Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Sympathizer on the Victoria to Uyen Show.
Read the transcript below:
Tố Uyên: [Vietnamese] The Sympathizer [Vietnamese] Race and Resistance. [Vietnamese] The Sympathizer. [Vietnamese 00:00:53].
Tố Uyên: So I’m so pleased to have you in the studio today. I imagine things have been crazy for you lately, a hot new book out and plus you starting a new year at USC. So tell me, how has it been doing publicity for the book?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, it’s been great. I mean, this is part of the publicity for the book. It’s real pleasure. It’s not a sacrifice to drive down here to meet you and to do this show [crosstalk 00:02:45].
Tố Uyên: Oh, thank you.
Viet Thanh N.: And it’s my regret that I can’t do the interview in Vietnamese.
Tố Uyên: No problem.
Viet Thanh N.: I think it’s been great to do the publicity because part of what I’m doing with the publicity is to spread the word about this novel, which really brings new perspective on the Vietnam War to both Americans and Vietnamese, whether we’re talking about the Vietnamese in Vietnam or the Vietnamese here.
Tố Uyên: So anything unusual or surprising happened during the tour, publicity tour?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think what’s unusual is I get to meet people with all kinds of different stories. So I get to meet Americans who were in Vietnam, and for different kinds of reasons. I get to meet Vietnamese people who grew up there and they want to share their stories with me. And the most important thing so far has been to meet older Vietnamese people who have been able to read the book in English, who have affirmed with me this is something that they haven’t seen before and that it’s a really important perspective to bring to American and also Vietnamese American audiences too.
Tố Uyên: I’m sorry. Your book caught my eye when it was reviewed in the New York Times three months ago. That was, to me, that was such a positive review. Did you hear from any friends and fans who read it? And what do you think of the review?
Viet Thanh N.: It was a really great review. It was actually the second review in the New York Times. The first review, I just want to talk about that because the first review was actually a much bigger review. It started off by saying that I give voice to the voiceless. I really objected to that because you and I both know that Vietnamese people in the United States have voices. We talk a lot. We talk very loudly.
Tố Uyên: The voiceless, I would say back home them.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. But the thing is that Americans can’t hear these voices because they don’t listen to Vietnamese, they don’t read Vietnamese. And even when we’re translated into English, they don’t really know about us.
Viet Thanh N.: So on the one hand, the novel, I think, is important in bringing a perspective that hasn’t been heard before. But at the same time, we’ve been trying to tell our stories in Vietnamese and in English for decades now and it’s been a real struggle to get other people to hear them.
Tố Uyên: Why is that? Can you share your opinion? Why is it so hard to share a story to the mainstream?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, the mainstream white Americans basically, they have a particular memory of the Vietnam War and that memory is about them. For Americans-
Tố Uyên: From their perspective.
Viet Thanh N.: From their perspective. For Americans, the Vietnam War is actually an American war that was fought between Americans, and even though it was our country, we’re the bystanders to this American war. They have a very hard time understanding or wanting to hear the stories of the people who they fought for in Vietnam and then the refugees that came over here as well. So it’s been a real frustration for so many of us growing up in the United States and realizing that Americans don’t understand what the Vietnamese went through.
Tố Uyên: But now they do after reading your book.
Viet Thanh N.: I hope so.
Tố Uyên: A lot of them, I’m sure they now see a bigger and a more clear picture after reading The Sympathizer. So I’m curious, has it helped sales of the book, do you think?
Viet Thanh N.: The publicity?
Tố Uyên: Yes.
Viet Thanh N.: Or the reviews? Absolutely, both.
Tố Uyên: The reviews and the publicity.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, absolutely. My editor is happy. That’s important. I earned out the advance on the book. So it’s making money, and that’s what they care about, in addition to the good reviews. So yeah, I mean, it’s done very well for a first novel and for a serious novel. It’s literary fiction. And so it’s a difficult book in some ways, but people are still picking it up.
