Viet Thanh Nguyen on ‘The Sympathizer’ | Politics and Prose

Viet Thanh Nguyen reads The Sympathizer at Politics and Prose in Washington DC. 

Here is the transcript:

John: The Sympathizer and Viet Thanh Nguyen. For many Americans, the words Vietnam remain stubbornly seared onto their collective consciousness as a period in history rather than a modern vibrant country in East Asia that it actually is. That’s a shame because it’s a beautiful nation with a bright future. Speaking personally as somebody who lived and worked there several years ago, I sincerely hope that we will one day soon come to see the war between the North and the South as only one part of Vietnam’s wider story.

John: Western culture, of course, plays a major role in how many of us still perceive Vietnam through countless movies and novels depicting only one war, exclusively through American eyes. It’s into this context that Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer steps. It’s an entertaining and remarkable book and one that turns the Vietnam cliché on its head by showing what America looks like through Vietnamese eyes. It’s already received rapturous reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and deservedly so. I’m sure that many more will follow.

John: The book beings in Saigon in 1975 during the chaos of the American evacuation and follows a young Vietnamese man who is ostensibly a captain in the southern army to his new life as a refugee in California. I think the Sympathizer has much to say about America as it does Vietnam. The protagonist observations on life in both and the contrasts are prescient and frequently hilarious, I’m very pleased to say. From there on, I won’t say anymore, but I’ll give Viet his opportunity to read and showcase some of this remarkable book to you.

John: Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks John for that lovely introduction. As were talking about before, John actually spent time in Vietnam, so I feel like I’m being introduced by someone who has an understanding of part of what this book is dealing about. What I’m going to do today is read about 15 minutes from the book and save a lot of time for hopefully question and answers and a discussion with whatever your concerns happen to be. I’m going to start off with the first couple paragraphs of the book, which if you listened to the radio this afternoon, you already heard that, but the rest of the reading will be different.

Viet Nguyen: The novel begins with the fall or the liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view. Our protagonist is a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army. The opening of the novel establishes his role and what he’s about to, which is to spy on the efforts of the South Vietnamese to fight their war, but then also later, to spy on them as they go to the United States.

Viet Nguyen: I’m the spy, a sleeper, a spook, 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 a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I’m simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you. That is a hazard, I must confess.

Viet Nguyen: 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. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of … Well, peace is not the right word, is it, Commandant? It was a month when I awaited the end behind the walls of a villa where I had lived for the previous five years, the villa’s walls glittering with broken brown glass and crowned with rusted barbed wire.

Viet Nguyen: I had my own room at the villa, much like I have my own room in your camp, Commandant. Of course, the proper term for my room is an isolation cell, and instead of a housekeeper who comes to clean every day, you have provided me with a baby faced guard who does not clean at all. But I am not complaining. Privacy, not cleanliness, is my only prerequisite for writing this confession.

Viet Nguyen: The city falls or it’s liberated and he flees with the remnants of his army to Los Angeles and his task is to spy on them as they try to organize a campaign to take back their homeland, which really did happen. I was growing up in San Jose, California in the 1980s and I would go to these Vietnamese community celebrations and I would see these exhibits featuring these guys in camouflage uniform somewhere in the Thai jungle and the call was for the community to help give money to them so that they could take back … They could fight this war again. There was a rumor that the very first Vietnamese beef noodle soup chain, [Vietnamese 00:05:38] was started in order to raise funds for this revolution, never confirmed, but widely suspected by the Vietnamese community. That also manifests itself in the novel as well.

Viet Nguyen: Our narrator, one of the jobs that he gets is to become the authenticity consultant for an epic Vietnam war movie that will be shot in the Philippines. This is completely fictional, has no bearing on reality. This is what’s going to happen next. He’s going to go to the Hollywood Hills to meet the famous director of the movie, known only as the Auteur and the scene that I’m going to read begins with a description of the screenplay for this movie called The Hamlet, not Hamlet, The Hamlet. All right? Two things you need to know about him, about our protagonist, is that he’s half Asian. His father is a French priest and his mother is a poor Vietnamese woman. Another thing to know about him is that when he was in the South Vietnamese military, his job was to be a secret policeman. Both of these details will come up.

Viet Nguyen: Here we go with a description of The Hamlet.

