“The Sympathizer” author Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with Caleb Downs of SunStruck Magazine on representation, class, and subjectivity.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” is about reconciling discordant identities. The story begins in the final days of a Vietnam warring for its own identity, and it’s told by a narrator who is both communist spy and member of South Vietnam’s National Police; bastard and beloved son; French and Vietnamese; murderer and hero.
From a literary perspective, the book itself represents a struggle with multiple identities. Rather than attempt to write a novel that fell into the category of either genre fiction or literary fiction, Nguyen decided to blend the two categories, which he believes to be “artificial and debilitating,” and create a novel that used the tropes of a standard spy novel while presenting the critical ruminations many associate with literary fiction.
Despite the numerous literary and narrative characteristics of “The Sympathizer” that seem to be at variance with one another, Nguyen conducts them into a rebelliously harmonious work. “The Sympathizer” is a thrilling, dramatic and heart-breaking novel that simultaneously offers an intellectually satisfying and critical take on one of America’s most troubling chapters.
Nguyen presents American readers with a voice from the “other” side of the Vietnam War, which he says has been vastly underrepresented in American culture. And it’s this very underrepresentation that seems to be the driving force behind the novel’s narrative. Vietnam was the “first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created”: Hollywood.
The narrator of “The Sympathizer” understands that the representation of his country in popular culture will determine their role within the global community and how he’s viewed by society. His mission, aside from spying on the South Vietnamese, is to represent his culture and his people truthfully through his story.
Yet, Nguyen’s narrator does not ascribe the conflict-ridden spectrum that runs from capitalism to communism on one axis and individuality to collectivity on the other. He criticizes and satirizes any compartmentalization, choosing instead to pay the consequences for his unwillingness to compromise his own identity. And because of his honesty, readers are presented with necessary questions and ideas about a war that has hitherto been analyzed from a “deeply ethno-centric” and limiting point of view.
I spoke with Nguyen over the phone about the arbitrary distinction between literary and genre fiction, the importance of representation and the “possibilities of collectivity, solidarity and revolution.”
You’re an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. What are some of the ideas you focus on in your classes and what do you hope to impart to your students?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
Right now, I’m teaching a class on the Vietnam War and memory. It’s a class that is a part of my scholarship, and it’s a class that I used to help me come up with the narrative for the book that I have coming out in April, which is “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.” When I teach I hope that what I’m able to do is take all of this scholarship that I’ve been doing – the archives, field work, theory and criticism – and find a way to make it relevant to students’ lives and students’ concerns.
The book is very much about memory and history, and how we choose to remember or forget difficult pasts and conflicts. I teach that history in the class itself, but I also constantly try to draw students’ attention to how, in terms of the Vietnam war, the concerns that come out of that are still relevant today.
How we choose to remember and how we choose to forget are still in operation in terms of how Americans recall the Vietnam War, and how they use those lessons for contemporary wars and conflicts. For example, I’m constantly making connections between how Americans conducted the war in Vietnam and how those lessons and strategies have been applied to Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria.
Today, we talked about the slogan, “Always remember and never forget,” which happens every time we discuss some sort of atrocious past. What I was trying to get across to the students was that it doesn’t matter where you hear a slogan like that, whether it’s the Vietnam War or the Holocaust, what’s always contained within that claim of always remembering and never forgetting is the implicit urge to forget something else.
We should always be skeptical whenever we hear platitudes like “Always remember and never forget,” which are just so easy for us to utter. Hopefully they take that away from my class.
What are some of the consequences of remembering the Vietnam War through American minds? You’ve said that just by calling it the Vietnam War, we’re distancing ourselves from it in some ways.
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I think that just by calling it the Vietnam War is troublesome for a lot of Vietnamese people because it turns the name of a country into the name of a war. Much less, the Vietnamese effort at remembering the past as the claim, “Vietnam’s a country, not a war,” which is exactly the opposite of how Americans have chosen to remember it.
