Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thahn Nguyen Discusses Debut Novel “The Sympathizer”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed by Kojo Nnamdi, host of the Kojo Nnamdi Show. Listen to the full interview here or read the transcript below.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War still looms large in our culture. Writers have offered takes on the conflict ranging from the historic to the satiric since, but Viet Thahn Nguyen – a Vietnamese-American – noticed that the focus of these works was typically American-centric. His debut novel – ‘The Sympathizer’ – challenges that perspective, exploring the aftermath of the fall through the eyes of a Viet Cong spy. We talk with Nguyen about that war’s legacy and the way writers shape how we remember.

Read the transcript below: 

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Kojo: From WAMU 885 at American University in Washington. Welcome to the Kojo Nnamdi show, connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later on the broadcast. We look back on the Vietnam war from a unique perspective that may have been ignored in the past. We talk about a post Vietnam war novel with a debut novelist. But first, new apps and delivery services are making dinner easier to prepare in cities, but one Washington DC population is still struggling to gain access to food. According to a new report, the districts elderly are now ranked fourth in the nation for experiencing the threat of food insecurity. The report finding that over 20% of DC’s elderly have concerns about eating enough food. As the number of seniors grows nationwide, this population only stands to increase with not only food as a concern, but now a widened spectrum of related health concerns. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Mike Curtin. He is the CEO of DC Central Kitchen. Mike, always a pleasure. Good to see you.

Mike: It’s great to see you too. And congratulations on the best of award.

Kojo: Thank you very much. Also in studio with us is Peter Sikorsky, he’s a senior at Gonzaga college where he volunteers with campus kitchens. Peter, thank you for joining us.

Peter: Thank you very much.

Kojo: And Douglas Besharov is a public policy professor at the university of Maryland and former director of the US National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. Doug, thank you for joining us.

Douglas: My pleasure.

Kojo: And I’ll start with you Doug. In reports like the one we cited from the university of Kentucky Center For Poverty Research, the terms hunger and food insecurity are often used interchangeably. Is there a difference?

Douglas: There sure is. And thank you for asking that question first because we’re going to talk a lot about the needs of the elderly low income in general and their real needs. But there’s a tendency to use this very wonky survey to calibrate the needs and that’s a mistake because for example, one question on the survey is were you sometimes worried in the last year about where you are going to get food? Not did you ever adequately not get it, but did you sometimes worry. And there’s a tendency on the part of the press to take the answer to that one question and transform it in, and this report, by the way, calls it a thread of hunger. It’s something else. Doesn’t mean there isn’t a human need, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a giant human need, but I think that need is intertwined with things far beyond just food

Kojo: So then, if you answer the question by saying yes, there was an occasion during the course of the past year when I worried a little bit about food that would make you, I guess marginally food insecure.

Douglas: Well, the National Academy of Sciences has criticized this survey, but it would put you under the threat of hunger category. Which must include a flat of people. A lot of my friends who are on diets.

Kojo: How do these words or the use of these words affect our perception of the issue as a whole?

Douglas: Well, I think on the one side people like to use them because it makes the problem seem large. But on the other hand, I deeply believe but I can’t prove it. I think it stymies effective policy-making because I think the overuse of these numbers makes the problems seem so large that there isn’t a solution. You can do something at DC central if it’s not 30% of the population. If the problem was 30% of the population then some much more radical response is needed. And whether it’s in hunger or poverty or child abuse or abductions, when we exaggerate the numbers, I think we make it much more difficult to generate public support.

Kojo: Because it’s more difficult for people to wrap their heads around solutions to the problem.

Douglas: That’s right.

Kojo: (800) 433-8850. When you hear the term food insecure, what images come to mind for you? (800) 433-8850 or you can send email to You can send us a tweet @Kojoshow. Here in Washington, where the elderly food insecure population is 30% higher than the nations, does food insecurity affect the elderly differently than it does say a younger family. Mike?

Mike: Well, I think the first thing to jump in and say is that I think Doug was right when he spoke to the the significance of this human problem. I don’t think it would be fair to say that most the people that have responded to this survey that are at risk of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or those that are dieting. I think that minimizes what we’re talking about. And I understand that where Doug is coming from, but I think we might be going too far the other way if we’re going to take that-

Douglas: I didn’t make it sound the way you just said it. So if I did, I apologize. Not meant.

Mike: Fair enough. Well, I think absolutely Kojo, to answer your question directly, that in this study brings out that the senior population as the boomers age is growing significantly faster than any other segment of the population we have. What we are seeing is as this population ages, as they live longer, their resources are going to be dwindling. And as the economic insecure population band in our communities increases, so too will the food insecure band of that population. And I think as one of the authors pointed out in the article in the post, is that what this really talks about is economic insecurity. And we shouldn’t get too hung up on hunger when we need to look at the larger issue behind hunger.

Kojo: Well, what is it that makes the level of food insecurity, maybe the level of economic security in Washington so much higher or economic insecurity in Washington so much higher than it is in other States Doug?

