‘The Sympathizer:’ A Very Different Look at the Vietnam War

Viet Thanh Nguyen talks with Keri Miller about his novel The Sympathizer on MPR News. You can listen to the full interview here.

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Whenever Viet Thanh Nguyen introduces his debut novel, he says it “begins with the fall — or the liberation — of Saigon, depending on your point of view.”

April 30 marked the 40th anniversary of the North Vietnamese forces taking control of Saigon, and Nguyen’s novel spins off from the historical moment to devastating and darkly humorous effect.

In “The Sympathizer,” an undercover spy follows a South Vietnamese general as he is evacuated to America. An irresistible, captivating narrator, the spy recounts the new life awaiting the refugees in Los Angeles.

Nguyen drew on his own family history to craft the tale — his family arrived in the U.S. as refugees when Nguyen was 4. The myth of the American dream weighed heavy on his childhood, and he skewers it in his novel.

“The Sympathizer” has garnered rave reviews for offering a new perspective not only of the Vietnam War but of the immigrant experience. The New York Times praised it, saying the “book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.”

Nguyen joined MPR News’ Kerri Miller to discuss the book and his experience growing up in the shadow of the war.

He traveled back to Vietnam and its neighboring countries while researching the book. “Americans call this the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call it the American War,” said Nguyen. “But both of these forget than an enormous portion of the war was waged in Cambodia and Laos.”

On one of his trips to Vietnam, he reunited with his adopted sister who was left behind in the conflict. He hadn’t seen her in 30 years, and had just one black and white photograph of her.

“I grew up with a sense of haunting, of absence,” Nguyen said of the separation from his sister. “In this way, the war affected me, even if I have no memory of it.”

Modern Vietnam is dramatically different than the one in which Nguyen was born, he said. It’s a young country: Two-thirds of the country was born after the war.

“If they hear anything about the war, it’s boring,” Nguyen said of the country’s youth. “You can’t blame the younger generation because they have a right to forget, they have a right to move on with their lives. But this should be balanced with a sense of historical memory.”


Here is the transcript:

Keri Miller: There’s a wonderful scene in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel that will make plenty of Americans squirm and nod. Two newcomers to the country are discussing what Americans think happiness is. One character says to the other, “While only the pursuit of happiness is promised to all Americans, unhappiness is guaranteed for many.” It’s such an astute observation and conversation about the American dream that you realize it could’ve only come from someone from the outside looking in, and that’s part of what I want to explore in our conversation today. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a college instructor at the University of Southern California. His terrific debut novel that I’ve been recommending to many people is titled, “The Sympathizer,” and he’s with us today from New York. Welcome. It’s a pleasure to talk to you this morning.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me, Keri.

Keri Miller: I think in reading that scene, I felt like I was observing the collision of the mirage of the American dream with the reality of immigrant people who come here desperately seeking to get in but can’t help feeling cynical about it when the reality sets in. Does that make sense to you?

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. I grew up in this kind of world where the allure and the promise of the American dream was part of what we knew about coming to America and part of what Americans were always telling themselves as well, and yet, growing up as a refugee in San Jose, California in the 1970s and 1980s, I saw many people in the Vietnamese community who could not live that American dream. They’ve been incapacitated by American warfare, the American warfare that had brought them here in order to try out the American dream.

Keri Miller: You know, I think it’s interesting what you just said about how Americans are telling themselves this version of the American dream. We do romanticize it, don’t we? How do you understand that as somebody who observes it?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it’s a mythology. I think it’s an incredibly important part of the way that Americans like to imagine themselves and their country, and it doesn’t make them any different from any other country. Every country has its own mythology, right? But when you’re inside that country, inside the mythology, you understand that it is a myth. It’s the outsider who comes in who comes in with a little bit of skepticism or a little bit of distance, who understands the fictional parts of what natives tell themselves.

Keri Miller: You know, I wonder, though, if we’re unique in we’re the kind of people, I think, who welcome, I hope, welcome immigrants to the country, but kind of have this weird amnesia about the trauma of the experiences and the places that they left. I mean, I think people think, “Well, you’ve started fresh and all that’s behind you and you don’t ever have to worry about that again because this is the land of the free and plenty,” and that’s not how it works.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, that’s not how it works and also I think what’s happening is that Americans don’t understand why it is that immigrants and refugees often times come to the United States in the first place. So, Americans like to tell themselves that this is a land of immigrants and you can come and make yourselves over and everything, and this is a core staple of American culture and storytelling, but for many immigrant and refugee populations, the reason why they’re here is because of things that the United States did overseas in the course of the past century or century and a half, and Americans like to divide those two experiences into wars that were fought over there and immigrants that suddenly appear by magic over here in the United States, but for many of these populations, they are here because the United States was over there to begin with.

