumstances but, in other cases, is a disadvantage. Because most people in this world want to see things from only one side. They find that much more comforting. That dilemma is one that I share with my narrator, although he undergoes much more drastic experiences than I have ever done.
Phillip: Having issued a spoiler alert, just give me a brief synopsis of The Sympathizer.
Viet Nguyen: Well, he’s a spy in the South Vietnamese Army, and we first encounter him in April 1975 as Saigon is falling, or as it’s about to be liberated depending on your point of view. His mission is to flee with the South Vietnamese Army to the United States where his job is to spy on their efforts to take back their homeland.
Viet Nguyen: Much of this is inspired by real historical events, and, along the way, he gets involved in the making of an American war epic about Vietnam that looks suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. We also discover that he is half Vietnamese and half French. His father was a French priest and his mother was a poor Vietnamese girl, and that fact of his heritage is also going to be very important to his dilemmas.
Phillip: To some extent, you were influenced by Graham Greene, his The Quiet American.
Viet Nguyen: I read that book in college and, of course, everybody who went to Vietnam I think was issued that book to read, and everybody who thinks they know something about Vietnam will point to that novel as something that was an important predictor of what would have happened to Americans.
Viet Nguyen: Yes, the novel is responding to that in some ways. But it’s also a critique I think, because that novel treats Vietnam very allegorically and is really a novel about the drama of the conflict between Westerners as they struggle over the fate of Vietnam. This novel is my effort to claim the Vietnam War and its history for Vietnamese people and overseas Vietnamese and to argue that this was our historical experience. But in the West, we’ve been very much erased, and our perspectives have been displaced by the continuing angst that Americans especially have felt about this war.
Phillip: Well, the book contains quite strong hints about Apocalypse Now which is my excuse to switch to that subject. This is the other reason I wanted to talk to you. I’ve always detested the film. I take the view that all the significant anti-war films admit to the humanity of the enemy. Whether it’s the Grand Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, on and on they go. There is an admission, a recognition, sometimes even a celebration of the fact that the enemy is us. Even in Australia with the great national myth of ANZAC more and more as time passes Australians honor the Turks.
Phillip: But the thing about Apocalypse Now is that it did not honor the Vietnamese people in any way. They were simply cannon fodder and camera fodder. The thing I found horrible about it was the pornographic imagery of war, the joy in explosions and napalm and then Wagnerian music blasting from helicopters. To me, it was a film of monumental narcissism which is really about America fighting itself.
Viet Nguyen: That’s very much the way that Americans have continued to remember the war, and I think Apocalypse Now is something of an extreme example of that. My relationship to the movie is one of respect and hate rather than love and hate, because I do think it’s a very powerful work of art. It’s a very technically accomplished movie.
Viet Nguyen: But I first saw it when I was probably 10 or 11 years old and much too young to watch that movie, and I was traumatized by it. I was deeply scarred by it for the reasons that you talk about. Because as a young boy growing up like many young American boys I was very much into war movies. I identified with Americans. But the problem is that when you watch war movies, at a certain point the Americans kill the enemy. That’s what happens in Apocalypse Now, and the enemy are Vietnamese people.
Viet Nguyen: I felt that I was split in two, because I couldn’t figure out who I was supposed to identify with, the Americans or the Vietnamese who were being killed. That is pretty much why Apocalypse Now becomes for me a very important symbol of the way that Americans have chosen to remember this war, as you have described it, as a conflict between Americans, as a Civil War in the American soul in which the Vietnamese just happen to be extras ironically.
Viet Nguyen: That’s more reason I think for me both to write this novel as a novel about the Vietnamese perspective but also as a critique of the American point of view as well.
Phillip: There’s a lot of pretty bad films, leaving aside the John Wayne Green Berets. There’s The Deer Hunter, wasn’t a favorite film. I was troubled even by the Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think, again, they’re all really technically accomplished. They all do different things to illuminate how it is that Americans saw the Vietnam War and saw themselves. There’s a certain kind of truth to that as inaccurate as those films may be historically or about the Vietnamese.
Viet Nguyen: The one kind of truth which is that Americans continue to be a solipsistic people. That’s how they regarded the Vietnam War as an American war. That habit of viewing the world continues in what Americans do in Iraq and Afghanistan which they also continue to see as war is about Americans rather than war is about what’s happening to Iraqis or Afghans.
Viet Nguyen: The only way to really respond to that as someone who’s Vietnamese is to think that we have to do our best to again tell our own story. But the one thing I try to do differently is that it’s while I criticize Americans, I criticize everyone in the novel, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Communists, anti-Communists, and so on, because I think that everyone was responsible in their own ways for the tragedy of the war. It’s important to acknowledge that.
Phillip: How would you like The Sympathizer to feed into contemporary discussions or knowledge or interpretations of the war?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that what I really wanted to … One thing I wanted to try to do with the novel was to establish the fact that the experiences of Vietnamese people were also universal experiences as well. That this, from the perspective of Americans, this is important to recognize, because, again, Americans have since at least the beginning of the Indian Wars been carrying out these wars where they encounter strange and foreign others and aren’t capable of seeing them as human beings with their own universal kinds of experiences. There are I think resonances in this novel not just for the experience of the Vietnam War but other kinds of historical moments when Americans have encountered others up until the present day.
Phillip: It’s a global tragedy that I don’t think the United States learned enough from the horrors of the Vietnam War, the American War to modify their thinking as you point out. They fight the same war again, but they move from jungle to sand.
Viet Nguyen: Right, so even though in some ways the Vietnam War has been incredibly traumatic for Americans, and the Americans continue to talk about it and make movies and stories about it and so on. There’s a sense in which also a lot of Americans have forgotten. They’ve forgotten what happened. They’ve forgotten the history behind it, and this is one of the reasons why Americans continue to repeat themselves in the Middle East.