Douglas: Well, part of it is notwithstanding the desires of the political class in Washington, Washington is not a state. So it’s an urban area. And I think the proper comparison is to other cities, not to States because States would have large areas of more affluent suburbs like Montgomery County, like Prince George’s County and so forth. So the measure is a little off when we do this. But there’s no question that to the extent that Washington has many low income seniors of all races and ethnicities, it’s a serious problem. We are home to many Latin Americans. Latinos for example, and they have not been in this country that long. They don’t have savings to go to base their future on. They don’t have social security in the same amount as others. So there’s going to be economic insecurity because of that

Kojo: (800) 433-8850 in case you’re just joining us. Douglas Besharov is a public policy professor at the university of Maryland and former director of the US National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. We’re having a conversation about food security among the elderly here in Washington with Mike Curtin, he is the CEO of DC Central Kitchen and Peter Sikorsky is a senior at Gonzaga college. He volunteers with Campus Kitchens. Have you struggled with sourcing or preparing full meals for yourself or your family? What do you wish people knew about your situation? (800) 433-8850. Peter, you are part of Campus Kitchens which delivers food to seniors near your high school twice every week. What is a common misconception that people have about this population?

Peter: About people who are hungry or about senior?

Kojo: The elderly in particular, seniors in particular.

Peter: Honestly, I don’t think people look at seniors and see the face of hunger. I think when people think of senior citizens, I think they think, “They’re fine. Or they’re all right.” But they don’t imagine that they don’t know where the next meal are coming from. Or if they don’t get food from us as Campus Kitchen, they might not be getting a food at all. We don’t look at them as people who are going hungry. We look at people who are homeless or single or kids who are in like single families. So we don’t really even put them into our category of people who are.

Kojo: In a lot of ways you’re saying they’re invisible to us because we don’t see them among the homeless population. We don’t necessarily see them standing, waiting for food at soup kitchens on the light?

Peter: And yeah. In many ways, that’s right. So the social interaction between us two. And that could just be us seeing each other on the streets, which we do see homeless men and women. We don’t see senior citizens. For these people, they have stable housing and stable income, so they are inside. And so that human interaction is something that’s lacking. And that’s one of the things also that Campus kitchen provides, is not just food and education, that it also provides human interaction.

Kojo: When you say it provides human interaction, in what way?

Peter: So when we go and we take these meals that we’ve cooked or after the food we’ve resourced, we’re talking to these people. We’re talking to them about the Redskins game. We’re talking about the high schools they went to around our neighborhood. We’re talking to them about their grandkids, what they’re doing for the holidays. Because for many of those people, that’s the only human interaction they’ll have in a day.

Kojo: And how does DC Central Kitchen serve the senior population, Mike Curtin?

Mike: Well, we do, of the 5,000 meals that we do every day, about 1500 go to senior populations. We also are very heavily involved in a fairly new initiative called The Healthy Corners Project, which is we wholesale fresh fruits and vegetables, cut fruits and vegetables, healthy snacks to corner stores in the city’s food deserts. 67 of them right now. Mostly in wards five, seven, and eight. Many of these stores serve seniors and we provide the cut products that are in senior portions that they’re ready, accessible and affordable. And then the other pieces that in 2001 DC Central Kitchen started the Campus Kitchens project to take our model nationally. We now have 45 outlets across the country

Kojo: On to Steve in Rockville, Maryland. Steve, you’re on the air. Go ahead please.

Steve: Hi. Quick question, Mike. First of all, doing great work in your leadership of Dc Central Kitchen. I really admire you. My question is what percentage of the elderly food insecure are living alone? And to the extent they have other needs that are being meet or need to be met, is there any way we can combine meeting those needs with food services? It’s not unlike the way the schools provide meals to children.

Mike: Great question. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know the answer to the first part. But I think that the answer to the second part is right in line with what Peter was saying and we have to recognize that food alone is not the answer. Food, whether it’s senior hunger, childhood hunger, food will not end hunger. We’re not going to feed our way out of hunger. We have to create a bigger system an ecosystem, if you will.

Mike: One of the things that we are seeing that’s very unfortunate is as senior centers are developed and built with a lot of other, what one would think would be attractive mechanisms to bring seniors together. They’re not being used by seniors. And I think that we might even see more of that as the boomers age. And people want to be independent. They don’t want to feel that they need to go to the centers. So that’s a tough question that we’re going to be wrestling with as this boomer population increases.

Kojo: I’m going to get back to Peter in a second, but Doug, 40% of Americans approaching end of life do so with few financial assets and no home equity, all the while relying primarily on social security. What brought us here and how does this cause or how does this worse than food insecurity?