Tố Uyên: Interesting point. A literary fiction, but yet it’s a difficult book. Can you elaborate just a little bit more?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, it’s a book that is about a sympathizer. He’s a communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army in 1975, and his job is to spy on that army and then to flee with that army to the United States where his communist masters believe the South Vietnamese would try to fight the war again. And so the book is entirely about his psychology and he has a very conflicted psychology. I think that’s one of the reasons that makes the book a little bit challenging, because we live completely within his mindset and how he’s constantly torn between what he believes, the revolution that he believes in and the fact that he also sympathizes very much for the South Vietnamese that he spies on, and for the Americans that he lives with as well.
Tố Uyên: Interesting. And how long was the research for you?
Viet Thanh N.: My whole life.
Tố Uyên: Your whole life?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I mean I wrote the book in two years, but I’ve been thinking about the issues in this novel ever since I came to the United States and started reading about the Vietnam War when I was 10 or 11, and watching movies. So in a sense I was always thinking about the Vietnam War and how we as Vietnamese were excluded from the American perspectives. America’s made so many movies about this war for example, but almost none of them deal with the Vietnamese. So I was waiting for my chance to tell our story.
Tố Uyên: And so that’s why it took you two years to finish the book. Interesting point. You mentioned about the editor, he helps you to edit after you finish writing it?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, the original manuscript was 170,000 words and the book that we have is 145,000 words.
Tố Uyên: So you have to shorten that?
Viet Thanh N.: We had to shorten. We didn’t change anything in terms of how the book is written or its structure. We just had to trim back the language and cut a few scenes out.
Tố Uyên: Were you sad when you had to do that?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, you probably know. I mean, having a good editor is really important to give you a second opinion, to keep you in check. And that’s what my editor did for me. He’s a very brilliant young guy.
Tố Uyên: Young guy?
Viet Thanh N.: He was 26 when he bought the book.
Tố Uyên: No.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. But he graduated from Oxford in England and he studied Russian literature.
Tố Uyên: Wow.
Viet Thanh N.: So in many ways he was the perfect guy because I knew my novel could be understood by people who are not Americans and who had no connection to the Vietnam War or to Vietnamese people. And he is one of the key audiences that I wanted to reach, are just people who had nothing to do with us, but who should still be interested in what happened to us.
Tố Uyên: So you had to search for, I would say, the perfect editor to help you edit this book. Otherwise you would not be happy if you didn’t find this guy.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, absolutely. There were other editors and some of them wanted to change the book in different ways. Make more of a love story [crosstalk 00:08:46].
Tố Uyên: There’s no love in this. I mean, you know.
Viet Thanh N.: There’s a lot of sex. I don’t know how the audience will react to that, but there is plenty of sex.
Tố Uyên: How about intimate?
Viet Thanh N.: Intimacy.
Tố Uyên: Yes, intimacy. That’s better. There’s so much to talk about in this book, but can you start with a story? Why the story and how did you get inspired to tell this incredible story?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I grew up in the Vietnamese community in San Jose and have heard a lot of Vietnamese people of the older generation tell their stories. And one of the things that’s very obvious to me is that they’ve been through very difficult, terrible things and they’re very, as a result, attached to their history and their point of view. And that’s really important.
Viet Thanh N.: But at the same time, it’s hard to move forward when we’re always talking about the past and from one perspective. And when you go to Vietnam, I’ve been to Vietnam many times, it’s the same thing. The Vietnamese official perspective is very much one story.
Viet Thanh N.: So I wanted to write a story that was not about one point of view, but about someone who could see our complicated history from both sides, from both the communist side and from the non-communist side. And that’s part of the point of the book, is that if we want to be able to get past our history and to move forward as Vietnamese people in Vietnam, in the United States, we have to be able to talk with each other. And my character talks with himself all the time about different ways to interpret the history and the politics.
Tố Uyên: When you say you talk with themselves, you mean talk with yourself, or talk with these imaginary characters in your head, with yourself in your own room?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, the narrator, it’s totally entirely from his point of view. So he’s talking with himself, but he’s also encountering all these different people. He encounters Americans, communists, non-communists, and he is constantly debating with himself what is the right way, what is the right thing to do?