Keri Miller: Right, so the United States’s role in that trauma in the homeland that created the immigrants who have come here is something that I wonder why we don’t want to think about that more deeply. Do you have a thought about that?

Viet Nguyen: I think it’s very disturbing. Americans have fought a lot of wars over the past century, century and a half, and I like to think of it as a very long century of low intensity American warfare that’s been designed to expand American domination in various kinds of ways, but that’s not how Americans look at that. They forget how the very existence of many of these kinds of wars. They certainly have forgotten the existence of many of the low intensity conflicts that the United States has been engaged in, so they can’t make the connection between what’s happened over there and what’s happened over here, because part of the mythology of the American dream is that we don’t do things like go and fight wars or behave like an imperial or colonial power. We welcome strangers and immigrants instead.

Keri Miller: Your own family went through this, right? Traumatized in Vietnam, leaving to come here, trying to start fresh, never, as is natural, being able to say, “Well, that was then and this is now.” Effected still by the trauma of that?

Viet Nguyen: I think so. I mean, I think on the surface, we’re a very successful family. My parents lost everything as refugees coming over to the United States and they rebuilt their fortune and become successful business people. My brother’s a doctor and works for the White House and I’m a professor and a novelist, but underneath that, I think, like many other Vietnamese families, we’ve been touched by the history of the war, of the violence of being displaced. My mother is sort of incapacitated physically and emotionally and I can’t help but think that this was due to the horrible experiences that she underwent in her life as someone who was a refugee twice, actually, and who witnessed a lot of horrible things that I can’t even begin to comprehend.

Viet Nguyen: So, different people manage their trauma in different ways. My father, my brother, myself were pretty good at compartmentalizing things but some people aren’t and they suffer as a result.

Keri Miller: You know, I sense that in the way that you skipped over some very impressive biographical details there. Your brother’s a doctor. He works for the White House. You’re a professor and a novelist. I mean, that is pretty extraordinary given the family history, isn’t it?

Viet Nguyen: I guess, but, you know, I think my parents always set up the expectation that if we were anything less than great, we would be failures. I mean, they never wanted to know what my grades were unless I didn’t get an A, for example, right? My brother, I’m very proud of him, but he was the prototypical model minority. Someone who came to the United States when he was 10 years old. By 17 he was valedictorian and going to Harvard, and I never lived that down because his face was on the local newspaper, featured in the local news, and years later when I was in college, some guy came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re the brother of that guy. My mom showed me that newspaper and said, ‘You’ve got to be like him.'” So, that’s what I’ve been trying to live up to my entire life.

Keri Miller: How’d that work for you? Looks to me like you’re doing quite all right.

Viet Nguyen: No, I’m the failure in the family. I’m the black sheep.

Keri Miller: You are not.

Viet Nguyen: I’m an English professor. That means nothing to most Vietnamese people.

Keri Miller: How’s your brother see it? It’s often the super successful sibling that’s like, “What’s the problem?” Someone unaware, right? Of what it was like for the siblings to follow.

Viet Nguyen: I think it works both ways. He wrote a piece for the White House blog about our experiences and it reminded me of the stuff that I had totally forgotten. Like when we first came to the United States, our family was broken up. In order to leave the refugee camp in Pennsylvania, you had to have a sponsor. There wasn’t a sponsor willing to take all four of us, so my parents went with one sponsor, my brother went with another sponsor, I went with another sponsor. I was four, he was 10, and I knew that he had been separated from our family for a while, but I didn’t remember that it was two years. He went and lived by himself with another family for two years. That’s how he became fluent in English.

Viet Nguyen: Either I was not cognizant of that, being four to six, or I shut it out of my memory, but he talked about that, so I think he was affected by it deeply. I think that he’s also the eldest son. In Vietnamese culture, the eldest son has all the responsibility. I’m so thankful for that, that I don’t have to … My parents don’t look at me to take care of them and to take care of all the family matters.

Keri Miller: Can you imagine the choice that your parents had to make, to decide to split you and your brother apart to make this happen so that you could stay here and be with families and live your lives here? I can’t even imagine that.

Viet Nguyen: I can’t. I mean, I have a two year old son now and I look at him like, “God, if he was taken away from me for a few months …” Which, I was separated from my parents for a few months and it felt like forever when I was four years old, I think I’d be devastated. In that piece he wrote for the White House, my brother said, “Yeah, my mom wouldn’t allow my younger brother to be separated from her for more than a few months, but she let me go away for two years,” so I think, you know, he recognizes that there is some favoritism going on in the family. We’ve never talked about it, but I’m sure he’s affected by it.

Keri Miller: Is this a kidding thing when you say, “I’m so glad I’m not the eldest son and that all the responsibility doesn’t fall to me?” Are you serious?

