Taking Revenge Against Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”

Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about his novel The Sympathizer on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge. Listen to the full interview here or read the transcript below.

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Americans are still fighting over the legacy of the Vietnam War, but one perspective is missing: the Vietnamese experience. Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen provides a Vietnamese perspective.


Here is the transcript:

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Newcaster: The panic has swept from the coastal cities crowded back streets and pagodas onto runways at the airport.

Recorded voice: Our plane is surrounded here. I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna get out. We’re racing down the runway, leaving behind hundreds and thousands of people.

Speaker 4: 40 years ago, on April 30, 1975, the U.S. pulled its last soldiers out of Vietnam. Some people call it Black April. In Vietnam, it’s known as Reunification Day.

Recorded voice: Impossible to stop the crowd. We’re pulling away.

Speaker 4: Today, we’re still fighting over the legacy of that war and what it means for today’s American wars, but what does that war mean for the Vietnamese themselves, for those who won, and also for the refugees who fled to the U.S.? That’s the subject of a remarkable new novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. He’s a Vietnamese American writer whose own family fled the country during Black April. His novel, The Sympathizer, is part spy thriller, part black comedy, and it’s narrated by a double agent who works for a South Vietnamese general while also serving as an undercover operative for the communists. Steve Paulson asked Viet Thanh Nguyen to read a passage from the book.

Viet Nguyen: I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m also a man of two minds. I’m not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. But, in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear. The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world, and nothing to most people in the rest of the world.

Steve Paulson: Ah, that is a great set up to this story. Viet, there have been a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, written about the Vietnam war. Why did you want to write your own novel about the war?

Viet Nguyen: When I was growing up in California during the 1980s I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies about the Vietnam War and almost all of those were told from the American point of view, but that story was not what I was hearing from my own family and the Vietnamese community in which I was living in San Jose, California. Our story was full of pain and loss and trauma and regret. The sense that we had not only lost a war but we had lost a country, so I was determined at a young age that some day I’d get a chance to at least write my version of the story.

Steve Paulson: So, the stories that you had read, that we’ve all read about the Vietnam War, written by Americans. Basically they focused on the American soldiers there, but we really didn’t see the Vietnamese people.

Viet Nguyen: You did see the Vietnamese people but mostly as extras in the movies or as minor characters in the literature, and as people whose primary function was to be killed or to be saved or to be raped or to be spoken about. That was not the experience of the Vietnamese people.

Steve Paulson: We are now marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and that very dramatic last few days when everyone left, when the communists were moving into Saigon, taking over the country, and this is how your novel opens. It sounds like utter chaos, especially those last few days. Can you kind of describe what happened?

Viet Nguyen: What basically happened was that the communists sprang their final invasion in March of 1975, and within about two months had completely taken the south. The south fell because of a number of mistakes that were being made. Number one, the south Vietnamese political and military leadership made some disastrous decisions, and the south Vietnamese believed the United States would come to rescue them. When the United States left in 1973 and signed the Paris Peace Accords, what Nixon and Kissinger promised the South Vietnamese political leadership, in secret, was that they would not abandon South Vietnam. Obviously, because of Watergate, Nixon and Kissinger cannot fulfill that promise, and actually, by April, March and April 1975, Congress had cut off aid to the South Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen: And so, the images that you’re talking about, that Americans are familiar with, they’re chaotic because it was only within the last few weeks that the political leadership of the Americans really decided to start to evacuate people as clandestinely as possible, which meant only thousands of people could be rescued even though there were at least a million Vietnamese people who were fighting for the Americans, who were working for the Americans. Things just completely fell apart, and it was just every man and woman and child for themselves, as they tried to flee the country.

Steve Paulson: I sense a fair amount of bitterness as you recount this history here.

Viet Nguyen: Well, yes, and one of the reasons for telling this story is that I don’t think a lot of Americans understand any of this. They don’t understand the complexities of what was happening in terms of the American impact on any of the Vietnamese people on any of the sides. They certainly don’t understand the fact that many of the Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States are bitter or were bitter. The reason why they don’t is because the way the Americans understand the end of this war is that even though they failed, they still rescued the Vietnamese who they had fought for, and brought them to the United States to live the American dream.

Viet Nguyen: Many of those Vietnamese refugees who came here don’t want to disabuse their American hosts of this, because they do feel grateful, they do feel that they’ve been saved. But, at the same time, they also feel bitter that the Americans came in, made them fight this war, promised them to defend their freedom to the very end, and in the very end actually bailed out and left them, for the most part, on their own. They left 17 million people behind.

Steve Paulson: Your particular story has to do with your own personal history. You were born in Vietnam and left when you were what, four years old?

Viet Nguyen: That’s right. What basically happened was, we were living in a small town in central Vietnam called Buon Ma Thuot, which has the distinction of being the first town overrun in the final invasion in 1975, and my family had a very dramatic refugee story of escaping from the country by boat and then fleeing to the United States, where we were resettled in Pennsylvania. That was the beginning of my Americanization.