Viet Nguyen: We own the day, but Charlie owns the night. Never forget that. These are the words that blond, 21 year old, Sergeant [Jay Belimi 00:07:01] hears on his first day in the torrid tropics of Nam from his new commanding officer Captain Will [Shamus 00:07:10]. Shamus was baptized in the blood of his own comrades on the beaches of Normandy, survived another near death experience under a Chinese human wave attack in Korea. Then hauled himself up the ranks on a pulley oiled with Jack Daniels. He knows he will not ascend any higher, not with his Bronx manners and his big, knobby knuckles over which no velvet gloves fit. This is a political war, he informs his acolyte. The words emanating from behind the smoke screen produced by a Cuban cigar. But all I know is a killing war. His task, save the Prelip Syrian Montagnards of a bucolic Hamlet perched on the border of wild Laos.

Viet Nguyen: What’s threatening them is the Viet Cong and not just any Viet Cong, this is the baddest of the bad. King Cong. King Cong will die for his country, which is more than can be said for most Americans. More important, King Cong will kill for his country and nothing makes King Cong lick his lips like the ferric scent of the white man’s blood. King Cong has stalked the dense jungle around The Hamlet with veteran gorillas, battle wizen men and women who have slaughtered Frenchmen from the Highlands to the street without joy. What’s more, King Cong has infiltrated The Hamlet with subversives and sympathizers, friendly faces only masks for calculating wills. Standing against them are The Hamlet’s popular forces, a rag tag bunch of farmers and teenagers, Vietnam’s own minutemen trained by the dozen green berets of the United States Army Special Forces A Team.

Viet Nguyen: “This is enough,” Sergeant Belimi thinks alone in his watchtower at midnight. He’s dropped out of Harvard and run far from his St. Louis home, his millionaire daddy, and his fur cloaked mother. “This is enough. This stunningly beautiful jungle and these humble simple people. This is where I, Jay Belimi, make my first and maybe my last stand at The Hamlet.” This, at any rate, was my interpretation of a screenplay mailed to me by the director’s personal assistant. The thickish manila envelope arriving with my name, misspelled, in a beautifully cursive hand. That was the first whiff of trouble. The second being how the personal assistant, Violet, did not even bother to say hello or good-bye when she called for my mailing information and to arrange a meeting with the director in his Hollywood Hills home.

Viet Nguyen: When Violet opened the door, she continued with her bewildering manner of discourse in person. “Glad to see you could make it. Heard a lot about you. Loved your notes on The Hamlet.” That’s precisely how she spoke, trimming pronouns and periods as if punctuation and grammar were wasted on me. Then without gaining to make eye contact, she inclined her head in a gesture of condescension and disdain, signaling me to enter. I went across over the threshold into the marble foyer. I instantly suspected that the cause of her behavior was my race. What she saw when she looked at me must’ve been by yellowness, my slightly smaller eyes, and the shadow cast by the ill fame of the oriental’s genitals. Those supposedly minuscule privates, disparaged on many a public restroom wall by semi-literates. I might’ve been just half an Asian, but in America, it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.

Viet Nguyen: Was I just being paranoid that all American characteristic? Maybe Violet was stricken with color blindness, the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color, the only infirmity Americans wished for themselves. But as she advanced along the polished bamboo floors, steering clear of the dusky maid vacuuming a Turkish rug, I just knew it could not be so. The flawlessness of my English did not matter. Even if she could hear me, she still saw right through me or perhaps saw someone else instead of me. Her retinas burned with the images of all the [inaudible 00:11:43] dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men. Here, I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Number One Son, Hop Sing, Hop Sing, and the Bucktooth Be Spectacle Jap, not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Viet Nguyen: By the time I sat down opposite the director in his office, I was seething from the memory of these previous wounds. Although, I did not show it. Still, I was flummoxed by having read a screenplay who’s greatest special effect was neither the blowing up of various things, nor the evisceration of various bodies, but the achievement of narrating a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say. Violet had scraped my already chafed ethnic sensitivity even further, but since it would not do to make my irritation evident, I forced myself to smile and do what I did best: remaining as unreadable as a paper package wrapped up with string. The Auteur studied me. This extra who had crept into the middle of his perfect Maison Sen. A golden Oscar statuette exhibited itself to the side of his telephone, serving either as a kingly septuor or mace for braining impertinent screenwriters. A hirsute show of manliness ruffled along his forearms and from the collar of his shirt, reminding me of my own relevant hairless ness, my chest and stomach and buttocks as streamlined as a Ken doll.