Douglas: Well, we are not a nation of savers. Partly that’s because the combination of social security and Medicare can cushion some of the worst conditions. Partly it’s because life expectancy has increased so much and people’s retired life whether it’s 62 or 65 can be like the TV commercial decades long that they haven’t planned for. But there’s one more thing and I think that’s what this study points to and that is that since the financial crisis, interest rates have been close to zero for ordinary Americans, not for banks, not for Wall Street here that Hillary Clinton.

Douglas: But for ordinary Americans, interest rates are close to zero. And that means if a lower middle class person retires and had some money in the bank instead of getting interest, because my mother lived in part social security in part on the interest on her savings. Those savings now are, that interest rate is close to zero. You go to the bank, you get 2 cents on whatever it is. That’s hurting them. And I think this study is documenting the fact that our macro economic condition has left the lower middle class elderly behind.

Kojo: Peter, in practical terms, what do you see when you visit the homes of seniors? Are they mostly according to our callers question living alone tend to be living alone?

Peter: Yeah. Most of the people are by themselves. There’s a few people we give meals to that are living with their spouse. But they’re by themselves. And the question about their income. A lot of these people are living off, they’re not living even off $1,000 a month. So the income that they get is small and the little bit that they have left they do spend on food. But we are really there helping them. Because if we don’t come, then sometimes they won’t be eating that night or they won’t have enough food to make other meals.

Kojo: Mike, the 5,000 meals that DC Central Kitchen distributes are all made by students enrolled in your culinary training program that seeks to replace homelessness, addiction, and incarceration with new careers. How do seniors fit into that career minded approach to ending food insecurity? Because you not only deliver to seniors, quite a few of the people who participate in your program are pretty close to being seniors themselves.

Mike: Actually, knowing I was coming out here and hoping you might ask that question, we have 16% of our graduates, folks that graduated from our culinary job training program last year were over 50. And right now we have of our 150 staff members, 47 of them are over 50 and many of those are graduates from our program. These are also individuals that have histories of incarceration, addiction, abuse, been victims of abuse, homeless, chronically unemployed. So we really see the work that we’re doing there again, as a more holistic approach that again uses food as a tool, an end or a means to the end. Where we’re engaging people who really want to be part of this economic discussion in our community and have for various reasons, many of which are their own and poor decisions they made. But have excluded them from that discussion but want to be part of it, not just for themselves, but for their families. To break this incredibly destructive cycle of generational cycle of addiction, violence, incarceration, hunger, homelessness, and ultimately poverty.

Kojo: On to Michael or Mitchell, I’m sorry, In Washington. D C. Mitchell, your turn.

Mitchell: Hello. Hi. this is a question for Peter. I was wondering what young people could do to get more involved in helping alleviate the issue of food insecurity?

Kojo: And how did you yourself get involved, Peter?

Peter: Well, at my school. Sorry. Well, at my school, one of the, there were a lot of service opportunities and Campus Kitchen, I think we try to move beyond volunteerism and towards social justice. And I think we tried it out with a lot of the service opportunities at Gonzaga. And so that’s an option at my school but that’s not, people can get involved in many different ways. You don’t have to go to a campus kitchen or a soup kitchen or DCCK, you can lobby. All of us have the ability and the right to go and lobby our representatives and make sure that the money that is going towards subsidies and food is going to food that’s actually nutrient dense and not just like corn and wheat. Because when we subsidize that, then that makes nutrient dense food cheaper and it makes it more available to people who are more likely in this place of food insecurity or poverty.

Kojo: Doug, half of all seniors eligible for public or SNAP benefits participate in the program. But some say the current program no longer fulfills its original purpose. You recently testified to the house committee, before the house committee on agriculture, on why you think the SNAP benefit programs should be overhauled? What needs changing?

Douglas: Not overhaul, modernized.

Kojo: Modernize.

Douglas: It’s always tricky because the left and the right want to make these into something else. I think as we have solved the immediate hunger problems in this country, and let me be careful before Mike says something. 50 years ago you could see in the statistics the effects of hunger and malnutrition in stunting of children and so forth. Much of that, all of that has disappeared from the official statistics and it’s not because they’re being hidden. It’s because with $70 billion of food stamps a year SNAP a year with various other food programs, we have dealt with most of the most serious problems we have. The program now has become a form of income support and it’s tied to the problems in our economy.

Douglas: It’s tied to problems in family breakdown and in aging. And we need to modernize the program to recognize that. And some of the ideas, for example, are to focus on nutrition education, which is a very small part in the SNAP program. Part of it is to recognize that it’s an income supplement for higher income families that are working and tied that a little more closely to work. The tricky part of course is that in Washington you talk about overhaul in one side, here’s cut. And the other side therefore says don’t touch it at all. And we’ve got to break that cycle because this is a program that was planned in the 1930s and it’s not quite 100 years, but it may be 100 years before we fix it.

Kojo: Cut or don’t touch. We are running out of time very quickly. But Mike, Peter, what do you do to attract people to your programs?