Steve Paulson: And then, you ended up, a few years later, settling in San Jose, California, right?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, what happened was, San Jose, California became one of the major hubs for refugee resettlement, and my parents just decided there weren’t enough opportunities in Pennsylvania, and we moved over there and opened probably the second Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose. Immigrant life, refugee life in San Jose, at that time, was very hard because the community, as I said, was traumatized. There was a lot of domestic violence, not in my family but I certainly heard about it, witnessed it.

Steve Paulson: So, when you were growing up, did you identify more as Vietnamese or American, or were those identities always fused together?

Viet Nguyen: Those identities were always fused or confused. I definitely had the sense that I was American because I grew up completely surrounded by American culture and I absorbed the English language and saw myself very much as someone who belonged here in this country. On the other hand, I was also surrounded by Vietnamese people, had attended all these Vietnamese institutions and rituals and was reminded of the fact that I was Vietnamese by American culture, by things such as America’s movies about the Vietnam War, in which when I was watching them I identified with the American soldiers up until the point they killed Vietnamese people, and I realized I was also the gook in the American imagination, as well.

Steve Paulson: So, movies like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, even the Rambo movies?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, absolutely. I saw all of those and many more. For example, watching Platoon in the movie theaters, I was probably 16 at the time, and going along with the action and everything until this climactic battle where Vietnamese soldiers were being killed, and all of a sudden the audience erupts and cheers. I thought, “Where am I supposed to be in this particular scene? Am I supposed to be cheering the killing or am I supposed to be identifying with the person being killed?”

Steve Paulson: I want to come back to one of those movies, actually, because it figures in a major way in your book. Apocalypse Now. What kind of impact did that have on you, when you first saw it?

Viet Nguyen: I first saw it probably when I was 10 or 11 on the VCR, and it completely traumatized me. I was much too young to watch this movie, did not understand what was going on, but it left a deep imprint on my soul, basically. I still remember it vividly, to this day, particularly for a scene in which the American soldiers massacre a sampan full of innocent civilians. Obviously, this moment for the movie, is meant to signal the descent into darkness for all of these American sailors-

Steve Paulson: This is that scene where they go on a boat and suddenly some of the soldiers go a little crazy and they just start shooting this whole family on the boat.

Viet Nguyen: Right, they kill everybody. Not everyone’s dead. There’s a woman who still survives and the American sailors feel regretful and they want to rescue her but Martin Sheen, the character of Martin Sheen, has this mission to go kill Kurtz. He can’t let anything interrupt his mission, so he executes her. So, it is a turning point in the film, morally, for Americans and for Francis Ford Coppola. I understood that, but that left me so shaken that even 10 years later, in college, as I was recounting the scene to a film class, my voice would shake with rage and anger. This is testimony to the power of the movie and the power of art and the power of storytelling, that I respect that movie very much as being a great work of art. But, it’s also deeply problematic for someone like me, and it gave me the sense that I had to respond in kind, that this novel would be my revenge.

Steve Paulson: Well, we should say that one of your subplots is that your narrator ends up working on a movie set in the Philippines, clearly a lot like the making of Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. I’m wondering if you could read a passage from that, because your narrator’s trying to convince the filmmaker to give the Vietnamese characters a little more humanity.

Viet Nguyen: Right, so he is asked to read the screenplay by the auteur. That’s the name I give to the director, and the screenplay has no roles for Vietnamese people in it. So, he’s very upset about that, and then eventually the auteur asks him to be the authenticity consultant to go with him to the Philippines to make sure all the details are correct. But the scene that I’m going to read actually takes place before then, with the first meeting with the auteur in Los Angeles.

Viet Nguyen: My meeting with the auteur and Violet, his assistant, had gone on for a while longer, with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. “True,” Violet interjected, “But, what it boils down to is who pays for the tickets and who goes to the movies. Frankly, Vietnamese audiences aren’t going to watch this movie, are they?” I contained my outrage.

Viet Nguyen: “Even so,” I said, “Do you not think it would be a little more believable, a little more realistic, a little more authentic for a movie set in a certain country, for the people in that country to have something to say? Instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language. Could you not have them speak a heavily accented English? You know what I mean. Ching Chong English, just to pretend that they are speaking in an Asian language, that somehow American audiences can strangely understand? And don’t you think it would be more compelling if your green beret had a love interest? Do these men only love and die for each other? That is the implication without a woman in the midst.”

Viet Nguyen: The auteur grimaced and said, “Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it, but I have a question. How many movies have you made? None. Isn’t that right? None, zero, zilch, nada, nothing, and however you say it in your language. So, thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now, get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then, I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.”

Steve Paulson: That is great. Now, I’ve heard you describe this as an anti-American novel. Do you see it that way?

Viet Nguyen: Well, it is very critical of American culture and American politics and so on, but anti-Americanism is not so bad because it still has American in it. Anti-American critique still puts America pretty close to the center. And, if there’s one thing I learned from watching America’s Vietnam War movies is that Americans want to be at the center of the story even if they are the anti-heroes. It’s much better to be the star of your own movie, even if it means you do bad things, than to be the extra who gets killed.

Speaker 4: Viet Thanh Nguyen teaches English at the University of Southern California. He was talking with Steve Paulson about his new novel, The Sympathizer.

Category: Interviews

 

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