Viet Nguyen: “Great to meet you,” The Auteur said. “Loved your notes. How about something to drink? Coffee, tea, water, soda, scotch.” Never too early for scotch. “Violet, some scotch. Ice.” I said, “Ice. No ice then.” “Me too, always for me” “Look at my view. No, not at the gardener.” “Jose. Jose. You got to pound on the glass to get his attention. He’s half deaf. Jose. Move. You’re blocking the view.” “Good. See the view. I’m talking about the Hollywood sign right there. Never get tired of it, like the word of God just dropped down, plunked on the hills, and the word was Hollywood.” Didn’t God say, ‘Let there be light first’? What’s a movie but light? Can’t have a movie without light and then words. Seeing that sign reminds me to write every morning.” “What?” “All right. So it doesn’t say Hollywood. You got me. Good eye. Thing’s falling to pieces. One was half fallen. The other was falling all together. World’s gone to shit. So what? You still get the meaning. Thanks, Violet.”

Viet Nguyen: “Cheers. How do they say it in your country? I said, how do they say it? ‘Yo, yo, yo’ is it? I like that. Easy remember. Yo, yo, yo then. Here’s to the Congressman for sending you my way. You’re the first Vietnamese I’ve ever met. Not too many of you in Hollywood. Hell, none of you in Hollywood. Authenticity Is important. Not that Authenticity beats imagination. The story still comes first. The universality of the story has to be there, but it doesn’t hurt to get the details right. I had a green beret who actually fought with the Montagnard, vet the script. He found me. He had a screenplay. Everybody has a screenplay. Can’t write, but he’s a real American hero, two tours of duty, killed VC with his bare hands. You should’ve seen the Polaroids he showed me. Made my stomach turn. Gave me some ideas though for how to shoot the movie.”

Viet Nguyen: “Hardly had any corrections to make. What do you think of that?” It took me a moment to realize he was asking me a question. I was disoriented as if I were an English as a second language speaker listening to an equally foreign speaker from another country. “That’s great,” I said. “You bet it’s great. You, on the other hand, you wrote me another screenplay in the margins. You ever even read a screenplay before?” It took me a moment to realize there was another question. Like Violet, he had a problem with conventional punctuation. “No.” “I didn’t think so.” “So, why do you think-” “But you didn’t get the details right.” “I didn’t get the details right. Violet, hear that. I researched your country, my friend. I read Joseph Buddinger and Frances FitzGerald. Have your read Joseph Buddinger and Frances FitzGerald? He’s the foremost historian on your little part of the world and she won the Pulitzer Prize. She dissected your psychology. I think I know something about you people.”

Viet Nguyen: His aggressiveness flustered me. My flustering, which I was not accustomed to, only flustered me further, which was my own explanation for my forthcoming behavior. “You didn’t even get the screams right,” I said. “Excuse me?” I waited for an interjection until I realized he was just interrupting me with a question. “All right,” I said, my string starting to unravel. “If I remember correctly, pages 26, 42, 58, 77, 91, 103, and 118 basically all the places in the script where one of my people has a speaking part, he or she screams. No words. Just screams. So you should at least get the screams right.” “Screams are universal. Am I right, Violet?” “You’re right,” she said from where she sat next to me.

Viet Nguyen: “Screams are not universal,” I said. “If I took this telephone cord and wrapped it around your neck and pulled it tight until your eyes bugged out and your tongue turned black, Violet’s scream would sound very different from the scream you would be trying to make. Those are two very different kinds of terror coming from a man and woman. The man knows he is dying. The woman fears she is likely to die soon. Their situations and their bodies produce a qualitatively different timber to their voices. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody’s else pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual. In this country, for example, someone fleeing for his life will think he should call for the police. This is a reasonable way to cope with the threat of pain. But in my country, no one calls for the police since it is often the police who inflict the pain. Am I right, Violet?”

Viet Nguyen: Violet mutely nodded her head. “Let me just point out that in your script, you have my people scream the following way, “Ahh.” For example, when villager number three is impaled by a Viet Cong pongee trap, this is how he screams, or when the little girl sacrifices her life to alert the green berets to the Viet Cong sneaking into the village. This is how she screams before he throat is cut. But having heard many of my countrymen screaming in pain, I can assure you, this is not how they scream. Would you like to hear how they scream?” His Adam’s apple bogged as he swallowed. “Okay.” I stood up and leaned on the desk to look right into his eyes, but I didn’t see him. What I saw was the face of the wiry Montagnard, an elder of the Bru minority who lived in an actual Hamlet not far from the setting of this movie.