Mike: Well, I think what Doug is alluding to I think is very accurate and that these programs do need modernization, but there has to be a basic realization that there are people in our community, our neighbors that absolutely need our help. And I think that we all can see that one way or another and we have to recognize that we’re all in this together. Poverty is expensive. And if we don’t get smarter about how we’re dealing with it, it’s going to bankrupt all of us. So as Peter said, get involved with your communities, take care of your neighbors. Something we don’t do well in this country.

Kojo: Peter.

Peter: As far as how it is, the attraction, it is, Campus Kitchen has benefited me. And it not just gives me opportunity to interact with people who are in this community and put myself in someone else’s perspective. But, I have my food handler’s license because of campus kitchen because of what I have done. So there’s definitely a certain level of attraction from myself, not just altruistic.

Kojo: You’ve gained a certain level of expertise. And I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Peter Sikorsky is a senior at Gonzaga college where he volunteers with Campus Kitchens. Doug Besharov is a public policy professor at the University of Maryland and former director of the US National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. And Mike Curtin is the CEO of DC Central Kitchen. Thank you all for joining us. We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we look back at the Vietnam war from a unique perspective that may have been ignored in the past. I’m Kojo Nnamdi.

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Kojo: North versus South, brother against brother, spy versus spy. Now, not America’s civil war, a more recent and farther away than that, Vietnam. Which, come to think of it, we’ve also claimed as ours. But it’s one that didn’t just involve our troops and certainly didn’t take place on our land, instead disrupting or ending the lives of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians and Laotians as well. But in our re-tellings of that war, the Vietnam war, those figures are often relegated to supporting roles. That’s all in this debut novel and that’s the point. Here to drive it home is Viet Thanh Nguyen. He is a writer whose debut novelists title, The Sympathizer. He’s also a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for joining us.

Viet Thanh: Thank you for having me.

Kojo: Your novel opens with and is a confession of sort, read for us, if you will, the very opening passage please.

Viet Thanh: I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m 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’m 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.

Viet Thanh: 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 seem to more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear. The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was a month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its lens, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of, well, peace is not the right word, is it, my dear commandant?

Viet Thanh: It was a month when I awaited the end behind the walls of villa, where I had lived for the previous five years. The villa’s walls glittering with broken brown glass and crown with rusted barbed wire. I had my own room at the villa, much like I had my own room in your camp, commandant. Of course, the proper term for my room is an isolation cell. Instead of a housekeeper who comes to clean every day, you have provided me with a baby face guard who does not clean it all, but I’m not complaining. Privacy, not cleanliness is my only prerequisite for writing this confession.

Kojo: And so begin this remarkable book, The Sympathizer. Unreliable narrators can be tough to figure out, but even though yours as a spy, there’s a quality of earnestness about him. Why build a story around a mole?

Viet Thanh: Well, I wanted someone who would be able to see issues from both sides as it says at the beginning. So he’s a committed revolutionary. He’s a communist. But he burrows into the South Vietnamese military and the political structure and empathizes with these people that he’s spying on and including Americans too. So that’s his great talent, as he says. He’s able to see every issue from all sides, empathize with all the different kinds of people. But at the end, it’s going to be his downfall as well. Because in a world where most people see things from one side, the person who sees things from every side is going to be very vulnerable.

Kojo: This story provides not just a greater insight into the Vietnamese side of the conflict, but also into the North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng point of view, which we tend to think of in just one way. How much was that perspective, not just about communism but also about rebelling against French?

Viet Thanh: It was really important to me because I think we remember the American period of occupation clearly or in some ways clearly because of the legacy of American movies and so on. But we tend to romanticize what the French did in Vietnam. We think of beautiful scenery and baguettes and things like that. When it was actually really brutal period of 100 years of colonization and I wanted to incorporate that into this book.

Kojo: If you have questions or comments for Viet Thanh Nguyen, you can call us at (800) 433-8850. What do you remember about the fall of Saigon? What stood out to you at the time on what stays with you today? Have you read much literature or watched many films about or inspired by the Vietnam war? What have you learned from them? If so, (800) 433-8850 you can send email to Shot us a tweet @kojoshow. Or go to our website, ask a question or make a comment there. Before we delve any further into this story, some listeners, especially younger ones, may not realize, may not be aware of the kind of turmoil and history that preceded what we know as the Vietnam war. Could you tell us how your own family’s history reflects that backstory?

Viet Thanh: Well, my parents were born in the 1930s in North Vietnam in a little village that was 30 minutes from where Ho Chi Minh was born. And that region was known for producing two kinds of people, hardcore revolutionaries and hardcore Catholics. And my parents were the hardcore Catholics. When the country was divided in 1954 because the Vietnamese revolutionaries had defeated the French, my parents decided to flee South with 800,000 other Catholics because they feared communist persecution, which is what the CIA was telling them. So they were refugees long before the Americans came. And they fled the South and then obviously the American war happened. When the North invaded South Vietnam in 1975 in March, we lived in a small town called Buon Ma Thuot, which is now famous for its coffee.

