Earlier this year, B.A. and Ph.D alumnus Viet Thanh Nguyen published his first novel, The Sympathizer, to great critical esteem. The novel, heralded by Maxine Hong Kingston as “(a) book that will go down in history as an important novel of the war in Vietnam,” has appeared on numerous best novels lists, including The New York Times and The Guardian. Recently, Viet sat down with Professor Genaro Padilla to discuss his work, his time at Berkeley, and his path to becoming a novelist as well as a literary scholar. This article was originally published by The Wheeler Column, a UC Berkeley English Department publication.
Genaro Padilla: So, I was in a familiar place, the place of feeling unfamiliar. . .” (150-51) You know the context in which the narrator thinks and knows this state of feeling so I won’t rehearse that at the moment. I want to go right to inversion. What does he mean? What does it mean not only for the narrator, but for the novel itself? For you?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The novel isn’t autobiographical in fact, but I do share ideas and feelings with my narrator. Feeling unfamiliar is one of the earliest things that I can recall, as my narrative memory begins with arriving as a refugee in the United States. Since then, I’ve always felt, like my narrator, to be a man with two faces and two minds. I feel at home and out of place, often at the same time, in both American and Vietnamese cultures. The novel enacts that feeling dramatically, and uses it to propel the novel’s intellectual engagement with ideas and politics. The narrator has a great deal to say about colonization, war, sex, gender, and many other discourses that produce discomfort for the person who is always in between, but he isn’t only a thinking subject—he feels these issues, and hopefully the reader will share those feelings to some degree.
GP: What motivated you to have the narrator play the double agent, and the double agent modified by being American? That is, he is a North Vietnamese agent operating as a mole in the South Vietnamese high command, and yet he is invited into both North and South because he lived many years in the U.S., in California of course. So he is American by education, by language and cultural habitation, both outside of and already implicated in consumer culture, ideologically divided. And, to top it off, he is mixed-blood –Vietnamese and European. By the novel’s end it isn’t clear who he is or where he stands, nor that he knows who he is and where he stands. What are you doing here?
VTN: The novel deals with war and belief, and in the demand for clear-cut answers to the question “What is to be done?” People who take action, particularly revolutionaries, see the world in binaries. They want clear-cut answers. My narrator does, too, but he has the talent, or the problem, of seeing any issue from both sides. He’s a double agent who sees everything in a doubled fashion. Because of this, he understands Hegel’s idea that tragedy is not the conflict between right and wrong, but between right and right. Everything else in the novel flows from that insight. So it is that he’s divided racially, between a French father and a Vietnamese mother, and culturally, between Vietnam and America. I wanted to set up these dualities to allow him to be conflicted and torn, and to address the many kinds of oppositions that were encapsulated in the Vietnam War. If by the end of the novel, his illusions have been stripped away and he doesn’t know who he is or where he stands, then we have the starting point for his rebuilding himself.
GP: The long middle “making of the movie” chapters are filmic narrative about filmmaking, a neo-filmic text both a critique of film artifice that manipulates/eviscerates a people’s history, culture, language and yet you write a textal documentary on how films get produced, scripted, staged, acted, edited and circulated that makes patent the artifice require for both film and novel. Care to say something about this?
VTN: The movie-making section does at least two things. One is that it draws attention to the artifice of representation. The novel is self-consciously metafictional, and the question of how traumatic events are remembered and represented is very much present. For much of the world, when it comes to the Vietnam War, it’s been movies more than fiction that has dealt with trauma. It felt necessary to take on movie-making and movie representation because of the importance of movies to the world’s memories of the war. Second is that the movie allows me to talk about combat in a refracted manner. Most of the book takes place after the years of combat, but of course everything is influenced by what took place on the battlefield. But I didn’t want to write battlefield scenes and compete with the plethora of books out there that have dealt with the war and battle, oftentimes written by soldiers or journalists who were physically present. Looking at battle through the movie let me talk about this kind of fighting but in a satirical fashion. The reader both gets a sense of the horror of the war and the absurdity of making representations about such horror, as in the scene when a couple dozen extras have to play the dead on the battlefield. They walk around the set holding their intestines in their hands or carrying their own amputated limb—terrible but funny, I hope, because it points to how many of us agree that war is hell but we nevertheless keep on watching movies about that hell for our entertainment.
GP: A follow-up question here. As you say in the Acknowledgements “ the inspiration for the Movie can hardly be a secret.” And, I loved it for all that it discloses about Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, specifically, and, generally, about Hollywood’s representation of, well, you know who and how depending on when and where.
Can you say more about why Coppola and why Apocalypse Now? More about the Hollywood machine?
VTN: Apocalypse Now is clearly the movie being referred to, although I was also thinking of all the movies that fell under what could be called the Vietnam War movie genre. I grew up watching those movies and found myself alternately compelled and horrified. As a boy, I was infatuated with war stories and military hardware, so watching war movies was fun. But in the Vietnam War movie genre, my identification with American soldiers reached a moment of crisis when they killed or raped Vietnamese people. I was also aware that the rest of the world was seeing these movies and thinking that this was all Vietnam was. Vietnamese people were reduced to stereotypes of villains or victims, and their speech was taken away from them. Apocalypse Now was the first Vietnam War movie that I saw, on the VCR, at way too young of an age, and it scarred me deeply. I was still enraged talking about it in college. So this section of the novel is my revenge on that film in particular and all of Hollywood in general, which is still doing the same thing when it comes to representing others with whom the U.S. is at war. It felt very, very good to write this section. Some critics and readers see the section as an interlude or an interruption, and some think the novel could do without it, but I could never have let it go.