Viet Nguyen: Rumor had it he served as a liaison agent for the Viet Cong. I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain. Wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple. That was not what made the old man scream, however. It was just the appetizer. In my mind though, as I watched the scene, I screamed for him. “Here’s what it sounds like,” I said, reaching across the desk to pick up The Auteur’s fountain pen. I wrote onomatopoeically across the cover page of the screenplay in big black letters, “Ahh.” Then I capped his pen, put it back on his leather writing pad, and said, “That’s how we scream in my country.” Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: I apologize for the screaming. It’s not something you typically hear in bookstores at literary readings. It’s kind of primal therapy for me. Yeah. If there are questions, I’d be glad to any of them. Yes.

John: Just come up to the mic for those. Thank you.

Speaker 3: Thank you. I read the review in the New York Times book review, what, three weeks ago maybe. That’s why I’m now reading your book. Sorry. I’m going to praise you a little bit. You’ll have to forgive me. I really do find it extraordinary and I know there’s been a lot written about Vietnam by American men who served there and for various reasons, I’ve chosen not to read that literature. I think it was in the Times Review, although it might’ve been in the New Yorker, it said that there was little written so far from the point of view you’re conveying in that book. That’s my first question.

Speaker 3: My second question, and in a way you just illustrate it, it’s something … I’ve only read half the book. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this, but on the one hand, you use humor very well. On the other hand, we find out that underneath it, you were surgically touching such painful historical truths with that humor. That’s not something I’ve encountered that much. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that style. Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you for the question. Philip Caputo wrote the New York Times book review. For those of you who don’t know who he is, he was a marine lieutenant during the Vietnam War and he wrote a classic of American Vietnam literature called A Rumor Of War, which I’ve read. It was very important to have someone like him review the book for the New York Times and to say something very nice about the book, which I’m very thankful for. But he starts off the review by saying something, which I disagree with, which is that I give voice to the voiceless, which is a trope that’s really common whenever some new writer from some minority background or foreign background comes and up and America is like, “Wow, we’ve never heard anything from these people before. He’s giving voice to the voiceless.”

Viet Nguyen: It’s really disturbing because number one, there is actually a very substantial body, obviously, of Vietnamese literature about this war, some of which has actually been translated into English. Boa Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, Dương Thu Hương’s Novel Without A Name. They’re wonderful books. Quite a substantial body of Vietnamese American literature that precedes me, which hopefully you’ll have in the bookstore like Andrew Pham and Monique Truong and [inaudible 00:26:01] Thuy and many, many names.

Viet Nguyen: I really try to say often I’m not the first, I’m far from the only, and I do not speak for the Vietnamese people or the Vietnamese American people. I am not the representative. I am not the spokesperson. Don’t treat me as such. I wrote this book for myself. I’m sure there are a lot of Vietnamese Americans or Vietnamese people who will disagree with the story that I present in this book.

Viet Nguyen: The second part of what you were saying, the comedy, or I think of it as a tragic comedy. I was born in Vietnam, but I came over at a very young age. I really don’t remember anything about the country or the war. Unlike people, like my parents, who lived through it, I have distance from that experience. I’m sure that if you were actually in the middle of it like my parents were who lost a whole lot of soldiers who fought in the war and so on, it’s hard to laugh at it for very obvious reasons. But with distance from it and as someone who had no direct memory of it, I have a different relationship to it. I wanted to use comedy and tragedy because I felt that the tragedy is obvious, but the comedy was, if you look at this war and how it was fought and everything that went on around it, it’s absurd. The hypocrisies, the failures, the stupidities, not just on the American side, but on the South Vietnamese side and eventually on the North Vietnamese side too.

Viet Nguyen: So you haven’t finished the book, but the last quarter of the book is an examination of what went wrong on the communist and North Vietnamese side as well. It is a dark, dark section of the book but alleviated to some extent, I think, by just really black humor because comedy is distance from pain or something like that. So that’s what I try to do in the book.