Viet Thanh: But the then, it was famous for being the first town overrun by the communist invasion. My dad was in Saigon on business. My mom was there with my brother, myself, and my adopted sister, and she made a life and death decision, which was, she thought the world was going to go back and forth like it had before. So she decided to leave with my brother and myself, but leave my adopted sister behind to take care of the property. Didn’t see her again for 20 or 30 more years. And then my mother walked, my brother was 11, I was four. My mother walked downhill with us for 120 miles to the nearest port town, caught a boat to Saigon, reunited with my dad. And a month later we had to flee again on another boat. When the communists reached Saigon.

Kojo: And that boat took you where?

Viet Thanh: Guam, which was an American military base. Americans were launching B-52 strikes from Guam into Vietnam. And then by 1975 was using it as a base to house refugees on their way to the United States. And we were flown to a Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. What happened was the United States absorbed about 150,000 South Vietnamese refugees, put them into four military camps across the country in order to disperse us across the country so that we would assimilate better. We ended up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and spent three or four years there and my parents realized they weren’t going to get anywhere economically. And so we moved to the promised land of San Jose, California.

Kojo: Do you know your way to San Jose?

Viet Thanh: Absolutely.

Kojo: But you said, you mentioned the American war when you were describing it here. And of course here we think of it as the Vietnam war. In Vietnam, it’s considered the American war, one of several wars that were fought on Vietnamese soil.

Viet Thanh: Absolutely. When Americans return to Vietnam, they’re often struck by how the Vietnamese don’t really hold animosity against them for the most part because for the Vietnamese, this was a short war. For Americans, it was a terrible war. It was a terrible war for Vietnamese, but a short war compared to what the Vietnamese really cared about, which is 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and then the 100 plus years of French occupation as well. One thing I would emphasize though is that whether we call it the American war or the Vietnam war, we forget that the war also took place in Laos and Cambodia, the devastating effect. And neither the Vietnamese nor the Americans want to remember that

Kojo: 3 million in Vietnam dead and between Cambodia and Laos, another 2 million more?

Viet Thanh: Yeah. If we think of the fact that the Khmer Rouge came to power partially because of intensive American bombing in Cambodia during the Vietnam war years, America has a hand in that.

Kojo: Our narrator is one of three friends, three Musketeers who have sworn an oath as blood brothers. They’ve also decidedly different roles in the war. Would you read for us again this time from the middle of page 14 to give us a bit of the background of this trio?

Viet Thanh: Yes. So these are blood brothers. They’ve sworn allegiance to each other. Two have followed the communist route and one has followed the republican route, but he doesn’t know what the secret allegiances of his friends, and this was on the eve of the fall of Saigon and they’re saying goodbye to each other. Unlike man and I, Bon was a genuine patriot, a republican who had volunteered to fight having hated the communists ever since the local cadre encouraged his father, the village chief, to kneel in the village square and make his confession before forcefully inserting a bullet behind his ear. Left to his own devices, Bon was sure to go Japanese and fight to the end. Would even put a gun to his own head. So Man and I had persuaded him to think of his wife and child. Leaving for America was not desertion, we claimed, this was strategic retreat.

Viet Thanh: We had told Bon that Man would also flee with his family tomorrow, whereas the truth was that Man would stay to witness the liberation of the South by the Northern communists Bon so despised. Now, Man squeeze him on the shoulder with fingers long and delicate and said, “We’re blood brothers us three. We’ll be blood brothers even if we lose this war, even if we lose our country.” He looked at me and his eyes were damp. For us, there is no end. “You’re right.” Bon said, shaking his head vigorously to disguise the tears in his eyes. So enough sadness and gloom, let’s drink to hope. We’ll return to take our country back, right. He too looked at me. I was not ashamed of the tears in my own eyes. These men were better than any real brothers I could’ve had for we had chosen each other. I raised my beer glass. “Here’s to coming back.” I said, and to a brotherhood that never ends.

Viet Thanh: We drained our glasses, shouted for another round, threw our arms around one another shoulders and settled into an hour of brotherly love and song. The music provided by a duo, at the other end of the garden. The guitarist was a long haired draft dodger, sickly pale from having lived for the last 10 years in between the walls of the bar owner’s house during the day, emerging only at night. His singing partner was an equally long haired woman of dulcet voice, her slim finger outlined by a silk ao dai the same shade as the virgin’s blush. She was singing the lyrics of Trinh Cong Son, the folk singer beloved even by the paratroopers. Tomorrow I’m going dear, her voice rose above the chatter in rain, remember to call me home. My heart trembled. We were not a people who charged into war at the beckon call of bugle or trumpet. No, we fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.

Kojo: Viet Thanh Nguyen, reading from his debut novel. It is called The Sympathizer. He’s also a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. We’re taking your calls at (800) 433-8850. Despite these political differences, what for you lies at the center of the relationship among Bon and Man and our narrator?