Viet Nguyen: I’m totally serious. A Vietnamese family is a wonderful thing, but it’s extremely complicated and emotionally complicated, financially complicated and I want very little to do with those kinds of issues.

Keri Miller: Why?

Viet Nguyen: It’s tough. I mean, I’m not even talking just about my parents, which is hard enough, but we have an extended family in Vietnam and for the last few decades, especially during the really hard decades in Vietnam, the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s when the country was really poor, people were struggling, we had relatives who were starving, so my parents were the ones who were responsible for sending money home to take care of many uncles and aunts and also my adopted sister that we left behind. So, my father has just recently completed one last part of his will and in it, there’s a clause that says, “I’ve set aside this sum of money.” My brother and I are responsible for using that money to help take care of poor people in the Vietnamese community but also their relatives in Vietnam as well, and that’s a lot of people we’re talking about.

Keri Miller: What about the adopted sister? She was a young girl that your family adopted when they were still in Vietnam but she couldn’t come to the United States?

Viet Nguyen: Well, what happened was that she was 16 at the time in 1975 and my brother was 10, I was four, and we lived in a small town called Buôn Ma Thuột which had the distinction of being the first town overrun in the final invasion that began in March 1975. My dad was in Saigon on business and being cut off from him, my mom had to make a life and death decision on her own, and she believed that the war would just go back and forth as it had in the past. We might have to leave but we’ll come back. She left my adopted sister behind to take care of the family property and she walked with my brother and myself 120 miles downhill to the nearest port town to catch a boat to Saigon to reunite with my father, thinking we would go back, but of course they wouldn’t see her again for another 20 years and I wouldn’t see her for almost 30 years.

Keri Miller: Wow.

Viet Nguyen: I grew up having no memory of her, but we had one photograph of her, a black and white photograph. She was a beautiful girl, and I grew up with that sense of haunting, of absence, of knowing that here was somebody who was my relative and I’ve never seen her. I have no memories of her, and this was part of, for me, the feeling that this war affected me, even if I have no memory of it.

Keri Miller: How is she living in Vietnam today, or is she still there?

Viet Nguyen: She’s still there. I went to see her and my father said to me … He wasn’t happy that I was going back to Vietnam, but he let me do that, but he said to me, “You will never go back to Buôn Ma Thuột,” my hometown, so I couldn’t go back. I mean, I’ve disobeyed my father in many things but I can’t disobey him in this for some reason, so we rendezvoused instead in this port town of Nanchang and when I met her, I discovered that she was nothing like my family, which made me so happy, because she laughed, she smiled, she wore makeup, she was well dressed. It’s like she’s a fun person and I come from a family of really uptight, serious Catholics. We don’t know how to have fun.

Viet Nguyen: So, she basically runs a sort of small business, small mom and pop business subsidized by my parents, and would be considered working class. So, you see here two very divergent fates in terms of what happened to her and what happened to my brother and myself.

Keri Miller: Have you ever wondered if your family wouldn’t have been so uptight, so serious, maybe so Catholic if they had remained in Vietnam?

Viet Nguyen: No, we would be even more uptight and more Catholic if we remained in Vietnam.

Keri Miller: You would? Why?

Viet Nguyen: Oh yes. Well, because my parents were born in this small northern village 30 minutes from where Ho Chi Minh was born, and that region is known for producing hardcore revolutionaries and hardcore Catholics, and my family, we’re the hardcore Catholics. The Vietnamese Catholics are among the most devout Catholics in the entire world and it’s magnified by Confucian hierarchy and things like that, and so in Vietnam it just would’ve been terrible for me to be a Vietnamese Catholic there.

Keri Miller: This is a conversation, if you’ve just tuned in, with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new novel, his first novel. It is terrific. I’ve been recommending it to so many people. It’s called The Sympathizer and we’re talking about his own family’s experience and some of how that gets infused and influenced the story that he’s telling in the novel. It is probably not coincidental that your book is coming out around this time of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, is it? I mean, did your publisher say, “Oh, I’ve got a good time for us to publish this book,” or is it coincidental?

Viet Nguyen: No, it’s very deliberate. I mean, I was lucky to finish the novel when I did, but I sold this novel in 2013, so it’s been 18 months of preparation leading up to the release of the novel, but I did tell my editor that, “Hey, it would be good if we could release it around the 40th anniversary because I think it would be good publicity,” and it turned out to be the case. So, it’s a double-edged sword because this novel, it’s about the Vietnam War. It’s about many other things as well, but the marketing hook is obviously, “Hey, 40th anniversary. Vietnam War novel,” and that puts a little bit of a constraint in terms of some of the conversations I’ve had about the book.

Keri Miller: Because your interviewers only want to talk about Saigon?

Viet Nguyen: And they’ll talk about the Vietnam War, yeah. It’s the most obvious angle into the book, but I think, again, there’s many other things going on here …

Keri Miller: Absolutely.