Tố Uyên: Conflicted?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, deeply conflicted. But we come from a history that’s deeply conflicted. The central question of the novel that he asks himself is what is to be done? We’re faced with this-
Tố Uyên: What’s right, what’s wrong?
Viet Thanh N.: What’s right, yeah, what’s right, what’s wrong? The conclusion that he reaches is that what makes tragedy happen is not a conflict of right versus wrong. It’s right versus right. It’s when both sides believe they are right, that we have tragedy. And I think that’s what happened in Vietnam. Whether or not we believe in communism or not, the communists believed [crosstalk 00:11:04].
Tố Uyên: What they were doing is right.
Viet Thanh N.: Right, and we believed what we were doing was right. That’s our tragedy. That’s why we’ve been fighting each other for so long and why we’re still angry, some of us, angry at each other.
Tố Uyên: Very interesting. For most Americans, the history of the Vietnam War was told mostly by American writers, like you mentioned earlier. So I’m just curious how important was it for you to give Americans say another point of view on the war and on Vietnamese people?
Viet Thanh N.: Very important. Not just American books but American politics, American presidents, American movie makers, they’ve all been telling this war from their perspective. And this book is an argument against that. Most of this book is about Vietnamese people, about the North and the South, communist, anticommunist, Buddhist, Catholic. So the basic point of the book is this was our war, this our history. We have to tell it from our point of view. And the Americans, they’re important, but they’re the bystanders in our history.
Viet Thanh N.: The book is also my revenge on American culture. I mean, I don’t know if you’re watching like Apocalypse Now or any of these kinds of movies, I’ve watched a lot of these movies and I love war movies, but at a certain point you watch these movies and you realize the Vietnamese people are the ones getting killed. Who am I supposed to applaud for?
Viet Thanh N.: So there’s a very long section in the book that deals with the making of a movie like Apocalypse Now, but from our point of view. It’s a satire. It’s a comic novel about that.
Tố Uyên: So when you mentioned that part, what was the reaction of the readers who can totally see a better picture after reading this book and recognize that, especially Hollywood producers and directors are like oh shoot, that was wrong of us. Did they reach out to you and say sorry?
Viet Thanh N.: Not yet.
Tố Uyên: Not yet.
Viet Thanh N.: But I think that part of the novel really resonates with a lot of Americans because they understand that that’s what actually is happening. When you put it out there and they’re like that’s right. We’ve made some terrible movies about this. One of the points of the book is that typically it’s the victors who write history. But in the case of the Vietnam War, it’s the losers who wrote the history. The Americans lost the war, but they get to write the history. All the Vietnamese of all sides are excluded or marginalized in that American history.
Tố Uyên: Did you ask your parents for any sort of tips or advice or stories prior to writing this book?
Viet Thanh N.: No.
Tố Uyên: You just want to have a very neutral mind?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, but my parents, they don’t like to talk about the past. It’s very hard to communicate with them. I know some of their stories that they told me over the years, they’re horrible stories about what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and the 1940s in North Vietnam, 1950s and living through the war.
Tố Uyên: Famine times.
Viet Thanh N.: Famine, war [crosstalk 00:13:48].
Tố Uyên: Japanese occupation.
Viet Thanh N.: They were refugees in 1954, refugees in 1975. We had a very difficult time leaving the country because my father was in Saigon, but my mother and my brother and I were [Ban Me Thuot 00:13:59]. Ban Me Thuot was the first town to be taken in March of 1975.
Tố Uyên: How old were you then?
Viet Thanh N.: I was four. So my mother had to make some very dramatic decisions to try to get us out to Saigon. So I mean, all that is in the back of my mind. But I didn’t have to ask my parents about that because really I’d already read so much about the Vietnam War and read so much about what the Vietnamese people went through and oral histories and things like that. So all of that is present in the novel.
Tố Uyên: [Vietnamese] The Sympathizer. [Vietnamese 00:15:00].