Speaker 4: That’s okay. I’m still standing. Dramatic? Yes. Anyway, I heard the tail end of your talk on radio today because I had to work unfortunately. But I heard you say something about how you started it off to write a short story or a series of short stories and that that was so much harder than writing a novel. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that a little bit and I’m just wondering, is it because you have so much more to say or that it’s so hard to condense, or what is the difference?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I started writing fiction in college. Yeah, I thought I’ll write short stories because they’re short. Therefore, they’re easier. That simply was not true for me. I spent 10 years writing the short story collection that was half the length of this book and was an utterly painful, horrible, traumatic experience for me. I really hated doing this. But the positive side of that was I got an agent out of it and he said, “You got to write a novel if you want to be published in New York.” I said, “Fine.” I had a lot of ideas. I wrote the novel.

Viet Nguyen: It was, I think, for many writers, part of what we do is we discover what is the right form for us. For me, it was the novel. You’re right. I had a lot to say. It was really hard for me to try to figure out how to say these things in a short story form, so I spent 10 years trying to figure out how to say more with less. That was not my natural instinct, but getting to the novel, I felt like I had all this room, all this space, and it was exactly what I needed to sort of spill my guts for actually twice the amount of space that the short story collection had and two years of time to write the novel. It was really a wonderful experience.

Speaker 4: I want to thank you also for writing a book that says what so many of us so called minorities in this country think and that is, for god’s sake, can’t you look at the world a little differently? That it’s not just your world. You say it in a way that is incisive and hopefully, hopefully, a third time, hopefully educative.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you. I mean the book is certainly about the Vietnam War and so on, but it is very much about, in general, the experience of being an other, of being an outsider, of trying to make your voice heard. The character in the novel, the protagonist, he’s Eurasian. He’s a mixed race, which means that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. Vietnam’s a really racist country and if you happen to be of mixed race descent, you get treated really badly. The exception to this actually was when Congress passed to Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1980. Then all of a sudden, all these Amerasians, mixed race people descendant from American GIs who had been spit upon all their lives in Vietnam suddenly became literally valuable because they were walking passports to the United States. People were suddenly saying, “Oh, I’m proud to be related to you now. Let’s go.” Or, “I’m not related to you, but I’ll buy you if you want and we’ll go.” This really happened.

Viet Nguyen: That was really crucial and then, of course, I hope that the book is in conversation not just with Vietnamese people or with Asian Americans, but with all the people of color, minorities in this country, the colonized of other countries because it draws from a much wider body of literature where we have been talking about what it means to be speaking back to the canon, speaking from a position of marginalization and exclusion, trying to find the right rhetorical strategies to both speak about our experience but also to speak to wider communities as well.

Speaker 5: Hi. As a Vietnamese American, I’m very proud that you are here and writing about experience. I’m glad to hear you say that you’re not a representative of Vietnamese American community, so I’m glad to hear that because we do have wide sets of stories. My question to you is how much is it your family’s and the community and your observation at growing up in this country, how much of that make into the book? Because I have not read the book yet.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’ll tell you a little something about our protagonist. This book is entirely told through his point of view. He is a womanizer. He is an alcoholic. He is a spy. He’s a murderer in the end and I am none of those things. Okay? It’s not autobiographical in any way. The book starts off by saying, “I see things from both sides.” That actually is me. I’ve taken my own emotional experiences. I feel myself to be someone who is on the outside of American society, but also on the inside as well having grown up here since I was four years old and feeling myself deeply, intimately American, except for those moments when I’m watching Vietnam War movies identifying with American soldiers and they kill Vietnamese people and then like, “Where am I supposed to be at this moment?” Right? That psychologically emotional position is what informs the position of the sympathizer in this book.

Speaker 6: I want to thank you so much. I think your book is really extraordinary and I know people are calling it a comedy. I didn’t think it was too funny. I thought it was too real to be funny. But I think I read it within the same week that I read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I think it’s astonishing that both of you use Los Angeles as such a central part of the book. It’s such a searing, terrible view of America deservedly so, I feel. But I wondered if you had had a chance to read that book and I think it’s … Using Los Angeles for that purpose was really intriguing to me.