Viet Thanh: They are friends. They have sworn loyalty to each other. They’ve chosen each other. Despite what their political allegiances are, those friendships will matter above all else. And this is true in Vietnamese culture. Many families, friendships were separated by political choices. But if it came to an issue where if you knew that your friend was a communist and you were not and he was in trouble, you would oftentimes, despite your own political sides, help him out. If you could.

Kojo: That was what friendship was all about. Here we go to Matthew in Richmond, Virginia. Matthew, you’re on the air. Go ahead please.

Matthew: Thanks for taking my call Kojo, and I’m looking forward to reading The Sympathizer. So I had a question for your guest. I just finished reading the book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Which is written by a non Vietnamese person from the perspective of various Vietnamese people and not having much firsthand experience with the country or culture myself, I was curious if he thought it was a good representation or if he could shed any light on that.

Viet Thanh: Yes, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer prize in 1991 or 1992, which was when I first read it and I was very impressed by it because technically it’s a wonderful collection of short stories. And what Butler did was he was a Vietnam war vet and he knew Vietnamese. He wrote these stories all from the perspectives of Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana and that is important. I think it’s crucial for us of any background to be able to imagine people from different backgrounds and write about them. I think the complexity about that book is of course the idea that oftentimes it seems Americans would rather hear other Americans speaking about other people versus hearing those people speak for themselves. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s been so hard for Americans to recognize that there are Vietnamese people out there who have written stories, made movies and so on about themselves and about this war.

Kojo: You started out writing short stories yourself, did you not?

Viet Thanh: Yes I did. It was an awful experience.

Kojo: You found writing short stories more difficult than writing this book?

Viet Thanh: Well, I started writing short stories because I thought, “They’re short, there’ll be easy.” And that’s not the case. I think the shorter the form for me, the harder it gets. That’s why I’m a terrible poet to. But it took me 10 years of horrible struggle with a short story collection to realize maybe I should write a novel instead and it was so much easier. I loved writing this book and I did it in two years.

Kojo: Thank you very much for your call. We are going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll continue this conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen. His debut novel is called The Sympathizer. We’re taking your calls at (800) 433-8850. What lessons do you think we have and have not learned from our experience in Vietnam? (800) 433-8850 I’m Kojo Nnamdi.

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Kojo: He is a writer. His debut novel is entitled The Sympathizer. He’s also a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. We meet these men, these three blood brothers, so to speak, on the eve of the fall of Saigon now known as reunification day in Vietnam, which we just marked the 40th anniversary of last week. And when we take flight with our narrator, the general he works for and spies on and Bon, we don’t just go straight to the US, why was it important to you to touch ground in those other countries as well?

Viet Thanh: Well, they go by way of Guam and I wanted to point that out because it really did happen. That was the, for many refugees they had to take a rest there first, but also I wanted to just acknowledge that Americans have an enormous military base in Guam. It’s one of many. The historian Chalmers Johnson says we have an empire of bases, 700 or 800 basis worldwide by which the US projects strategic power and they also use these bases in this case to hold refugees and so Americans need to recognize that part of their history.

Kojo: After settling in the States in Los Angeles, our narrator winds up working on a film about the war. Is there a kind of irony that you see as being inherent in the fact that the US has produced so many movies and books about this war?

Viet Thanh: Absolutely. The United States lost the Vietnam war, but they’ve won it over and over again by being able to tell stories about it, especially through Hollywood. So that even though the Vietnamese won the war, they can’t send their stories overseas the way that the United States can, and so that’s one way by which American power remains powerful, but through its culture. Through its soft power exports. And I grew up watching these kinds of films in the 1980s and feeling, “Wow, there’s something wrong here because I am both the American who’s watching these films and I’m the Vietnamese whose being killed in these films.” Put me in a really impossible situation.

Kojo: It’s like native Americans watching old cowboy movies and Larry’s. Given the amount of thinking we have done as a culture about our involvement in Vietnam. Do you think we’ve learned taking the right lessons from it and applied them to our more recent involvement overseas? Well, let me go back to the question that enters my mind when I first considered this book. What Vietnam has become today, it’s basically a capitalist country, makes it seem if we’re really willing to consider it, that there was absolutely no need for us to fight this war at all?

Viet Thanh: That’s my conviction. We had this horrifying war, 6 million people dead in three different countries, 58,000 Americans dead, and the whole intent was to save Vietnam from communism and turn it into a capitalist country like South Korea or something. That’s exactly what has happened except that Vietnam is not really a democracy, but the United States has never cared about that. As long as the country is its ally, United States is willing to let do whatever it wants to do. So I really do think that if we hadn’t made that decision in 1945, when Ho Chi Minh had asked for help from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, things would have turned out a lot differently.

Kojo: Well, do you think we’ve taken the right lessons from this war and applied them to our more recent involvement overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular?

