Viet Thanh Nguyen reads ‘The Sympathizer’ | Asian American Writers’ Workshop

Viet Thanh Nguyen reads The Sympathizer at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. 

Here’s the transcript:

Viet Nguyen: And so now you see what I’m up against. Now you see what the protagonist of my novel is up against as he is enlisted to read a screenplay for a movie called, “The Hamlet.” Not Hamlet, just “The Hamlet.” And it is an epic Vietnam war movie and what I’m going to read from takes place after he’s read the screenplay, I’m not going to tell you the story because if you’ve seen these clips you basically know what the story is going to be about. And he’s meeting the famous director of this movie for the first time, who goes only by the name of the auteur.

Viet Nguyen: What else do you need to know? Our protagonist is half-Asian. His father is a French priest, his mother is a poor Vietnamese woman. And when he was in the south Vietnamese military he was a secret policeman. So he reads the screenplay.

Viet Nguyen: The screenplay was mailed to me by the director’s personal assistant. The thickest 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 goodbye when she called for my mailing information and to arrange for 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.” And that’s precisely how she spoke trimming pronouns and periods as if punctuation and grammar were wasted on me. Then, with deigning to make eye contact, she inclined her head in a gesture of condescension and disdain, signaling me to enter.

Viet Nguyen: When I crossed 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 have been my yellowness, my slightly smaller eyes and the shadow cast by the ill fame of the Orientals’ genitals, those supposedly minuscule privates disparaged on many a public restroom wall by semi-literates. I might have 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 colorblindness, the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color. The only infirmity Americans wished for themselves.

Viet Nguyen: 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 castrati 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 and the bucktooth bespectacled 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 all these previous wounds, although I did not show it. Still I was flummoxed by having read a screenplay whose 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.

Viet Nguyen: 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.

Viet Nguyen: The auteur studied me. This extra who had crept into the middle of his perfect mise en scene. A golden Oscar statuette exhibited itself to the side of his telephone serving either as a kingly scepter or a mace for braining impertinent screenwriters. A hirsute chill of manliness ruffled along his forearms and from the collar of his shirt reminding me of my own relative hairlessness. My chest and stomach and buttocks as streamlined as a Ken doll.

Viet Nguyen: “Great to meet you,” the auteur began. “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 neat for me.

Viet Nguyen: “Look at my view. No, not at the gardener. José. Got to pat on the glass to get his attention, he’s half deaf. José, 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, plopped on the hills and the word was Hollywood.

Viet Nguyen: “Didn’t God say, ‘Let there be light’ first? [inaudible 00:06:03] polite. Can’t have a movie without light and then words. Seeing that sign reminds me to write every morning.

Viet Nguyen: “What? Alright. So it doesn’t say Hollywood. You got me, good eye. Thing’s falling to pieces. One O’s half fallen and the other O is fallen altogether. The world’s gone to shit. So what? You still get the meaning.

Viet Nguyen: “Thanks, Violet. 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 to remember. Yo yo yo then. Here’s to the congressman for sending you my way.

Viet Nguyen: “You’re the first Vietnamese I’ve ever met. Not too many of you in Hollywood. Hell, none of you in Hollywood. And 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.

Viet Nguyen: “I had a green beret who actually fought with the [inaudible 00:07:01] vet the script. He found me. He had a screenplay, everyone 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 have seen the Polaroids he showed me, made my stomach turn. Gave me some ideas though for how to shoot the movie. Hardly had any corrections to make. What do you think of that?”

Viet Nguyen: It took me a moment to realize he was asking me a question. I was disoriented as though I were an English as a second language speaker listening to an equally foreign speaker from another country. “That’s great,” I said.

Viet Nguyen: “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?”

Viet Nguyen: It took me another moment to realize there was another question. Like Violet he had a problem with conventional punctuation. “No.”

Viet Nguyen: “I didn’t think so. So why do you think-”

Viet Nguyen: “But you didn’t get the details right.”

Viet Nguyen: “I didn’t get the details right. Violet, hear that. I researched your country, my friend. I read Joseph Buttinger and Frances Fitzgerald. Have you read Joseph Buttinger 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 and my flustering, which I was not accustomed to, only flustered me further. Which was my only explanation for my forthcoming behavior. “You didn’t even get the screams right,” I said.

Viet Nguyen: “Excuse me.”

Viet Nguyen: I waited for an interjection until I realized he was just interrupting me with a question.

Viet Nguyen: “Alright,” 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.”

Viet Nguyen: “Screams are universal. Am I right, Violet?”

Viet Nguyen: “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 a 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. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal it is also utterly private.

Viet Nguyen: “We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s 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 you should call for the police. This is a reasonable way to cope with a threat of pain.

Viet Nguyen: “But in my country no one calls for the police since it is often the police who inflict the pain. Am I right, Violet?” Violet mutely nodded her head.

Viet Nguyen: “So, let me just point out, that in your script you have my people scream the following way [scream 00:11:18]. For example, when Villager #3 is impaled by a Vietcong [inaudible 00:11:31] trap, this is how he screams. Or when the little girl sacrifices her life to alert the Green Berets to the Vietcong sneaking into the village, this is how she screams before her throat is cut.

Viet Nguyen: “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?”

Viet Nguyen: His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Okay.”

Viet Nguyen: 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. Rumor had it he served as a liaison agent for the Vietcong. 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. The necklace 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.

Viet Nguyen: “Here’s what it sounds like,” I said, reaching across the desk to pick up the auteur’s fountain pen. I wrote onomatopoetically across the cover page of the screenplay in big black letters [scream 00:13:23]. 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.

Category: Interviews


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