Part of the troublesome aspect of this war for Americans is that they can’t make up their minds on whether it was a good war or a bad war. Over the past few decades since the end of the Vietnam War, it’s been remembered generally as a bad war for Americans. But now, everyone from President Jimmy Carter to President Obama have given speeches in which the ultimate point is to argue that, actually, this was a noble endeavor on the part of Americans. It may not have worked, but it was a noble endeavor on the part of the American soldiers and the American country, and that’s how we should choose to remember it.
The terrain of memory when it comes to American perceptions of the war is still a very fraught one. When we remember the past is going to determine how we conduct ourselves in the present, it becomes important for Americans to turn the memory of a bad war into the memory of a good war so that they can continue to conduct contemporary wars and interventions today.
The other danger is that simply reversing it by calling it the American War, which is how the Vietnamese choose to remember it is also very dangerous, because what both of these gestures allow Americans and Vietnamese to do is to embark on a story of reconciliation with their former enemies.
Now, of course, America reconciling with Vietnam and building trade and political relationships between themselves is very important. But what both countries really wish to forget is the fact that the Vietnam War or the American War involved other countries besides these two and has had enormously damaging consequences in Laos and Cambodia.
If we start talking about those countries, all of the assumptions Americans and Vietnamese have made about this war really fall apart. What happened in Laos and Cambodia simply cannot be tolerated in these two national narratives.
You’ve referred to “Nothing Ever Dies” as the non-fiction bookend of a creative project for which “The Sympathizer” served as a fictional bookend. Could you tell me a little bit more about that project?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I’ve spent 13 years working on “Nothing Ever Dies,” and I’ve spent most of my lifetime since I was a teenager thinking about the Vietnam War in various kinds of ways. This lifelong project, and the focus it has achieved in the last 13 years, really helped me to think historically and critically about how all sides have remembered this war and also about the processes of remembering and forgetting.
I just couldn’t take all of that thinking and knowledge and drop it into a novel and at the same time write a fictional story that I was really interested in. I thought of it as a challenge to think about how I could address dominant ways of thinking about this war, on both the scholarly and the fictional end.
I knew that if I could accomplish something on the scholarly end, that would be important, at least to me, because so much of the scholarship on the Vietnam War, at least from the American perspective, is deeply ethno-centric and limited. The book is trying to make an intervention in that area. But, at the same time, it was clear that the limitations of American scholarship about the Vietnam War were part and parcel of a limited American way of thinking about the war all around, including in fiction.
If I really wanted to contest how Americans thought about this war, I felt I needed to do it both through fiction and through scholarship. Through the scholarship, I could say very explicit things. But through the fiction it would be harder to do that. I’m so constrained by the boundaries of what fiction is supposed to do.
The challenge with writing “The Sympathizer” was to take all of this knowledge I had and turn it into something entertaining, and in that way provoke people who would’ve never picked up a book of scholarship through a work of fiction. I wanted to see if I could turn a work of fiction into a work of criticism, which I hope is what “The Sympathizer” is able to do. You read it like a novel. It does various things that a novel is supposed to do, but it also is very explicit about delivering satirical and critical points or punches in ways that are hopefully acceptable within the framework of fiction.
In “The Sympathizer,” the narrator turns typical, cliché American ideals on their head. For example, he says the pursuit of happiness is like buying a lotto ticket: “Someone will surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.” Did writing the novel allow you to see these ideals in a new light or was this an objective of writing the novel?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I think it was both. Certainly, when embarking upon this novel I had a fairly critical perspective on American culture, ways of thinking, customs and things like that. I also had very critical takes on Vietnamese communism and nationalism too. All of these are up for critique and satire in the novel.
I didn’t know that I would write these things. I didn’t pen that sentence that you quoted in advance. That wasn’t something that I had been holding in my pocket for decades waiting to say. In writing the novel and creating a character who could possibly say these kinds of things, I inhabited his voice when his voice came along. So, I’m writing the novel, I’m having a good time, and all of a sudden a sentence like that will come to me because it makes sense in terms of what my narrator would be thinking.
The fact that it realizes something that I think I also personally believe is part of the process. I deliberately created a character who would allow me to say things that I personally believe but would also be fictionally believable coming from the mouth of this person.