Tố Uyên: So can we talk a little bit about your background? You were born in Vietnam and grew up here in America. When did you come over to the States?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, in April, 1975 because we were lucky enough to be a part of that first wave of refugees fleeing from Saigon. Then we moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because that was where one of the refugee camps was, in Indiantown Gap and spent a few years there. And my parents looked around and they realized there’s no economic opportunity in Harrisburg. So they moved to San Jose and they opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in San Jose.
Tố Uyên: No way.
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. So that was in the 1980s and so I had a very intimate view of life in the Vietnamese community in San Jose in the 1980s.
Tố Uyên: Did you still remember your first feeling arriving to Pennsylvania?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, because what happened was my parents and I were separated. Sponsors took my parents, another set of sponsors took my brother, and then I was taken away by another sponsor. So I was four years old.
Tố Uyên: Why did they do that?
Viet Thanh N.: They could not find somebody who would take all four of us. I don’t know, this was very unusual I guess. And so my first memory of coming to America was being traumatized because I was taken away from my parents and it felt like a very long time. I think that’s always [crosstalk 00:16:41].
Tố Uyên: You were only four then, right?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah.
Tố Uyên: And so when did you actually finally reunite with your parents and your brother?
Viet Thanh N.: It was only a few months, but when you’re four it feels like a very long time.
Tố Uyên: Yes. So growing up, did you feel like you always fit into the American society?
Viet Thanh N.: No, I felt like I didn’t fit into American society and I felt like I didn’t fit into Vietnamese society either. So I was really someone who was in between.
Tố Uyên: What’s the term for that?
Viet Thanh N.: In between. I don’t know if there’s anything, any term.
Tố Uyên: In Vietnamese I would call [Vietnamese 00:17:10], half fat and half nonfat. Because you feel like you don’t belong and you don’t fit into any…
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. But I think that was good for becoming a writer. If you feel like you don’t fit in, then you try to make sense of why you don’t fit in. It also allowed me to see, again, what was limited about the American viewpoint about the Vietnamese and what was limited about the Vietnamese viewpoint about what had happened to them. So I could see both communities from the inside and the outside.
Tố Uyên: What age do you realize that you wanted to become a writer?
Viet Thanh N.: I wrote my first book when I was seven or eight years old. A little short book.
Tố Uyên: No way.
Viet Thanh N.: So I’ve been writing my entire life, but I really started writing seriously 15 years ago. I wrote a short story collection about our experience as Vietnamese people. That’s what brought me my agent who told me you have to write a novel because that’s how you get published in New York City. So then I wrote the novel in a couple of years.
Tố Uyên: So now of course you’re very busy because not only you’ve been traveling for the publicity, but also you’re teaching at USC. Tell us about experience working there. Are there a lot of Vietnamese students taking your English and literature class?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I teach literature classes and I teach American studies classes, ethnic studies, but very particularly the course that I care about a lot is the Vietnam War course that I do, which covers all the different experiences and perspectives on the Vietnam War, including Vietnamese of all sides. But 200 people and maybe five to 10 Vietnamese students will take that class, which it makes me very sad because I think a lot of the students on the campus are much more interested in medicine and business and getting ahead and they’re not interested in learning about their history and what happened to them and their parents.
Tố Uyên: So what do you think, is there a way to reach out to the Vietnamese students and maybe encourage them to take your class and learn more about their history?
Viet Thanh N.: That’s what I’m doing right now. Come and take the class.
Tố Uyên: [crosstalk] look straight in the camera and tell these students.
Viet Thanh N.: It’s important to learn about your history, and it’s rare. But I think USC is a very different place than UC Irvine where there’s a lot of Vietnamese students. USC people are a little more isolated.
Tố Uyên: So I assume USC is a good job for you and it is a good place for you to teach there?
Viet Thanh N.: Oh absolutely. It’s an enormously wealthy university in Los Angeles, so a lot of benefits to that. But the drawback, again, is we don’t get a lot of Vietnamese students because they want to stay in Orange County or they think that going to University of California is cheaper.