Viet Nguyen: I love Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, which is also set in Los Angeles and it’s hilarious. I really recommend it. I can’t wait to read The Sellout. It came out right when all the publicity for this book was happening. I haven’t read a thing. I’ve read a couple things, but I haven’t read very much for the last eight weeks and written very little too. I think that from what I understand from White Boy Shuffle and the review of The Sellout, Paul Beatty and I come from pretty similar backgrounds. We both feel like outsiders, marginalized. We both feel like we’re very initiate and familiar with the American literary canon with American history, with American culture, and yet we’re also positioned outside of that at the same time.

Viet Nguyen: That could lead to bitterness or it could lead to being a writer and trying to do something with that material and injecting a little bit of that bitterness into the book, enough to give it some flavor. Los Angeles is a great setting for it. I speak as someone who grew up in the Bay Area and could not abide the thought of living in Los Angeles until I got a job there. Now 18 years later, I think, “Wow, I can’t ever leave Los Angeles.” I’m totally a creature of that city by now. The reason why is because it’s a global city. You can find everything and everybody in that city, which means you can also find all the good and evil of the human species in Los Angeles too. It really is a condensation of the United States as a Pacific Rim country, which it increasingly is, and also a condensation of the entire world into 100 square miles.

Speaker 7: Over here. I have a number of friends who served in Vietnam. I did not. I tried to stay out and I was successful. Many of them come back with Vietnamese wives. You also have a number of people that … friends we have here who served in Vietnam who have Vietnamese friends who came over and living and rested in all places in this area, I think fairly wealthy. Two, I never imagined that any of those people could’ve been spies. To what degree is there some reality behind the plot? Memoirs, other examples from North Vietnamese or now Vietnamese writings that led you on this path?

Viet Nguyen: The interior life of the protagonist is entirely fictionalized, but the plot of the novel is actually drawn from many historical realities. The spy plot, for example, is based to a certain extent on reality, that the most famous spy during the war was a man named Pham Xuan An. Yet there’s a couple books about him in English now. The Spy Who Loved Us and The Perfect Spy I Think, both by mainstream American presses. He was famous because he came to California in the 1950s as a foreign student and he was already a spy. He was sent to train psychologically, to fight the psychological war, which is the inspiration for my character.

Viet Nguyen: Then he goes back and then he becomes a very influential journalist in South Vietnam. All the famous American journalists thought he was their best friend. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they discovered, God, this guy was so important that the Vietnamese communist party promoted him to Major General during the course of the war for everything he had done in terms of gleaning information from the American political and journalistic bureaucracies. He’s just one of many. There were many communist spies in the very highest ranks of the military and the government of South Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen: Even today, although the South Vietnam … The Vietnamese American community is diverse in this country. There is a very vocal portion of it that is deeply anti-communist and deeply paranoid about the influence of communism in the Vietnamese American community. Some of them do believe that there are spies here or at least people who are sent here to win Americans over with soft power influence as foreign students, business people, that kind of thing.

Speaker 7: Thank you.

Speaker 8: Do you agree?

Viet Nguyen: Do I agree? Well, yes, in the same way that Americans use soft power constantly to try to influence other countries. It’s fair enough for other countries to try to use soft power to influence American too.

Patricia: Hi. Welcome to Washington.

Viet Nguyen: Hi Patricia.

Patricia: I wanted to share a teaching experience with you and then ask you a question. I taught this semester, Jessica Hagedorn’s novel about the filming of a certain Vietnam movie in the Philippines and in teaching that, I showed the filmmaker’s wife’s documentary and we talked about how they interviewed everybody and there were no Vietnamese characters in the documentary. We talked about how Hagedorn writes Filipino characters into her novels. So thank you for writing about Hollywood in your novel. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Patricia: My question was about the fact that you grew up here and then you went back to visit Vietnam. In the New York Times, you wrote about how you waited a long time to go back. I’d just like you to tell us about what that was like for you and how that affected your writing, your thinking about your novel.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you. About the first issue, when I watched Apocalypse Now, it never occurred to me that those might be real Vietnamese people who are playing the Vietnamese villagers and so on. Then later on, I thought, “Maybe they’re really Vietnamese people,” because the so called Vietnamese boat people, many of them ended up in the Philippines. Then eventually, I read … You’re talking about Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife. She made a documentary called Hearts of Darkness, which is really a good documentary. She wrote a book called Notes on Apocalypse Now or something. There, she actually does talk about, like, “Hey, we had Vietnamese people in the Philippines. They were refugees. They were perfect.” I was like, “Really?” And nothing more. I did learn here and there, I learned how much they were paid, a dollar a day. The Filipinos were being paid to the dollar a day, the Filipino laborers who worked on this movie. There’s all this good stuff happening that was only in the margins and the footnotes of Eleanor Coppola’s memoir that I thought, I want to put these people front and center in the book and that’s what happens.