Viet Thanh: I think it’s a mixed bag. I think if you ask many Americans, they have learned a lesson, which is we shouldn’t be going off to fight these kinds of wars. But those Americans aren’t the ones in power and the ones in power don’t seem to have learned their lesson. We’ve continued to fight wars that we have not been able to win. And we continue to fight wars that do incredible damage to other peoples and other populations.

Kojo: We are leaving Afghanistan. We have a government that we think is friendly to us in Afghanistan. We have a government in South Vietnam that we also considered that was friendly to us. We look at what happened. Could we be repeating the same mistakes again?

Viet Thanh: It’s possible. I mean, what happened in South Vietnam is that the United States created the South Vietnamese government, created the South Vietnamese military, supported it with huge amounts of money that ended up corrupting that society. And so ironically, by trying to save South Vietnam, the United States set up the conditions for its failure. So you look at what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan today, the United States oftentimes complains about corruption and inadequacy in the government and in the militaries there, well, they were created by the United States following a very similar set of policies as to what happened in South Vietnam

Kojo: Onto the telephones. Here is Constance in Alexandria, Virginia. Constance, you’re on the air. Go ahead, please.

Constance: Thank you, Kojo. Yes, if you could please comment. First of all, a little bit more about Ho Chi Minh. If you could also comment about your knowledge of other authors who like yourself are Vietnamese and who have written about the Americans time in Vietnam. I would greatly appreciate that. I’ve read a lot on Vietnam, but you’re exactly right. Mostly written by American people who were there rather than Vietnamese people who lived in Vietnam. The third thing I’d like for you if you have time to comment on is having traveled, less than 18 months ago in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I was very struck by how very traumatized the Cambodian population seem versus Vietnam, which is this extremely dynamic and certainly very welcoming of, I felt totally welcomed while I was there. I never felt any animosity as you’ve already indicated. So if you could comment on any of those, I’d appreciate it.

Kojo: I would suspect that the Cambodian population would be more traumatized.

Viet Thanh: Definitely, definitely. I mean they had the genocide. They’ve been much less able to recover economically than the Vietnamese have. When the French colonized Laos, Cambodian and Vietnam, they set up a hierarchy. Vietnam was at the top, Cambodia was next, Laos was at the bottom. So that hierarchy continues today. And the Vietnamese, like I said before, don’t want to remember that the Vietnam war was fought in these two other countries because the Vietnamese want to exert their own dominance over these two countries. So Cambodia is struggling as all of that, struggling with the fact that many of the people in power now we former Khmer Rouge, ironically enough.

Viet Thanh: And that it’s still a very weak country that has really had a hard time confronting the trauma of the genocide. As for other Vietnamese American authors, there are so many. I’ll just give you a few who deal directly with Vietnam. Andrew Pham has written two great books called Catfish and Mandala, about going back to Vietnam and doing a bicycle trip through it. And The eaves of heaven, which is a biography of his father who was a South Vietnamese military officer. Le Ly Hayslip wrote, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, which Oliver Stone turned into Heaven And Earth, then the book is so much better than the movie.

Viet Thanh: And Mai Elliott has this big family saga called The Sacred Willow, which is about 100 years of Vietnamese history through the experiences of one family. And as for Ho Chi Minh, there’s a lot of debate about whether he’s a communist or a nationalist and so on. My take is that he was probably both but he was also a pragmatist at the same time. So there are very strategic possibilities that he could’ve taken one direction or another in the 1930s or the 1940s, depending on what the United States and the French were going to do. And of course at every turn the United States and the French, the Americans and the French, were opposing him and siding instead with their own partisans in South Vietnam.

Kojo: Constance, thank you very much for your call. You have taught a graduate level course on war and memory several times. And so I wonder, especially after the initial controversy and its ultimate embrace, what do you make of the Vietnam War Memorial here in Washington?

Viet Thanh: Well, it’s a beautiful Memorial. It’s very powerful. And you have to remember it was designed by Maya Lin, Chinese American. Young Chinese American woman at the time in 1982 or so when she was selected. And there were a lot of veterans who said, “A Chinese American woman cannot design a Memorial for American veterans.” And of course she proved them wrong, or most of them, she designed this memorial. It’s won over most Americans who go to visit it. And it is powerful because it makes us think about these 58,000 plus Americans who died.

Viet Thanh: But of course the invisible background of that is that in order for Americans to remember there are 58,000 plus American dead, they have to forget the 6 million dead who are haunting that site. The 6 million Southeast Asians who died as a result of that American war. And then finally, the last thing that’s important about this Memorial was that it was a part of a much larger effort to turn American memory around. You remember that in the 70s and early 80s, many American veterans felt that they were looked down on by their fellow Americans and they began a campaign to say, “We should be remembered for what we’ve done.”

Viet Thanh: Which is absolutely right. But part of that legacy was the creation of this whole idea that we should always support our troops. We didn’t support them in Vietnam, we should support them now. Even if we oppose our wars today, we should support our troops. And I think this is a very powerful legacy of the war and it’s one of the ways by which we’ve been able to inoculate the United States against antiwar movements against contemporary wars because Americans just don’t want to, they don’t want to oppose their troops even if they oppose the wars.