Tell me about how the idea of the novel come about and how the formation of this character developed.
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I had written a short story collection and my agent said that in order to publish books in New York City with mainstream publishing houses, you have to write a novel. And I said, “Okay, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’m going to do it.” The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to write a spy novel, which would also implicitly be a historical novel. The reason why that was the case was because that’s a genre I enjoy – the spy, detective, thriller genre – and I wanted to write an entertaining novel.
The other reason for choosing a spy novel was because there really were these communist spies in South Vietnam. These were people who had gone to the United States and studied here and then gone back to Vietnam and climbed very high in the South Vietnamese and American hierarchy. I thought that was a great hook for a story.
My feeling had always been that I wanted to write fiction that either could be classified as literary fiction or genre fiction, because I think the distinction between the two is artificial and debilitating to both sides. I wanted to write a book that could be considered serious literature, but that would also be seriously entertaining at the same time. I thought this conjunction of the spy novel and a historical novel written in the so-called literary way would allow me to do both things, which is to deliver the literary ruminations through a narrative that would be compelling for non-specialists.
In the opening lines of “The Sympathizer,” the narrator describes himself as a man with two minds. This inner-duality seems to be heightened when he travels to America, and by the end of the book he’s referring to himself as “We.” Can you talk about this duality within the narrator and how it might comment on the modern day refugee experience or the refugee experience of the Vietnam War era?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I chose for him to be a man of two faces and two minds partly because that fits the generic narrative of the spy who has to live a double life. As a narrative framework, it also allowed me to deal with all kinds of binaries and oppositions. The most classic one, in this regard, being Rudyard Kipling’s idea that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
That idea becomes really dominant with our 21st-century narratives about people who are caught between East and West, either because they’re mixed race people, like my own narrator who is half-French and half-Vietnamese, or because they are migrants or refugees or transnationals of some kind who find themselves caught between worlds. Of course, the stereotype is that this is a tragic circumstance. You’ll never be able to reconcile this vast difference between East and West, Orient and Occident. In some ways, that’s what happens to my narrator. He’s a tragic figure because he can’t reconcile these oppositions – political, spiritual, racial, cultural and so on.
That is the case for a lot of refugees, and partially that’s the case because they are treated as a collective. Refugees who come to the U.S. or who ask to come to the U.S. or Europe, they come for the lore of individualism and all that it promises: capitalism, benefits, freedoms and all that kind of stuff. But they’re treated as a collective.
They’re these huddled masses that threaten to unsettle or destroy the fabric of Europe and America. That’s always the plight of minorities in a majority society. They’re treated as a kind of group. By the end of the book, the fact that the narrator turns from an individual, first-person “I” to a collective, first-person “We” is meant to do two things. It’s meant to gesture at the fact that minorities and refugees are treated as a collective, despite their own diversity, but it’s also meant to affirm what the possibilities of collectivity are.
This is something I’m doing that I think is not that common in American literature. The novel that I had in mind was Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which is a really powerful book. I love that book. But it is, by the end of it, an affirmation of individualism. The narrator of “Invisible Man” flirts with communism, brotherhood, solidarity, and he’s disillusioned. At the end, he turns back to himself and the promise of American individualism. I did not want to do that at the end of my novel, because I know that’s the narrative conclusion that the majority of American’s would want you to reach.
At the end of the book, which is partially about the horrors of communism, Americans want that character to say, “Now I’m an individual, now I’m free.” And that’s exactly what the book doesn’t do. The book instead says the Revolution has screwed up. Communism has screwed up. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up the possibilities of collectivity, solidarity and revolution.
I think that may be one reason why the book is difficult for some American readers, because the American publishing industry is totally geared towards producing narratives of individualism, especially for people who come as refugees, immigrants or migrants from places that are supposedly more oppressive than the U.S.
Throughout the book, some of the characters are referred to by their given name and others are referred to by titles. For example, the “General,” the “Commandant” and so on. Was there a method to choosing which characters were referred to by a name and which ones were referred to by titles?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I chose that strategy partly because I wanted the novel to have a certain veneer of accessibility, and I wanted the novel to be read as a universal narrative beyond the Vietnamese War. It was very important not to have a lot of culturally specific names that I knew would snag readers.