Phillip: Have you visited that extraordinary war memorial that great, immense slab of black granite with all the names chiseled into it?
Viet Nguyen: Yes, I have, and that’s the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin, and, obviously, it’s a very powerful memorial for a lot of Americans and maybe a lot of other people as well. It is a moving monument to the 58,000 plus American soldiers who died in the war.
Viet Nguyen: But it’s power is made possible by what it forgets or what is absent. That’s, obviously, the three million Vietnamese people who died and the three million other Southeast Asians in Laos and Cambodia who died during the war and after the war as well. Both in terms of what it remembers and what it forgets, it’s completely representative of how Americans have looked at their war in Southeast Asia.
Phillip: Which is why I raise the issue. It’s interesting when I drive back from Sydney where I’m broadcasting to my farm at the last … Towards the end of the journey, I drive through an Australian memorial for the same war, because, as you know, we were a member of that coalition of the willing and quite a few Australians died.
Phillip: Here the memory is via Eucalypt trees, via gum trees, and they’re not in the best of shape at the moment. It always seems to me or more compelling or a more appropriate image perhaps than a great slab of marble.
Phillip: What will I find in Vietnam? How is the war remembered there, physically in terms of monumental representations?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think what you’ll find ironically are very heroic statues to the great leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Which visually they’re these towering statues of Ho Chi Minh and Lê Duẩn which completely contradicts the idea that communism is for the people.
Viet Nguyen: You also find an enormous number of cemeteries. Some of them are very grand. They dwarf anything that you’ll find in the United States. For example, the major, the Vietnamese version of Arlington Cemetery commemorates over 50,000 soldiers who died in just one area of that war.
Viet Nguyen: You’ll also find many cemeteries along the roads that you drive which are dusty and ill-kempt, and that’s symbolic of the way that most Vietnamese have chosen to not remember the war and to not look at their past.
Viet Nguyen: Then you also find things like the War Remnants Museum in Saigon which chooses to remember the war in terms of the atrocities that Americans and others have committed in Vietnam. You read the guest books where foreign tourists can leave their comments, and you’ll find that they’re usually divided in two. One set of people think this is propaganda blaming Americans, and another set of people think we deserve this, or Americans deserve this, because they really did these kinds of things.
Viet Nguyen: Overall, the picture that you have is sort of a conflicted one, but, nevertheless, one that commemorates the experience of the victorious Communists.
Phillip: I wonder whether there’s also still a lingering sense of North and South as there is in the United States, of course, in regard to their Civil War.
Viet Nguyen: Well, in the sense that it’s not talked about, that’s what you’ll discover. I was going to mention that immediately outside of Saigon there was the Southern Vietnamese version of Arlington Cemetery, the major national cemetery for the South Vietnamese Army which you cannot … It’s still there, but it’s totally obscured and overrun. You have to have a passport to get into it. The government has deliberately suppressed the memory of the South Vietnamese and their military soldiers and everything.
Viet Nguyen: A lot of Americans who go back are amazed at what they think of as the Vietnamese ability to reconcile with them and to put the past behind them. But what they don’t realize is that the Vietnamese who stayed behind still have some strong feelings about the Vietnamese who left. The Vietnamese who fought for the winning side still blame the Southern Vietnamese who fought against them. Those feelings of that civil and revolutionary war have not subsided for the Vietnamese people.
Phillip: Are there tensions within the Vietnamese diaspora?
Viet Nguyen: I think they’re subsiding a little bit, because the generation that lived through that war is getting a lot older and is unfortunately dying off. But from the period of the end of the war through the 1990s, there really were efforts to take back the country. The Vietnamese people, many people really did believe they could stage a counter-revolution. Any hint of Communist sympathy, even if it was not true, would bring out huge anti-Communist protests in the United States.
Viet Nguyen: Even to this day, even though that has subsided a little bit, if you’re a Vietnamese-American politician in the United States, the chances are that you have to adopt a strong anti-Communist position, and the Vietnamese-American press is still deeply anti-Communist as well.
Phillip: Let’s go back to the book. You’ve had some really good reviews of the novel. One in The New York Times called it a remarkable debut and said that it gave a voice to the voiceless. I understand you slightly disagree with that assessment. Why is that, Viet?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think number one is that I don’t give voice to the voiceless. If you know any Vietnamese people, you know they’re really loud. They’ve been telling their story for a long time, but, most often, it’s in Vietnamese. Of course, Americans being mostly a monolingual people aren’t paying attention to that kind of thing.
Viet Nguyen: But even in English, Vietnamese-Americans and also Vietnamese in France and Vietnamese in Australia have been writing stories about their historical experiences, and they’re readily available. For the review to say that it’s on the one hand a compliment to me, but it’s also a symptom of the fact that Americans and maybe other people are not reading the wide body of literature that’s been published in English or translated from the Vietnamese into English as well.
Phillip: Viet, I think you and I should talk again when I’ve come back from this trip. We might have a reunion, and we’ll share my impressions with yours. But I thank you very much for your time. Viet Nguyen associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of California. His new book, The Sympathizer, is published by Grove Press.
Phillip: That’s LNL for this week. Next week, Andrew West will take charge as we head off for Vietnam and Cambodia.
Phillip: Let me thank, as I always enjoy doing, the team. Thank you Stan Correy, Matthew O’Neil, Amruta Slee, Sasha Fegan, Rachel [Marr 00:25:25], and Michelle [Watts 00:25:26].
Phillip: Time now for the news, and I’ll talk to you again in a few weeks.