Author Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about his debut novel, “The Sympathizer” with Book World editor Ron Charles in a special video interview for The Washington Post Book Club.
The Washington Post Book Club is discussing “The Sympathizer” for its fiction pick for May, a gripping novel that captures the aftermath of Vietnam by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer and professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. In an exclusive video interview, the author and Book World editor, Ron Charles, discuss the inspiration behind Nguyen’s first novel.
Read the review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” in Book World.
Ron: Our guest this month is Viet Nguyen, the author of a fantastic debut novel called The Sympathizer. It’s about a Viet Cong spy who keeps working for the cause long after the Vietnam War is over. The novel is the spy’s written and rewritten confession. But to whom? Thanks so much for joining us today.
Viet Nguyen: Thank you Ron, thanks for having me.
Ron: You were born, what, just before the fall of Saigon, is that right?
Viet Nguyen: I was born in 1971, so about four years before.
Ron: You have any memory of it?
Viet Nguyen: Of the fall of Saigon? No, my memories really started when I came to the United States in April of 1975, or May of 1975.
Ron: And what was your family’s situation in Vietnam?
Viet Nguyen: Well, my parents were living in a small town called [inaudible 00:00:46], and they were merchants. And it had the distinction of being the first town overrun in March, 1975, when the final invasion began. And my father was actually in Saigon on business, and my mother was alone with my adopted sister and older brother and myself, and had to make a very life and death decision without being able to talk to my father.
And so with the town cut off by the Communist army, she basically left my adopted sister behind to take care of the family property, walked 120 miles downhill with my 10 year old brother and four year old self to the nearest port town. Caught a refugee boat to Saigon where we found my father, and then when Saigon fell in 1975 got another boat on the way to Guam.
Ron: That’s an incredible story.
Viet Nguyen: It’s incredible, but it’s actually really normal for the Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States. And it’s actually not even that bad compared to some of the things that happened to many other people. So that’s why for me, even though it was a really important event obviously, I think of it as something that is such an average experience for the people who came to United States.
Ron: Good grief. And of course, what makes your story so haunting is this narrative that you’ve chosen, this never-named Captain who’s posing as a loyal aide to a South Korean general. How did you come upon that character?
Viet Nguyen: South Vietnamese general, by the way. You said South Korean, South Vietnamese general.
Ron: All right, sorry.
Viet Nguyen: It’s okay. When my agent told me I had to write a novel, I said, “Sure, I’m going to do it.” And the first thing that came to mind was a spy novel, because the history of a lot of spies that the Communists infiltrated into the highest ranks of the South Vietnamese government, military, and civil society. A very famous spy named Phạm Xuân Ẩn who I’d heard of long ago, who was the most famous Vietnamese journalist in Vietnam. Friends with everybody who were American journalists, like David Halberstam [inaudible] was his best friend. And no one knew that he was a Major General in the Viet Cong until the 1980s. So this rich legacy that I wanted to draw on and write in the novel.
Ron: And did you know any spies?
Viet Nguyen: If I did I wouldn’t have known it, would I? They would have been very good spies.
Ron: Well, you might know now, for instance, that you knew-
Viet Nguyen: No, I don’t know anybody actually.
Ron: The Captain is a sympathizer in many ways, right? I mean he’s a sympathizer to the cause of communism of course, but he’s also very emotionally sympathetic, which makes him an effective spy but it also causes all kinds of personal problems for him. Could you talk about that position that he’s in emotionally?
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, so the book starts off by our spy telling us that he’s a man whose one talent is to see things from both sides. That’s his ability to empathize with different kinds of people. He really understands his enemies and Americans, and that makes him a wonderful spy because his job is to wage a psychological war by understanding what it is that the South Vietnamese and the Americans and the Capitalists think and want and dream about.
But it’s going to be his downfall, because in a world in which wars are fought by people who see things only from one side, the person who sees things from both sides is really very vulnerable. And you can see that by the end of the book very clearly.
Ron: It makes him a brilliant and troubling and really sympathetic narrator.
Viet Nguyen: Well, I hope so. I think that one of the reasons why this book has had some appeal is because unlike many other books about the Vietnam War, whether by politicians or journalists or novelists and so on, most of those books really do see things from one side. They try to figure out how the Americans see things, or the Vietnamese Communists, or the South Vietnamese see things.
And to me that was always a little bit inadequate, because the real tragedy of the war was that all these viewpoints were valid, many of them, and the war was a conflict, as all wars usually are, between right and right, not between right and wrong. And our narrator’s ability to see right and right is what makes him attractive and also tragic.