Viet Nguyen: … With moral choices and hard choices that people have to make that I think are more universal.

Keri Miller: How do you feel about that term, “The fall of Saigon”?

Viet Nguyen: Whenever I begin a talk, I always say, “This novel begins with the fall or the liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view.” I’m not attached to the notion of the fall of Saigon because, which is obviously the way this war is known, or the end of the war is known by Americans and by the Vietnamese Americans who have fled South Vietnam, because I think that there is a perfectly reasonable way to think that in fact we needed to liberate Saigon from American occupation, and a lot of people in Vietnam do believe that, so this novel is partially about what it means when you have a war where the different sides who are involved all believe that they are right. They all believe they’re doing the right thing.

Viet Nguyen: So, tragedy is not about right versus wrong. Tragedy is about right versus right, and that’s what the novel deals with and that’s why when we talk about the end of the war and Saigon, fall or liberation are equally viable terms.

Keri Miller: You know, this is interesting. Your thinking really reflects a similar conversation that I had specifically about that term, the fall of Saigon, with Quan Barry. She has a new novel out that also takes place … It’s terrific. She’s a poet, I think at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her novel is also taking place in the later days of the Vietnam War. When I asked her about this fall of Saigon thing, this is what she said.

Quan Barry: It’s all about the victors writing sort of the history there. Obviously there’s a large community of expat Vietnamese in this country. There’s a large Vietnamese diaspora. Many of them I sort of think the analogy of Cuban exiles in Florida as very similar. These are people who feel very strong that the United States should not normalize relations with Vietnam. Many of them still refer to what happened in spring of 1975 as Black April. So, people feel very strongly about the idea that it was a fall, and yet, you know, again, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that North Vietnam and South Vietnam were going to be one country eventually and that it was really a reunification.

Quan Barry: I have to admit that for me, you know, being adopted, I don’t actually have an opinion one way or the other as to whether or not it’s a fall or reunification, but I recognize that both ways of looking at the issue are valid.

Keri Miller: So what do you hear there?

Viet Nguyen: I think she’s absolutely right on all the various points that she’s making. One thing to pick up on is that this anniversary of the fall or the liberation of Saigon is really important to the Vietnamese American community. The most vocal portion of them have claimed this date of April 30th as Black April. It’s not really a term that I agree with for many reasons, but it does connote the extent to which it marks a sense of loss, trauma and sorrow and melancholy for a good portion of the Vietnamese Americans here in this country and the very sort of one-sided way they have of viewing that history.

Keri Miller: How many time … You mentioned that you’ve been back at least once to Vietnam to meet your … and you met your adopted sister when you were there, so how many times in all have you returned?

Viet Nguyen: I’ve sort of lost track, but probably five, six times over the course of the last 12 or 13 years, including … Besides that, a couple of trips to Laos and Cambodia as well because, you know, in terms of exploring what happened to Vietnam as a result of the war, one thing that became very evident to me was the Vietnamese are really attached to their own pain, just like Americans are, and that’s why going back to how do we name historical events, Americans call this the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese call it the American War, and Americans who sympathize with the Vietnamese say yes, we should call it the American War to draw attention to our responsibilities, but both of these terms forget the fact that an enormous portion of the war was waged in Laos and Cambodia to devastating effect by both Americans and Vietnamese and Chinese too, but obviously neither the Americans nor the Vietnamese want to remember that because they want to focus on their own experiences and to ignore what they did in these two neighboring countries, so I really felt that I needed to visit Laos and Cambodia as well to get a much fuller sense of the historical consequences.

Keri Miller: That makes sense. I want to tell you something that occurred to me when I went to Vietnam a few years ago and I actually shared this with Quan Barry too, that I was surprised at how distant the war seemed, and then I realized it’s such a young country and there’s this kind of kinetic energy, I think, especially in the cities, in a place like Saigon, and you see these young families in pursuit of exactly what young American families are in pursuit of, right? An education, a better life for their children, moving into the middle class, and it just seemed to different than I think Americans still believe much of Vietnam is about. Does that make sense to you?

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. Many people have said, “Hey, in the United States, Vietnam means a war, not a country,” and again, that’s a very accurate description of what that word signifies for Americans, and of course in Vietnam as you said, two thirds of the country is so young that they were born after the war, have no living memory of it, and if they hear anything about the war, it’s totally boring. You know, they’ve got the state party version of it. Who would want to learn these kinds of things? The movies that the government has made about the Vietnam War are really bad, for example, right? It’s gonna totally lose out against Transformers 2 or something like that.