Tố Uyên: Is it cheaper?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, in absolute dollar terms it is cheaper because it costs about $64,000 a year to go to USC. But financial aid means that sometimes it’s cheaper to go to USC than it is to go to a UC campus.
Tố Uyên: Well, that’s good to know because I’m sure the students would love to hear the tips how to get accepted into USC and then get financial aid.
Tố Uyên: It’s so interesting, because I’m sure a lot of the Vietnamese viewers, they haven’t heard about The Sympathizer and now they get to hear from you. Are you planning to have this book translated in Vietnamese and released in Vietnam?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think Vietnam’s largest private publisher wants to translate the book into Vietnamese and I’m talking with them about it, the various terms. But my major concern is I cannot have the book censored in any way. And if you read the book, the last third of the book is a very serious condemnation of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Reeducation Camp Policy, the Book People Policy. And I have a hard time imagining that the Censorship Board in Vietnam allow this book to be published as it is. So that is a very big concern. I don’t know how that’s going to work out.
Tố Uyên: Well, because in this book, pretty much everyone is a target in your book, and your humor, it’s very out there. So like you said, they might have a hard time accepting your humor.
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think that means that the Vietnamese American community here should be ready, if they read the book in English or they read it in Vietnamese, that there’s a lot of satire directed at the Vietnamese American and South Vietnamese communities as well.
Tố Uyên: Do you have any plans to release or write another book in the coming months or year?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I have a book coming out in April from Harvard University Press called Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, which is my academic work about how this war has been remembered by the United States, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea and the Southeast Asian Diasporas. Then I’ve started trying to sequel to The Sympathizer.
Tố Uyên: Wow. Are you planning to maybe turn into a film? And so for the mainstream to see at least they understand more, because I’m sure like Apocalypse Now is something like you mentioned, it’s from the Hollywood perspective, the American perspective [crosstalk 00:22:01].
Viet Thanh N.: Well, of course I would love to have it made into a movie. If Francis Ford Coppola is watching, and Sophia Coppola, talk to me.
Tố Uyên: I assume that he’s one of your favorite director, Francis Coppola, because his name is somewhat referenced in this book?
Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, I mean, it’s Apocalypse Now, it’s a movie I grew up watching. I feel very conflicted about it because I think it’s a great work of art, but it’s also a film that depicts the Vietnamese in a horrible way.
Tố Uyên: Is there a film that you’ve seen, I don’t know, in recent years and say okay, at least they’re getting somewhere in Hollywood, at least they tell a neutral or decent story about us? Or you haven’t seen one yet?
Viet Thanh N.: Well, I mean, Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Saigon, which it tries, but I have a lot of problems with that documentary because it’s a very limited viewpoint about what happened there. But at least it tries.
Tố Uyên: It’s from her perspective.
Viet Thanh N.: It’s from her perspective. I’m very excited about a very large documentary that’s coming out from Ken Burns. I’ve met his co-producer, and it’s a very extensive documentary about the history of the Vietnam War. They’ve interviewed a lot of Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese people. So I’m optimistic that we’ll see something more substantive from Ken Burns.
Tố Uyên: I hope that he already finished reading your book so at least he have a better, a wider, clearer perspective.
Viet Thanh N.: I don’t know if he has, but his co-producer has. We met and we go ahead and get that book, this book.
Tố Uyên: Good, good. So thanks for coming down to your Little Saigon SB10 Studio. Do you want to say something in Vietnamese before we have to leave?
Viet Thanh N.: [Vietnamese 00:23:36]. So that’s, I apologized, but I’m glad that we had this opportunity to do the interview and it’ll be subtitled in Vietnamese for people to read.
Tố Uyên: Well, thank you so much Professor Viet Nguyen. I know that you’re a busy man, so thank you for coming down.
Viet Thanh N.: Thank you so much.
Tố Uyên: Best of luck to everything.
Viet Thanh N.: Thank you.
Tố Uyên: [Vietnamese] from The Sympathizer. [Vietnamese 00:24:23].