From my personal experience, my own name does that. I have a very common Vietnamese name. For Vietnamese people it is nothing unique. From an American context, it is unique, and it always causes people to ask me how to spell my name, how to pronounce my name and all of that. I wanted to avoid that problem in this book by treating most of the characters through titles that would allow them to be read universally.
I didn’t really have a rule of thumb for giving people names. It was more intuitive. I think the closer they got to the narrator, the more likely they were to have names. His best friends, his blood brothers, Man and Bon, have names. Lana has a name. Sofia Mori has a name. These are the people that are intimate with him. They’re more individual to him than as types. He also knows he’s telling a confession that is built around people serving intended functions as types.
Finally, the last reason for using these kinds of titles for the characters is that in American movies, people who are foreign, or only serve as extras, are oftentimes referred to as types. “Crazy Guy in Whorehouse” is a type that appears in the credits of Vietnam War movies. That’s the kind of title that they get in the book as well. Generally, more generous titles than “Crazy Guy in Whorehouse,” but that’s the other reason to have those kinds of types appear.
Were there any rules you set out for yourself when you began writing the novel?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I don’t think I had rules in mind. I think I had certain rules or assumptions that I was against. I think there are certain kinds of rules and assumptions that so-called literary fiction is beholden to. Maybe No.1 is “Show don’t tell.” But there’s so much in this novel that’s actually about telling. The narrator feels free to tell the people he’s talking to exactly what he thinks. In many contexts, that would not be an acceptable literary device, because you’re supposed to stage things dramatically.
I think the novel does stage things dramatically, but it does so in a way that allows our narrator to be didactic. This is breaking a rule that I think is potentially limiting in American fiction. I think one of the reasons why a lot of contemporary American fiction might not be interesting to me is because it is apolitical, and it’s apolitical because it’s afraid of telling people things. It just wants to show things.
But sometimes to get the political point across you have to be very explicit. I had to figure out a dramatic way in which I could have someone who would say very explicit things or tell people very explicit things, yet have that work as a novel that wouldn’t be read simply as a set of diatribes or lectures.
The other assumption I don’t necessarily believe in is to have a likable character. My agent told me, in reading an early draft, “You know, your narrator isn’t very likable. He’s doing terrible things.” I thought, “Why is that even important to have a likable character?” And, also, to me he actually was a likable character. I sympathized with my character.
That shows a really important distinction around this whole debate of likability: its highly subjective. I wanted to disregard any idea that likability would be crucial in it and that you could define likability in a certain way.
You bring up two interesting points here. Tradition says the protagonist has to be likable, but in a truer sense it’s all subjective. You were also talking about genre fiction and literary fiction and how the distinction between the two is also subjective. How did you come to hold these views? Do you believe there’s any objectivity in literature?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I think that much of the so-called objectivity in how literary fiction is discussed or taught is actually deeply subjective. Again, the premises of “Show don’t tell” which are treated as physical in the world of fiction writing, or teaching fiction writing, is again actually a very subjective notion.
It hasn’t always been the case that literature is only supposed to show us and not tell us. Arguably, for the majority of human history literature and storytelling were more didactic than otherwise. So, why is it the case nowadays that, at least in the United States, in teaching fiction writing we have this dictum of “Show don’t tell?” Arguably, it’s a depoliticizing strategy. That prevents American writers from telling it the way it is when they look at the world around them. Instead, they show some small part of what they see.
I think it’s really crucial to point out the subjectivity in certain kinds of seemingly objective notions, because for so many writers of minority backgrounds – however you choose to define a minority, race, sex, gender or whatever – they confront a set of subjective notions that are masked as objective when they go into the writing workshop or out into the publishing world.
So, the notion of likability, right? That’s seemingly objective. But a certain character who is unlikable to the majority may be completely understandable to the minority. The minority writers who encounter gatekeepers in the form of writing workshops, the publishing world, agents, editors and so on, don’t have the space to articulate between the subjective and the objective. They’re simply told to conform to the demands of either the workshop or the marketplace.