Kojo: And there’s an inconsistency between supporting your troops in a war to which you are opposed if you cannot in fact demonstrate your opposition to the war without at the very least being accused of not supporting the troops.

Viet Thanh: Absolutely. I go back to Martin Luther King Jr, he gave an incredible speech called Beyond Vietnam, which I think is a much more important speech than I Have A Dream. But it’s a speech that is rarely taught, rarely heard because it’s too dangerous. That’s the speech that likely got him killed a year later after he gave it. But part of what he says in that speech is, one of the tragedies of the Vietnam war he says is that it takes poor black men and poor white men, puts them into Vietnam, makes them kill other people of color, unites white and black in brutal solidarity is what he says. So Martin Luther King Jr, he opposed the war. He opposed racism but that didn’t prevent him from criticizing American soldiers for the things that they did.

Kojo: And he himself took a great deal of criticism for that speech. They said he was venturing out of his area of civil rights. There are a lot of themes, a lot of issues in this book, a variety of things that you could break out and discuss because of the limitations of time, we can’t. The war itself, depictions of it, the film industry and wars, friendships, espionage. One could go on. But what ultimately if nothing else do you hope that people take from reading The Sympathizer?

Viet Thanh: Well, our narrator is confronted with a question again and again, what is to be done? I think is the most important question of the 20th century.

Kojo: The old Lennon question.

Viet Thanh: The old Lennon question. Actually, it was written first by an obscure Russian novelist, no one cares about that anymore. So now Lennon gets the credit. But so he feels like he has to take action and so does everybody else in this book. And the great tragedy for this war and many others is that it’s not a conflict between right and wrong. It’s a conflict between right and right. All the different partisans in this war and in other wars think they’re doing the right thing. So that’s what leads to tragedy when people are convinced of their rightness and our narrator is caught right in the middle of that.

Kojo: Here is Lex in Washington, DC. Lex, you’re on the air, go ahead please.

Lex: Hi Kojo. Thank you. This is my first time calling. I appreciate it. Thank you for having your guest on. I look forward to reading the book. I actually wanted to ask, I’m Haitian American who came here very young. My family ended up in Roanoke, Virginia out of all places, which is where I ended up meeting Vietnamese friends as well as friends that were from Laos. And it was through them that I learned about the Vietnam war. And later on, of course, in high school I learned more about it. I want to trash your guests, clearly we Americans haven’t learned in terms of the wars that we’ve been fighting, but I wanted to ask him based on his experience of different Vietnamese or people who were affected by this war who ended up living in different parts or different cities in America, how did their lives change or evolve in terms of progress compared to those who live perhaps in California or other places in the West coast?

Viet Thanh: Thanks for that question. First thing I want to point out is the histories of Vietnamese refugees and Haitian refugees are parallel because the United States was really interested in welcoming Southeast Asian refugees because it proved that the United States was supporting democracy and freedom against communism. But the United States wasn’t very interested in welcoming Haitian refugees because they were black. So that’s very important to acknowledge. As for Vietnamese American assimilation, there are pockets of this country where there’s a lot of Vietnamese Americans, Orange County, San Jose, Houston, for example.

Viet Thanh: And in these places the Vietnamese have built ethnic enclaves where you could literally live your whole life without having to speak English. And that’s an important way by which the Vietnamese have staked their claim onto America because Americans respect nothing more than the ability to own property and have storefronts. And that’s what the Vietnamese have done there. In other places, the Vietnamese are a smaller populations and there they’ve had a different experience. In the American South for example, or in the Midwest, and I think that’s a very diverse set of experiences. But they’ve assimilated or they’ve struggled. So the Vietnamese American story is actually a vast panoply of different possibilities. Some, like my brother, have become a part of the White House. Others are in prison.

Kojo: What’s your brother doing in the White House?

Viet Thanh: He’s the chair of the White House advisor committee on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders

Kojo: Viet Thanh Nguyen, his debut novel is titled The Sympathizer. He’s also a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Thank you for joining us.

Viet Thanh: Thanks so much.

Kojo: And thank you all for listening. I’m Kojo Nnamdi. Coming up tomorrow on the Kojo Nnamdi show from Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, the Chuck D’s boombox, building a collection of music artifacts for the Smithsonian’s new African American history and culture museum. Then at one, buyer beware as DC becomes the capital of house flipping. Shoddy renovation practices are sparking calls for more regulation. The Kojo Nnamdi show, noon till two tomorrow on WAMU 885 and streaming

Pat Brogan: Hey, and good afternoon. This is WAMU 885, 159. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer will be at Politics and Prose at 5015 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest in the district tonight at seven.Speaker 19: WAMU 885 is your listener supported NPR news station in the greater Washington DC region. You can support the Kojo Nnamdi show and all the regional coverage you value by becoming a member today. Click the donate button at and thanks.


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