Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The TNB Self-Interview

Viet Thanh Nguyen interviews himself for The Nervous Breakdown’s fiction self-interview series.


Testing, testing.

I think it’s on.


I love Vietnamese food. Just wanted to let you know.

I do too.


And Vietnam is a beautiful country.

I agree.


Glad to know we have some things in common. So tell us about your novel, The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer begins in April 1975 as Saigon falls. The Vietnam War is over, and South Vietnam has lost. Our antihero, the sympathizer, is a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army. His mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States, where he will report on the South Vietnamese efforts to continue fighting the war in hopes of taking back their country.


Is your novel autobiographical?

I wish.


I only ask because of that moment when your antihero loses his virginity with a squid.

If only I had been that imaginative when I was thirteen. A squid would have solved a lot of problems.


So—are you or have you ever been a communist?

Didn’t someone once say that Marx wouldn’t be a Marxist if he were still alive?


You’re dodging the question.

Let me put the question to you: Doesn’t capitalism need communism?


I see what you’re getting at. Opposites attract. Except when they repulse.

Right. So—did you like the novel?


That might be considered a gauche question to ask your interviewer. But alright, I couldn’t put it down. As Bob Shacochis says, it’s a great Vietnamese novel and a great American novel.

I’m flattered, given how great of a writer Bob Shacochis is. But towards the end I thought I might be writing the great anti-American novel.


Don’t say that too loudly.

Why not?


Some Americans might get the wrong idea. Like Mark Wahlberg.

Mark Wahlberg?


He has a thing for beating up Vietnamese people.

I’ll admit that when I was in Boston, any young white guy who sounded like Mark Wahlberg scared me.


I can see him playing the character of Claude, CIA agent and hexadecimal Negro.

I would forgive Mark Wahlberg if he played Claude.


What about Francis Ford Coppola? He suspiciously resembles the famous director in your novel.

I could forgive Francis Ford Coppola if he bought the novel.


Forgive him for what?

Apocalypse Now.


That’s a great movie.

I don’t disagree. But it’s a movie where the only role for people like me is to get killed.


If there were a comments section to this interview, someone would tell you to make your own damn movie.

Fair enough. But knowing my limits, I wrote a book.


…which deals a lot with movies.

I live in L.A. You can’t get away from people who work in the movie industry; they are the only group more self-absorbed than writers.


So Francis Ford Coppola—

If he’s mad, he can write his own book.


So now you have a book. Now you can speak up for Vietnamese people.

I don’t want to do that.


Why not? This book speaks for the voiceless.

The Vietnamese already have voices. The problem is that Americans are deaf. Or monolingual.


So you’re not the voice of the Vietnamese people?

When I go to Vietnam, the Vietnamese people think I’m Korean.


Come to think of it—

When I’m in Korea, no Korean thinks I’m Korean.


So whom do you speak for?

Does Francis Ford Coppola speak for all Americans?


What’s your point?

I just speak for myself.


That’s not much of a hook.

There’s nothing more universal than being oneself.


Last time I checked, Powell’s doesn’t have a shelf for “Oneself.”

It’s the shelf called “Literature.”


I get it. You’re just a writer.

I don’t mind being a hyphenated writer. Put whatever you want in front of the hyphen. That’s the reality of the world we live in. But I’m also just a writer. That’s the reality of the world I wished we lived in.


So this is just a novel?

I confess that I’m guilty of playing this game of hyphenation and coming up with a hook. So yes, it’s just a novel, but it’s also a post-Vietnam War novel, and yet much more than that.


“Post-Vietnam War novel.” What does that mean?

It’s my revenge on Hollywood and America for all the stories that have been told of this war that make Vietnamese people extras in their own story. But what the novel’s really about is what it means to make incredibly difficult choices. Like the sympathizer, all of us face a moment when we have to ask ourselves “What is to be done?” And that question is the most painful when the situation we face isn’t a matter of choosing between right and wrong. What the sympathizer faces, what we all face at least once, is a matter of choosing between right and right. That’s what really hurts. That’s the stuff of tragedy.


Or in this case, tragi-comedy.

So you found it funny.


I never thought waterboarding could be funny, but you pulled it off.

Now you’re really flattering me.


I feel like I know you after reading your novel.

I feel the same way after writing my novel.


Who did you write it for?



There you go again. That’s not much of a market.

If a writer doesn’t please himself, how can he please readers?


Much less interviewers. Or critics. You’re a critic yourself, and an English professor. But the novel doesn’t feel academic at all.

Being a critic helped more times than not. There’s a lot of criticism in the novel, but it takes place with good reason, because the sympathizer is basically a critic who can’t shut up.


It’s definitely equal opportunity criticism. It’s not just Americans who get sandblasted in the book. The South Vietnamese don’t look too good sometimes, and the Vietnamese communists come off even worse.

I hope they can take a joke.


The ending of the novel hinges on a joke.

Everyone likes to laugh.


So true. Congratulations on writing a human story.

But I don’t want to write a human story.


Who doesn’t want to write a human story?

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera says that there are two kinds of laughter: the laughter of angels and the laughter of devils. I confess that I’d rather laugh with the devil.


I don’t get it.

I didn’t think you would.


This has been strange.

Not if you like talking to yourself.


VIET THANH NGUYEN was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His stories have appeared in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative, and the Chicago Tribune and he is the author of the academic book Race and Resistance. He teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.


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