Viet Nguyen: You can’t blame the younger generation because people have a right to forget. People have a right to move on with their lives. Now, the tragedy, I think, is that this should be balanced with a certain sense of historical memory. It would be nice if the younger Vietnamese did have a better sense of their own history, but they reject it because they know they’re getting a very sanitized version from the communist party or they actually believe what they’re getting from the communist party. In that sense, they’re not that different from American youth. I mean, if you ask American youth what they know about the Vietnam War …

Keri Miller: Exactly.

Viet Nguyen: … They mostly don’t know anything.

Keri Miller: Exactly.

Viet Nguyen: So it’s a universal condition of amnesia that we have in both countries.

Keri Miller: By the way, I don’t think it’s all that different if you ask students in American schools about how much detail they know about the wars we’ve just fought, Afghanistan, Iraq, I don’t know if they’d have any more detail than what these young kids in Vietnam know about their own history. Do you?

Viet Nguyen: No, I think that’s right, and one of the ironies about what happened in terms of reunifying Vietnam, liberating it and turning it into a supposedly free and independent country is that the Vietnamese have earned the right to be just as ignorant as everybody else and to pursue pleasure just like everybody else.

Keri Miller: Viet Thanh Nguyen is with us this morning. We’re having a conversation about his debut novel. It’s called The Sympathizer. Our discussion will continue, but first we’re gonna get a look at the latest news, and Phil, what news stories are you watching?

Phil: Keri, there’s a court ruling today against the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. A federal appeals court in New York says the program goes beyond what Congress has allowed. A lower court judge has thrown out the case, but the appeals court said the lower court was wrong in finding the phone records collection program was legal. Today’s ruling does not mean the program will be blocked. The court says it’s up to Congress to decide how it should continue.

Phil: Attorney General Loretta Lynch says she will decide soon whether the Justice Department will undertake a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department. Lynch is testifying before a Senate subcommittee, her first appearance before Congress since being sworn in last week. Baltimore’s mayor yesterday asked the Justice Department to investigate the policing practices of the entire city police force.

Phil: The National Weather Service says it has received reports of 51 tornadoes across the Great Plains yesterday and it’s warning of increasing severe storms through the week. Tornadoes were reported yesterday in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and North Texas. The Oklahoma City area appears to have been the hardest hit. The emergency crews today are combing through the wreckage. At least a dozen people were injured in Oklahoma.

Phil: Tomorrow marks 70 years since the fall of Nazi Germany in World War II, and while millions of Germans experienced the end of the war as a total defeat, today most Germans see it as a liberation from 12 years of Nazi tyranny. In a poll released last week, just nine percent of the Germans who were surveyed see the end of World War II as a defeat for that country. More news ahead on Minnesota Public Radio News.

Cathy Wurzer: The walleye population in Lake Mille Lacs continues to drop. Ahead of Saturday’s fishing opener, we’ll explore what’s going on there and how Minnesota’s favorite sport fish is faring in other lakes. I’m Cathy Wurzer. That story tomorrow on Morning Edition.

Speaker 6: Coming up next hour on NPR news, a special hour on a global scientific mystery. An unprecedented Avian flu outbreak is killing birds from Asia to Europe to Egypt and now in Minnesota. Join us at 11:00 on NPR News.

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Speaker 8: Programming is supported by Discover St. Louis Park, working to strengthen awareness of St. Louis Park by promoting its businesses and community assets. More about meeting, lodging and visitor destinations in St. Louis Park online at DiscoverStLouisPark.com.

Keri Miller: We’re back to our conversation this hour with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new novel, The Sympathizer. By the way, you can find all of the books that we feature, and they are many, on The Thread. Go to NPRNews.org/Thread. Can I ask you about your first name? How common or unusual is it for Vietnamese families to name their children “Viet,” some version of the country’s name?

Viet Nguyen: Well, the name Viet Nguyen or Viet Nguyen is like John Smith, so I’m completely anonymous if you only take those two names, but, you know, Vietnamese people really go by three names, so Viet Thanh Nguyen, that is what would make me distinctive, is having that middle name in there, but it’s a very common name to be named for the people, basically.

Keri Miller: Okay. I also wanted to talk to you about these wonderful, small details that you embed in the scene setting and the storytelling once the … The storytelling takes place in Southern California once the people have moved here, and a lot of them are evocative of this, what we talked about the beginning, this pull of the homeland and the clash kind of, of the new culture and the old culture. Maybe reading an excerpt, if you’d be willing to do that from this part and we could talk a little bit about that?

Viet Nguyen: Sure.

Keri Miller: Okay.

Viet Nguyen: What’s happened in the plot is that our protagonist is a communist spy and his job is to flee with the remnants of the South Vietnamese army to the United States where he’s gonna report on their efforts to take back their homeland. The reason why he’s given this mission is because he’s the assistant to the general, who was in charge of the secret police in South Vietnam, so he’s a very important man, but in the United States, the general and his wife, the madam, or Madam, experience downward mobility, which happened to many of these people. So they go from being very powerful people in Vietnam to being forced to run a liquor store and a restaurant, a cheap restaurant in Los Angeles. So, this scene takes place in their restaurant and I’m just gonna get right into it.