Viet Nguyen: Then about Vietnam, well, I went back for the first time in 2002 as a tourist and that was 27 years after I left. The reason it took so long was because I just was afraid of going back to Vietnam. My parents were afraid of going back to Vietnam because of the communists. I didn’t really care about that. I was afraid of the language issues. I knew some Vietnamese. I’d lost the language. I worked really hard to try to get it back, but I knew it was going to be tough. And the emotional issues. I thought there are relatives back there, I’ve never met them before. What am I supposed to … Literally, when I went back to visit my parent’s village, my dad’s village in North Vietnam for the first time, we came in 9:00 PM at night and then I walked into the compound and all of a sudden I was surrounded by like 40 people I didn’t know who were my relatives.

Viet Nguyen: That was bad enough, but then I had studied Vietnamese. I had studied Vietnamese. I had gotten ready for this moment. I had taken notes. I had memorized people’s names. I memorized greetings. I did not understand a word they said because my parents, that region has a dialect that even other Vietnamese people find incomprehensible. I was being trained in standard Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen: Going back to Vietnam, it was a very difficult experience for me because it’s hot, it’s humid. I don’t like that. If you go back and your visit your home country and your relatives are rich, it’s awesome. If you go back and you visit them and they’re poor, it sucks because all the emotional issues are compounded by the financial issues. All that stuff is distorted. That’s what I experienced. Then also, in the United States I feel out of place for all the reasons we talked about, but in Vietnam, I feel out of place for a parallel set of reasons, which is that the official discourse of the country is, we won, that’s good. The fact that we put Vietnamese people into … South Vietnamese veterans and so on into reeducation camps, that was necessary. We’re rebuilding a perfect, heroic society. I don’t agree with any of that stuff because I see the contradictions and the hypocrisies there. From a theoretical and political perspective, it’s also difficult to be there as well.

Patricia: Thank you.

Speaker 10: How did you get into this obsessive, perhaps even maniacal culture of the confession that is so central to communist ideology and so called reeducation and then becomes a framework for your entire novel?

Viet Nguyen: Well, as I was doing research on the Vietnam War for other reasons, I would hear about these confessions and so on. If you were a reeducation camp prisoner, you would be forced to write your confession many times, just variations after variations as your guards would try to catch you in inconsistencies and so on. Even if you were a civilian and you were living in a city, they would have self criticism sessions where you would have to write your confessions or whatever you did wrong and so on. I thought this was actually really literary. It’s basically an autobiography you’re writing and then you sit in a group and they criticize you and you have to revise. It’s like a writing workshop. I was like, did no one ever make this connection between the fact that the self criticism session arises at the same time that the writing workshop model arises in the United States?

Viet Nguyen: So that was the beginning. I thought this is … I didn’t know when I started writing this book that it was a confession. I knew that it was a first person narration and I knew he was talking to somebody. I didn’t know who. I just thought, “I’ll get there. I’ll find out at some point.” Two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the novel, I realized I know where he’s going to end up. This is a justification for writing the book in this way in that I would go back and put in the confessional parts. That was the reason. The confession is a literary form and the book is very self referential in that way.

Speaker 11: Works well.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

Speaker 12: I just almost a few weeks ago came back from about a month in Vietnam, second time. It’s a wonderful, I mean just a wonderful experience for people who have never been there or who have all the stereotypes. First time I went was three years ago and with some veterans. It was a very emotional experience. The group actually is a rotary based group that supports schools and homeless shelters and so on. But I just want to share a little factoid that is in a sense, you might say is almost like a definition of when the war will really end. People who go over there, at least the ones I’ve been with, the impression is for the Vietnamese, it’s over. That was a long time ago. The American War was way back. They have a history going back well over a thousand years, invasions and so on. But for Americans, it hasn’t ended. Now I have an idea of how it can end.