The other question of literary and genre fiction is also related to this issue about how literature is taught in a writing context. I think generally speaking it’s quite safe to say that writing work- shops don’t teach genre writing. They teach literary writing. A lot of literary journals will say, “We don’t accept genre writing, we only accept literary writing.” To me, that is actually really problematic because it doesn’t recognize how a lot of so-called literary fiction is its own kind of genre.
What gets taught in dominant literary work- shops at Iowa, or whatever other workshop, teaches people a certain set of conventions about how a short story is supposed to operate or how a novel is supposed to operate. That is a kind of genre. If you do it right, you may get recognized by The New Yorker or publishing houses or by talent scouts and so on.
Yet, a significant amount of that fiction – and this is a completely subjective perspective on my part – is boring. It’s not very good at telling stories. It’s not even my complaint, it’s a common complaint that so-called writing workshop fiction is not very interesting at the level of narrative, even if it’s very serious and tackles significant moral or ethical questions and so on.
When I was writing the novel, I thought, “I do enjoy reading The New Yorker fiction sometimes. I do enjoy having to grapple with significant questions and all that.” But I also realized that a lot of that is not very compelling at the level of a story, and at the same time a lot of the genre fiction that I read – spy stories, detective stories, crime stories – actually do grapple with significant moral questions, and also sometimes very significant political questions. Ironically, sometimes genre fiction is much more forthright about talking about certain kinds of political events. They do it in a way that literary critics or literary readers might consider rather bald-faced, but they do it.
I wanted to bring these two artificially separated worlds together through this novel that tackles serious questions but does so through generic conventions.
A good portion of the book is dedicated to a critique of Hollywood and how it has misrepresented Asians. The narrator goes to the Philippines to serve as an assistant on the Auteur’s movie, which you make clear is supposed to represent Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Could you talk about the books relationship with “Apocalypse Now” and about how one’s representation in popular culture affects one’s ability to function in society?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
Both of those are related issues because “Apocalypse Now” was one of the earliest movies that I remember seeing as a child. I saw it on the VCR when the VCR was still really new technology. I was probably ten or something like that. It was a deeply scarring experience. It was a very confusing movie for someone who is ten. There were scenes in that movie that shook me then and shook me still a decade later when I would think about it. Literally shaking. I was trembling with anger and emotion.
Well before I became a scholar, it was very clear to me that popular culture could have that kind of an impact on people. It can deeply shape people’s beliefs about the world, about history and even about themselves. The scene that I’m thinking about in “Apocalypse Now” is when the American sailors come across a Vietnamese boat with innocent civilians and then massacre them. That’s disturbing for anyone who watches it. I think many Americans are disturbed when they watch it.
But if you’re Vietnamese and you’re watching that scene, there’s this extra layer of difficulty, which is that you’re also a viewer. You’re also a spectator, and along the way, watching this movie from the American point of view, you encounter these Vietnamese people who are murdered. At that point, who are you supposed to identify with? Are you supposed to identify with the American sailors, or are you supposed to identify with the Vietnamese people? That’s a moment of split identification.
This one scene symbolizes the very difficult situation that people who are not represented happen to find themselves in when they encounter representations of themselves in which they are cast as the Other from the point of view of those who are telling these stories. While we can dismiss one movie as simply a movie, if every movie you see about Vietnam does that, or every movie you see about whatever subject does that, then you realize the power of representation as a whole.
That’s what America has done to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. It’s made numerous movies about the Vietnam War that are not as artistic as “Apocalypse Now” but basically tell the same narrative of identifying with the Americans at the expense of the Vietnamese. It is also the narrative that makes up the bulk of American scholarship about the Vietnam War, the majority of American speeches from politicians about the Vietnam War and so on.
Representation is not just a problem in literature or film. Literature and film participate in a wider system of representation. In the case of the Vietnam War, all these different modes of representation – cinema, literature, political discourse – have reinforced these sorts of narratives that eliminate Vietnamese people.