Viet Nguyen: Visible over Madam’s shoulder was a clock hanging on the wall between a flag and a poster. The poster was for a new brand of beer featuring three bikini-clad young women sprouting breasts the size and shape of children’s balloons. The flag was of the defeated Republic of Vietnam, three bold, red, horizontal stripes on a vivid field of yellow. This was the flag, as the general had noted more than once to me, of the free Vietnamese people. I had seen the flag countless times before and posters like that one often, but I had never seen this type of clock, carved from hardwood into the shape of our homeland. For this clock that was a country, and this country that was a clock, the minute and hour hands pivoted in the South. The numbers of the dial a halo around Saigon.

Viet Nguyen: Some craftsmen in exile had understood that this was exactly the timepiece his refugee countrymen desired. We were displaced persons, but it was time, more than space, that defined us. While the distance to return to our lost country was far, but finite, the number of years it would take to close that distance was potentially infinite. Thus, for displaced people, the first question was always about time. When can I return? “Speaking of punctuality,” I said to Madam, “your clock is set to the wrong time.” “No,” she said, rising to fetch the beer. “It’s set to Saigon time.” Of course it was. How could I not have seen it? Saigon time was 14 hours off, although if one judged time by this clock, it was we who were 14 hours off.

Viet Nguyen: Refugee, exile, immigrant. Whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being, as we were, reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.

Keri Miller: It’s wonderful. Wonderful excerpt from the novel, The Sympathizer. To the phones to Dave in Park Rapids, hi Dave, thanks for waiting.

Dave: Hey, hi, Keri. I did a free trip to Vietnam in ’68 and ’69 with the Air Force and I read a book in Conde Nast probably in the early ’90s and it was by Pico Iyer, I believe. It was about going back to Vietnam and whatever, and shortly after that, America started allowing Americans to go in under an American passport, so I immediately got ahold of a travel company in California and flew into Vietnam, stayed there for two or three weeks. That and Cambodia, and I was with just a guide and a driver, so I didn’t go to the western hotels and whatever. I kind of just stuck with my guide and ate where he ate. The people were great and the food was great and it kind of set the bar for my travels that I’d done around the world. It was a great place.

Keri Miller: Had you been in the war there, Dave?

Dave: Yes, I had. ’68 and ’69.

Keri Miller: So, your experience then of going back at that point …

Dave: Exactly. After reading the article by Pico Iyer in Conde Nast, I go, “My God, I’ve got to get back and see this.” I’m a photographer now and I wanted to go back and see what … You know, I got to see a very small portion of the country when I was there during the war, so I got to move, just like I said, with just a guide and a driver and everything was just wide open for me.

Keri Miller: Good to have your call. Viet, how many veterans do you know and hear from as you’ve been talking about this novel?

Viet Nguyen: Many. I think many veterans are still hurt from the war or are still coping with what they experienced and what they saw. Many of them who reach out to me want to talk to Vietnamese people, want to engage with Vietnamese culture as Dave did, and I think that’s great. That’s really healthy, and many veterans go back to Vietnam in order to find some closure. Either to help the Vietnamese people or simply just to, for themselves, see that the country was more than their small portion of it, as Dave pointed out. Most soldiers only saw one very small piece of geography and had a very limited sense of the Vietnamese people, and so for many of them, it’s a real healing trip to go back.

Viet Nguyen: But there are some veterans who can’t get over the past. Sometimes I get angry emails from veterans saying, “Hey, go back to Vietnam. You don’t appreciate what we’ve sacrificed for you,” and they’re really angry. Sometimes I try to reach out to them and say, “Look, it would be great … I know you’re angry. You’ve suffered and you focus on your experience and the American experience, but it would be great if you could empathize with other people.” I’m someone who … I feel very deeply for the Vietnamese community here and in Vietnam but I also feel very deeply for Americans because I was raised among Americans and I think it’s that sense for me of being able to empathize with other people’s emotions that helps me to put my own feelings into context. People who can’t do that, they’re going to be stuck with their anger.

Keri Miller: I don’t see what it is in the novel that would anger Vietnam veterans. As you say, as you said at the beginning, these are the most difficult of moral choices. Everybody has suffered and actually continues to put themselves in places where they’re going to continue to suffer. Nobody emerges from your story unscathed.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, the veteran response to the novel has been really good, actually. Veterans who have fought in the war have written to me or have done reviews of the book and said, “Hey, this novel really works for me,” but I’ve published a New York Times op-ed and that was what drew a wide range of veteran responses, including a couple of those angry ones.