Speaker 12: Because one of the places we went to was Cu Chi. Everybody goes to Cu Chi. On the way to Cu Chi, we stopped at a North Vietnamese Army cemetery with supposedly about 10 thousand North Vietnamese Viet Cong buried. The reason we stopped there was because there was a bench, erected memorial bench, in honor of guess what? American soldiers. It said for the 25th Infantry Division, which was in that area. We commented that the war would really end for Americans when we have an NVA or Viet Cong memorial, even a little tiny bench or something in an American military cemetery. Maybe not even Arlington. There’s a confederate memorial there, but whether there could be one for the Viet Cong.

Speaker 12: At that point, I think the American psychological war will end.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, thank you for that. I think that’s an important point. I don’t know if I’ve been to that cemetery, but I’ve been to the … They call them martyr cemeteries in Vietnam. I’ve been to the one in Ho Chi Minh City running the boundaries of Saigon. It’s spectacular. That one has 50 thousand soldiers interred there. The interesting thing about that though is that it’s on the main highway going into the city and outside of the city. Across from that cemetery used to be the Arlington National Cemetery for the South Vietnamese Army, which back in the day, you could totally see from the highway. But now, if you travel along this very important highway, you can’t see it. It’s been totally built over.

Speaker 12: There’s a Mercedes Benz factory on top of it.

Viet Nguyen: That’s right. I went to visit. First of all, there’s no way to officially find it. You have to ask around the neighborhood and find somebody who lived there 30 years ago and they’ll tell you this is where you go. You go there and you cannot enter that cemetery without handing over your passport, giving your information. If you got into the cemetery as I did, they’ll follow you around. It’s the cemetery where all the South Vietnamese soldiers, where many of them were buried. Although you’re right in saying that is important that the victorious Vietnamese have tried, to some extent, to remember the Americans and it’d be awesome if Americans could get over their solipsism and remember their enemies. The irony is that no one wants to remember the South Vietnamese.

Speaker 12: Right.

Viet Nguyen: Right. So that Americans who go back to Vietnam, all of them say, “Oh my God. They treated me so well.” But if you’re South Vietnamese and you go back, that’s not the same experience. We’re still fighting in the Civil War. That’s why I’m saying when I go back to Vietnam, it’s more tendentious relationship because the history of that war, the fact that the South Vietnamese were called puppets and traitors and the ones who fled overseas were considered to be, by many have abandoned the country. Now we’re all rich, wealthy, fat Americans and we come back, “Can’t you give us a thousand dollars or something?” That history is much more difficult actually for the Vietnamese people. That’s why that South Vietnamese cemetery is completely overrun. I mean it’s not been maintained or anything like that.

Viet Nguyen: Likewise here in the united States, if you’re a South Vietnamese veteran, you’re not commemorated on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This is what I talked about in my New York Times a bit. These soldiers, even though they’re Vietnamese veterans, are not Vietnam veterans. We’re not even talking about the six million Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese who died during the war who were not commemorated in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We’re just talking about the 220 thousand South Vietnam soldiers who died who were not commemorated. I think that, although it’s important for Americans to remember their Vietnamese enemies, they need to remember their South Vietnamese allies whom they supposedly fought this war for.

Speaker 12: That’s right.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you.

John: One more question.

Speaker 13: Okay. I’m going to share some things. When I was working at Goddard Space Flight Center as a contractor, we had hired or my company had hired a number of South Vietnamese engineers and I got to talk with them. Oh, you can’t? Here. I’m close now. I got to talk with them and it was fun. Two of them had very different views of their experience of how they were relating to the time when they were in their country. One who said that when he was there and he had met the Americans with all of his experience with the Americans, he hated them. He wanted to kill them. But we were getting along. The other one completely opposite. He said that he had gone to school one day and he came back and because of the bombing, his house was gone. He started laughing. This is the most ridiculous thing possible instead of a great loss. It was very enjoyable talking with them and it shows that there are so many stories of Vietnam. Everybody has a different story and a different view.

Speaker 13: One of mine is rather humorous. In Saigon, I went to a famous restaurant on the river. My own experience with eating crab was the meat was separated and I could eat it. I thought, “I’m going to order crab here.” They bring me a whole crab and a shell and chopsticks. I just looked at it and they must have had a ball watching this American GI try to figure out how to eat crab with chopsticks. Then they took pity on me and gave me something to break the shell. But it’s a lot of wonderful experiences, a lot of heartbreaking experiences. There are a lot of stories and I hope there will be a lot more stories to come about that time and the people.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you for sharing that. Well, thank you all. This was a wonderful experience.


Category: Interviews


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