The novel was designed to make that unavoidably real to anybody who reads this book. That’s why I wanted to spend so much time on this movie that looks very much like “Apocalypse Now,” but is really a compilation of all kinds of American movies about the war. I wanted to take on Hollywood as what I call in my critical book “the cinema industrial complex,” which is basically the propaganda arm of the Pentagon and is the thought-power version of American hard-power.
The novel is designed to make this system of representation evident, to criticize it and to also offer something outside of that system of representation in its own form as a novel told from a very consistent Vietnamese point of view.
In an article titled “Representing Reconciliation,” you wrote: “From the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc to the My Lai Massacre to the ‘boat people,’ Vietnamese bodies have been the silent spectacle on which American historical writing has been staged.” Do you feel any responsibility to transform that spectacle into an authentic representation with your work?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
I feel a responsibility in the sense that I know my work will be read as authentic representation. Again, the mechanism of American publishing, actually the mechanism of national publishing wherever you find it, when it comes to under-representing people, is geared to produce representatives for those people.
I think a lot of Americans actually do recognize or complicity understand that they don’t know enough about Vietnam. They don’t know about a lot of places, but Vietnam plays a special role in their history. So, when a Vietnamese author comes along, that author is almost automatically elevated to the status of a representative of Vietnamese people, whether or not that author wants to be that representative. Some do, some don’t. I happen to be one who both does and doesn’t.
I don’t because I recognize that this book represents only my vision of this history, but it will be interpreted as being representative of the entire Vietnamese experience. When the novel came out, it was reviewed in The New York Times, and the reviewer said, “Here we have a voice for the Vietnamese people.” I thought, “Oh, no.” That is exactly what I don’t want to be, even though I know that’s how I’m going to be read. I’m not the representative of the Vietnamese people, or even Vietnamese Americans.
Nevertheless, at the same time, because I know I’m going to be read that way, I tried to write a novel that would address those issues. Questions of representation are very explicit in the book, but also, I try to take on the entire history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, particularly be- cause I feel that not enough has been said about that from the Vietnamese-American or Vietnamese point of view in a way that American audiences have listened to. It’s a very tricky situation that I find myself in, where I want to exploit the trap that I know has been laid out for me.
You’ve previously said that it was only once you pursued a degree in ethnic studies that you began to make connections between aesthetics and politics and that you realized the potential to tell stories that “America would rather ignore.” I think it’s safe to say that most Americans would rather ignore “The Sympathizer.” How do you overcome that challenge? How do you make people listen?
VIET THANH NGUYEN
Well… good one. I don’t really know the answer to that except to have written the best novel that I could have possibly written at that time. I had two years to write the novel. I had two years off from teaching, so that was the deadline. I wrote everyday, and as I was writing, I mostly had a great time, except when I had to talk to my agent. I have a great agent, but when I spoke to him I had to worry about whether I was going to sell this novel, whether anyone would pay attention to this book besides me. That was really the only dispiriting aspect of the process. He brought it back to Earth.
When I wasn’t thinking about that, when I was thinking just about writing the novel, I thought that I was writing this novel for me. That is not a really good answer. That’s not a position that most agents or editors want to hear. They want to hear that you’re writing this book for millions of people. I my mind, I thought, “Well, if millions of people read it, that would be awesome, but if I don’t satisfy my own aesthetic and political position first, that would be not very meaningful for me.”
First and foremost, it was an individual work. Second, I thought that if I were true to whatever it is that I believe in, I also have to hope that I will reach a certain group of people for whom this will be true as well. I have the optimistic belief that I’m not the only person who sees the limitations in how American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War or how American scholarship dealt with it or how American fiction has operated in certain ways.
And that seems to have been the case. The book has been relatively successful. It’s done better than a lot of other first novels. It hasn’t done as well as other novels out there. I don’t have any complaints about that. Whether that’s a limitation of the book, whether that’s a limitation on the part of American readers who want to ignore “The Sympathizer” and the subject matter it brings up, I don’t really know. But I think that the book has had enough of an impact because I did not, in my own mind, compromise what I wanted to do.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.