Keri Miller: I get the impression that for as obviously as influential as literature is for you, that American movies have been pretty influential to you as well. Is that right?

Viet Nguyen: Well, for everyone, I think, but in the 1980s I was watching movies, of course, and I was very curious about the Vietnam War because I knew that had shaped me in some fashion. Apocalypse Now was probably the first Vietnam War movie that I saw on the VCR. I was 10 or 11. Scarred me deeply, and the reason why was because with that movie and all the other subsequent Hollywood movies that would come about the Vietnam War, I watched those movies as an American kid. I saw the stories through American eyes. I identified with the American soldiers up until the point they killed Vietnamese people, and then that put me in a really impossible situation because I had to think, “Am I the American doing the killing or am I the Vietnamese person doing the dying?”

Viet Nguyen: I knew that I wanted to respond to that in some way and the most powerful way that I could do that, given my own abilities, was to write a novel where, number one, I would talk about the diversity of Vietnamese experiences, but also, take my revenge at the same time on Hollywood and what they had done to me and also to Vietnamese people in general.

Keri Miller: We should say that at one point our protagonist ends up going down to be a … What was his actual … A grip of some sort, an assistant on a movie set that is thinly disguised as the making of Apocalypse Now, right?

Viet Nguyen: He is the authenticity consultant.

Keri Miller: Oh, that’s right.

Viet Nguyen: He’s brought in to make sure that all the details are correct and also to handle all the Vietnamese refugees. So, this is based on fact. Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines and there was a Vietnamese refugee camp not far away from the making of the movie where, if you remember, many Vietnamese people were fleeing Vietnam as the so-called boat people and one of the countries they ended up in was the Philippines, so imagine this. You’re a refugee fleeing from Vietnam and then all of a sudden you’re rounded up, given a job to play Viet Cong villagers in an American war epic. I thought, “This is rich. I have to do something about this.”

Keri Miller: I did not know that that was real. I thought you created that with your twisted sense of humor. That really happened.

Viet Nguyen: Well, you know, I read a lot about the making of Apocalypse Now and I thought, “I can’t even make this stuff up.” [inaudible 00:35:45] You know, yeah, real Vietnamese people.

Keri Miller: What are we learning about Francis Ford Coppola here?

Viet Nguyen: Well, you know, I would like to say that the figure of the auteur, the filmmaker in this book, is … yes, I mean, he’s inspired by Francis Ford Coppola but he’s not purely Francis Ford Coppola, but I have to say, I really do admire Apocalypse Now. I think it’s a great movie. It’s a great work of art, but just from the perspective of who I am and how I identify, it also was a very difficult movie for me and it had its excesses. One of the excesses was the way that Francis Ford Coppola, as the movie was released, went to the Cannes Film Festival and said, “This is not a movie about the war. This is the war. This is exactly what happened to us.”

Keri Miller: That’s right, oh my gosh.

Viet Nguyen: That’s to be satirized, of course, but as a writer, I can sort of see if you sacrifice months and months of your life and risked your entire and wealth in order to make this movie, you might have a certain sense of megalomania about that, so I think it’s a very affectionate satire …

Keri Miller: Oh, do you?

Viet Nguyen: … Of Francis Ford Coppola, yeah.

Keri Miller: You haven’t heard from him, have you?

Viet Nguyen: Not yet.

Keri Miller: Yeah. I think you use humor so effectively for a first time novelist. I mean, that takes a lot of confidence to wield it the way you did. Where’s that come from?

Viet Nguyen: I have no idea because everybody tells me I’m a very serious person and everybody’s surprised that I’ve written any comedy or comic parts of this book. I think it’s because there is some vein of the … Basically I’m a polemicist. I’ve always been a natural polemicist. I always speak back against authority, including my own professors, which I don’t really recommend, but that grain of contrarianism inside of me took expression through writing a blog outside of my academic work and I always have a sense of humor about the situations that I’m in. If, for example, you know anything about academia, it’s ripe for satire and the only way I can survive academia is to laugh at myself and to laugh at other professors, and it’s ridiculous excesses of academics.

Viet Nguyen: Likewise, in going to the war, unlike my parents, I don’t have a direct experience with the war, so I, unlike them, can have distance on what happened and therefore I can laugh about it. When you look back at the war, in both what the Americans and Vietnamese people did, there were so many hypocrisies and absurdities and stupidities in addition to the tragedies, and that is the stuff of dark humor.

Keri Miller: Yeah. You know, it reminded me … This part of our discussion reminded me of something that I talked with Boris Fishman about. Also, I think, out with a debut novel called A Replacement Life. It’s about the Russian immigrant community in New York, and he talked about this as, again, a community of people that are often very serious and melancholy but the humor is this thing that kind of hits you sideways. You know, that if you weren’t in that community, you wouldn’t necessarily know that this is humor, but it’s something that people understand from the skin out, right? You grow up immersed in it and it’s hard to describe to people that don’t really understand. I wondered if the Vietnamese community has that kind of experience of humor.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, we’re a very bawdy people.