Ron: Right, right. Now there’s some wonderful satire throughout the novel, but there’s a long section of great satire about the making of a movie. A movie that many readers will recognize as Apocalypse Now. How did you do your research for that?
Viet Nguyen: Well, I do want to say that although the inspiration was Apocalypse Now, I’d seen a lot of Vietnam War movies, maybe all of them that were made by America during the 1980s and ’90s, and elements of many of them make their way into the satire. But basically I just went to the library and I read everything I could find on the making of the Apocalypse Now. There’s quite a few books on that and Francis Ford Coppola, and what I discovered was I couldn’t even make this stuff up.
Much of the most outrageous stuff in there is actually fact, right? But the thing that really triggered me, the reason why I wanted to write about that, besides wanting to take revenge on Hollywood and America, is that I had suspected that the movie had used Vietnamese people as extras. There are major battle scenes where there are Vietnamese people being depicted.
It was being shot in the Philippines, and at that time in the late 1970s Vietnamese refugees, the so called Boat People, had made their way to the Philippines. So I thought, “Were they actually cast?” And then Eleanor Coppola’s diary, she’s Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, she says, “Yeah, we found Vietnamese extras in the refugee camps and used them.” So I thought, “That’s brilliant, I have to put that in.”
Ron: Now it’s also a great description about the way America sees itself, and the way it mythologizes is its own innocence and its own military adventures, right?
Viet Nguyen: Oh absolutely, and I think we’re still doing that today, obviously. One of the ironies of watching all of these American movies about the Vietnam War is this realization that most of them depict the war pretty negatively, and cast Americans in an anti-heroic fashion. And so you might think this is bad for America, because Americans are being portrayed very ambivalently.
But my conclusion is that that doesn’t matter. What really matters is that for Americans they’re perfectly willing to be anti-heroes and even villains in their own stories, as long as they’re the stars, as long as they’re on center stage. It’s much better to be the villainous or anti-heroic star than to be the faceless, virtuous extra or victim who gets killed. Right?
So in an inadvertent way, or it happened in a very deliberate way, America’s constant telling stories of itself through Hollywood and other novels and things like this and exporting them all over the world is a really crucial part of American [inaudible 00:07:13].
Ron: Fascinating. And not to give anything away, but the last part of the novel is an extended exploration of psychological torture. I wonder how that section was affected by all the discussion about torture since the beginning of the Iraq War.
Viet Nguyen: [inaudible] Because certainly anybody who has grown up in the first decade of the millennium can’t, if they were cognizant or conscious, not be aware of these debates that we’ve been having within American culture and politics about whether or not we torture, is torture a legitimate [inaudible 00:00:07:41]? So all these questions factor into the concluding scenes of the novel.
And part of my research was based on a book by Alfred McCoy, a journalist who wrote a book called A Question of Torture, which demonstrates that everything that we’re doing today in terms of Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, finds its roots in CIA research on torture techniques, psychological interrogation, and so on during the 1950s which were then deployed in Vietnam during the 1960s, and Latin America during the 1980s. So we have a long and rich history of developing these techniques.
Ron: Your novel totally changed my impression of psychological warfare, which I always thought of as the benign side of torture, if there is such a thing. It really sounds… Well, it sounds completely inhuman and illegal, and an offense against humanity.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, and if you read accounts of people who have been tortured, it’s oftentimes the psychological torture that’s the most difficult for them to endure. I mean, physical torture’s obviously often very painful and traumatic and devastating, but it’s isolation, it’s the mental deprivation that really reduces people to the most base instincts, and what it is that they remember or are traumatized most deeply by decades later.
Ron: That’s what comes across so clearly. One more question about the reception of the novel. What are you hearing from Vietnamese readers, or from particularly Vietnam vets?
Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s a little surprising that the Vietnam vets, the American Vietnam vets have responded very well to this, and I think it’s because again, the book does not try to say one side is right. It doesn’t try to demonize anybody, including American Vietnam veterans, but it holds everybody to account. Including them, including American soldiers, but also the Vietnamese communists and the Southern Vietnamese and so on.
As for the Vietnamese-Americans who have responded on Good Reads, or Amazon.com, or by email and so on. It’s all been good so far, but these are the readers who can read in English. That means they’ve achieved a certain level of assimilation into American culture. So I haven’t yet heard from the Vietnamese who read in Vietnamese, because the first reviews in Vietnamese haven’t come out yet.
Ron: Wow. Well, I really appreciate you talking to us today. Again, the book is called The Sympathizer. I highly recommend it, it’s a fantastic novel. Thanks so much.
Viet Nguyen: It’s been my pleasure, Ron. Good bye.