GP: In the final chapter (23), the narrator, after having been interrogated at length by operatives in the North, appears to depart from the very political revolution he has committed himself to for years. He says to himself: “How could I forget that every truth meant at least two thing, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea.” And then the narrator goes on to mention “Ho Chi Minh’s empty suit…” What are your getting here?
VTN: The history of the Vietnamese communist revolution is that it betrayed itself. It was powerful in organizing and mobilizing millions to unify the country and force out the French and the Americans, but after its triumph it turned to persecuting both its enemies and its allies who were not sufficiently communist. The narrator gets to experience this betrayal in a very intimate way. His disillusionment with the revolution is radical, because he was a believer in the revolution. That history of revolution and betrayal, and the stories of those who were betrayed, always fascinated me. Partly it was because I wondered what I would have done in the situation of someone like my narrator, who believed both in the lure of America and the need to expel the Americans. Partly it was because the Vietnamese story is not surprising at all, and is in my view a universal story about how violent revolutions often betray themselves. Their powerful slogans were born from real ideas, but became meaningless and used to disguise the death of the revolution.
GP: In Chapter 12, the narrator, referring to his participation (or coercion by) the film he works on justifies his role by saying, “Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death. For if we are represented by others, might they not, one day, hose our deaths off memory’s laminated floor.” What do you intend here with respect to historical and social self-representation over and against the forms of social death that come about when “we are represented by others”?
VTN: Production and representation are integral. To achieve justice and equality—to live a life as valuable as anyone else’s—people need to own the means of production. They also need to be able to tell their stories on their terms. Struggles for power in both realms can’t succeed without each other. Not to have access to either the modes of production or representation is likely to lead to premature death, literally, and is certainly going to lead to the social death of being erased from stories, of having one’s voice muffled, silenced, or controlled. I feel that struggle as a novelist, and I feel the reality of social death, or at least wounding, by having been represented by others in power. Feeling myself and those like me to be erased, marginalized, stigmatized, and so on in dominant culture’s literature, cinema, journalism, and political discourse is one of the things that led me to become both a critic and a writer. I feel I can fight back and write back through both my criticism and my fiction.
GP: And finally some questions about your recollection of your Berkeley years:
What do you remember about your English classes here at Berkeley? Did your study prepare you for writing The Sympathizer?
VTN: I transferred to Berkeley after a year at UC Riverside and a quarter at UCLA. I was at Berkeley for two and a half years as an undergraduate and five years as a graduate student. The English training was rigorous, oftentimes stimulating, and sometimes unpleasant. I had to take a lot of courses that I did not particularly enjoy. But I do feel that the historical demands and social realities of the major made me into a better literary critic. The training, both intentional and unintentional on the part of the department, equipped me to be a professor in the English profession and the university where I ended up, where I was often the only nonwhite person in a department or committee meeting. Some of those experiences are referred to in the academic scenes in The Sympathizer. But my study at Berkeley was crucial for writing the novel for more than that reason. As I wrote the novel, I thought a great deal about how my novel would fit into American literary history, which I had studied for my qualifying exams. And I thought about how my novel could grapple with Marxist and postcolonial critique, which was also a subject of my exams. In general, I was deeply concerned with how a novel could be a form of critique, something that could transmute all the complex theories that I had read into fiction.
GP: Can you say anything about how your education here at Berkeley and especially your decision to major in English shaped your ideas for writing?
VTN: I double majored in Ethnic Studies. I never would have become a professor, at least of literature, without Ethnic Studies. While I became an English major because I loved to read, I couldn’t see myself committing my life to the study of literature for its own sake, which is how most English professors (at that time, and perhaps now) taught literature. I needed to see that literature had a connection to the world, to matters of social justice. Ethnic Studies allowed me to make those connections, through studying the literature, history, political struggles, and social movements of Chicanos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. I owe an enormous amount to teachers like Ronald Takaki, Elaine Kim, Sau-ling C. Wong, and Barbara Christian, in addition to the memorable English teachers I had in Oscar Campomanes, Abdul JanMohamed, Alfred Arteaga, David Lloyd, Steven Goldsmith, Maxine Hong Kingston, and yourself. The courses in English that were de facto Ethnic Studies courses, dealing with postcolonial theory and literature, the literatures of immigrants and border-crossers, the literature of African Americans, all were fundamental into shaping me into a writer who sees himself as participating in a tradition of literature as social critique.
GP: When did you know you wanted to be a novelist in addition to being a literary scholar?
VTN: I had fantasies of being a novelist in my freshman year. In my senior year, I was clear-eyed enough to see that I was a better literary critic than a fiction writer. I wanted to go to the best graduate program I could, and that was going to be a literary doctoral program. But in my first year of graduate school I swore to myself that I would keep on writing fiction, and that when I got tenure, I would do exactly as I wanted and write fiction full-time, or as close to full-time as I could while keeping up my scholarly work. That’s what happened.
GP: What is you advice to all of those students in our English classes who study literature, but also want to write fiction or poetry?
VTN: Writing fiction or poetry will make you a better literary scholar. Writing creatively will give you a greater sensitivity to your own writing as a scholar, and will make you look at the literature you study in ways that can both affirm and subvert the purely theoretical approaches to that literature. But it certainly isn’t easy to be both a scholar and a writer of fiction or poetry. It means having two jobs, two lives, two languages. Persistence, stubbornness, the ability to deal with incomprehension from both scholars and writers who only do one thing, and the ability to absorb a lot of rejection, are key.