Keri Miller: Oh, really? No, seriously?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, seriously.

Keri Miller: Wow.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I mean I don’t know what other Americans’ perceptions of Vietnamese people are, but growing up in the Vietnamese community, besides the fact that we were a melancholy, sad, alcoholic people from everything that I could tell going to weddings, we’re also a very fun loving people. We love song, we love dance, we love big hair and flashy clothes and we love broad, bawdy, satirical, sexual humor, just not applied to the war, but applied to many other things, so I try to take those various elements that I grew up with and put it in the context of this wartime period.

Keri Miller: Is that something that you … I mean, if you described the community’s humor like that to your parents, would they recognize that? Do they take part in that?

Viet Nguyen: Oh yeah, I mean, the Vietnamese have their own media network. They produce variety shows that are very popular in the diaspora but also in Vietnam, and a part of these variety shows involve song and dance but also comedic skits about usually village life or sexual comedies and things like that, that are very broad. So, my parents loved to watch those types of things, and in the 1970s and 1980s, their favorite American television show was Three’s Company, which, you know, the broadness of that humor translates universally and it’s actually pretty … They didn’t need to have great English to understand what was going on, and likewise, I think that’s because they recognize that that kind of humor is also very popular in Vietnamese culture too.

Keri Miller: So as you were this young, high achieving, trying to match the standard of an older brother who was a super high achiever kid in Southern California, what were you reading? What was influential in those days to you?

Viet Nguyen: I read everything. I think for the moment I became an American and four years old. I remember going to libraries and just reading all kinds of kids books. The reason why was because I was really lonely, I think. My parents worked really hard. They worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, literally. I never saw them, and I was alone by myself so I had to do something. My brother was older. He was going to college and all that, so I just found books, went to the library, read all kinds of kids books, and then at a certain point I started to read adult books at a much too young of an age. I was 10 or 11. I was reading pornography in the public library. You could get pornography. War pornography. I mean, there were actually Vietnam War pornography books and then I was reading serious literature, everything from All Quiet on the Western Front to Portnoy’s Complaint when I was in the sixth grade …

Keri Miller: Oh my gosh.

Viet Nguyen: … Which makes its presence felt in this book, and, you know, Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann, which is a very shocking and powerful novel of the Vietnam War which scarred me for life along with Apocalypse Now, so I was trying to read everything, and all those literary influences filter their way eventually into this book.

Keri Miller: I’m not familiar with war pornography, what is that?

Viet Nguyen: For example, there was a series in the late ’70s called Mack Bolan. So, Mack Bolan was a Vietnam vet who comes back and discovers that the mafia has wiped out his entire family and turned his sister into a prostitute, so he takes his Vietnam vet skills, he’s like a green beret, and proceeds to wage war against the mafia. So, it’s an action pulp thriller, but in the middle of it, there’s a lot of sex, and I remember reading the fact that Mack Bolan has sex with a prostitute, and I don’t know how old I was. I was 10 or 11. My brother’s 17 or 18, so I go to him and I say, “Hey, what’s a prostitute. Is that like a protestant?” He said, “Go use the dictionary.”

Keri Miller: You found those books in your library? In your local library?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, yeah.

Keri Miller: Jeez. You know, it’s funny. I think you’ve related a story that a lot of young, dedicated readers relate, which is you just start reading and you move very quickly into adult novels that you probably never should’ve had your hands on at 10 or 11, but I think that’s also a … I think that’s an important experience for somebody who grows up loving and exploring the world through books.

Viet Nguyen: Oh, absolutely. The public library’s a very democratic space, you know? There’s no wall separating you from certain kinds of information and you can browse and find your own way through and that’s partially how you become an adult, is to realize that you read these things and that you have the choice to read certain kinds of materials, and also it confirmed for me the power of storytelling. Like Apocalypse Now, Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann, those books, those works scarred me in a good way, because while they were really traumatic for me, they affirmed for me the fact that stories can move you, can shape you, can really be critical in melding your psychology, your view of the world, and I wanted to be able to do that as well through my own work.

Keri Miller: I was really looking forward to this conversation. Thank you so much.

Viet Nguyen: It was a pleasure.

Keri Miller: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel is called The Sympathizer. Read more about it on The Thread. It’s NPRNews.org/TheThread. It’s where all of our books come together with lots of great information and recommendations. Programming is supported by Great River Energy, providing reliable electric service to 28 Minnesota member co-ops with a diverse mix of power generation including power plants and renewable energy. Great River Energy, the power behind your electric cooperative.

Category: Interviews

 

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