Viet Thanh Nguyen sits down with Rich Fahle for Book View Now to discuss “The Sympathizer” at the 2016 AWP Conference.
Here is the transcript:
Rich Fahle: All right, we’re back at AWP 2016. This is Book View Now. I’m Rich Fahle and I’m sitting right now with Viet Nguyen, who’s written the new book called The Sympathizer, which is not that new actually, but it’s been out for a little bit. It continues to drive buzz, earn accolades, awards, great reviews. What a nice time you’re having with this book right now. You’re very busy.
Viet Nguyen: Well it’s nice to be read.
Rich Fahle: Yes.
Viet Nguyen: So, you know, you write in solitude and you hope that whatever you are imagining, as idiosyncratic and strange as it might be, might find an audience. So that, in itself, is obviously a reward.
Rich Fahle: Yeah. The book is called The Sympathizer. We should mention, of course, the title, and the title is a book part of this book, obviously. This is about a character in the book who is a Vietnamese … He’s ostensibly from South Vietnamese, but he’s not, he’s a spy from the North Vietnamese and he sympathizes, though, with both sides. Can you tell us a little bit about the title and where you started? Did it start with that, and how did it come to?
Viet Nguyen: Well, it started because my agent wanted me to write a novel and the first thing I thought of was spy novel, because I like reading spy novels, and because there actually were these communist spies in the South Vietnamese hierarchy who had climbed very high, and it was always in the back of my mind that this would make a great historical story. Then the other dimension of it is that I wanted a man who was caught between two worlds. He’s divided in loyalty. He’s divided in terms of race, because his father is French and his mother is Vietnamese, and this allows him to sympathize with different sides. That’s his one talent, and it also turns out to be his tragic flaw as well.
Rich Fahle: Yeah. It is a talent in the sense that the ability to understand, to empathize, is a rare thing for a lot of people who don’t necessarily have lives in two worlds, like you did growing up, and like your character does. It’s something that I think, in America, when you come here, you don’t always see an understanding of another culture, the ability to sympathize or to empathize. This character came from Vietnam and is able to do that, whether it’s with North Vietnam and South Vietnam, or whether it’s the United States, where your character comes. Can you talk a little bit about that idea of an immigrant and their ability to empathize or sympathize, more so than an American, perhaps.
Viet Nguyen: Well I think if you’re an immigrant, and in my case I was actually a refugee, which is a little bit different than an immigrant, there was always that feeling of being in between places. I was born in Vietnam but I was made in America, is what I like to say. So that means I always never have felt quite comfortable or absolutely at home in either country or either society, which is not the greatest feeling, but for a writer, it’s a very good thing, because that sense of discomfort-
Rich Fahle: When did you understand that?
Viet Nguyen: I think from a very early age. My first memory was soon after we came to the United States. I was four years old and we were settled in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and to leave the camp, you had to have a sponsor, but no sponsor would take my entire family of four. So my parents went to one family, my brother went to another, and my four-year-old self went to a third household, and that was my beginning of memory of pain and of feeling I don’t belong in this household that I find myself in, and why have my parents abandoned me? Which they hadn’t. They didn’t have any choice, but that was sort of the genesis of my identity as someone who, again, both Vietnamese and American, never quite comfortable in either place, never quite knowing what to call home.
Rich Fahle: Wow, your first memory. That’s quite profound. The story also revolves around your main character having to go back to Vietnam because there’s a movie being made. You skewer sort of the … It’s almost satirical. I mean, it’s funny. There’s parts of this novel that I thought were really funny, parts that were tragic, but the part about the movies being made about the Vietnam experience, from a very American perspective, are very funny in this book. Talk about that and what drew you to it. It felt very Apocalypse Now-ish.
Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s supposed to be a satire of all kinds of American movies about the Vietnam War, but Apocalypse Now is certainly the genesis, because I remember when I was about 10 years old, I watched it on the VCR and I was much too young of an age to watch this movie, and it scarred me for life, because as a good, young American boy I grew up watching a lot of war movies and always cheering for the American soldiers, but then of course at a certain moment in Apocalypse Now, the American soldiers kill Vietnamese people, and I was like, “This is an impossible situation to be in. Who am I supposed to identify with?” And of course, for Vietnamese people in American movies, our major function is to be silent, to be rescued or to be killed, and so when it came time to write the novel, I couldn’t help it. I thought, “I am going to take my revenge on Hollywood, take my revenge on Francis Ford Coppola-
Rich Fahle: You had fun with it.
Viet Nguyen: And I had fun with it. It was a hoot to write that, but in doing the research for that section, I discovered I couldn’t even make up stuff about Apocalypse Now that was as strange as what happened in the making of Apocalypse Now.
Rich Fahle: Oh yeah. You’ve seen the documentary, I’m sure.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, Hearts of Darkness, yeah.
Rich Fahle: There’s other movies made about the Vietnam experience, and they’re always Rambo, very American. One of the things that you talk about in the book is the fact that America puts itself in sort of the center of the Vietnam experience, when in fact we were a player, but it wasn’t necessarily revolving around the United States. You wouldn’t know that when you come to this country though.
Viet Nguyen: Well yeah. You know, I think Americans remember this as their war, and obviously 58,000 Americans died during this war and it’s a huge tragedy, huge loss of human life, but for Southeast Asians, we think three million Vietnamese people died during this war and three million other Southeast Asians died during this very long extended conflict, and so it’s ironic for us, then, to be cast as the extras in American movies. So it’s always a struggle to try to get our stories onto center stage, to try to get Americans to understand just the depth and the complexity of what happened to Vietnamese people and other Southeast Asians as well, and the irony for the Americans, I think, is that they don’t mind being cast as the villains or the anti-heroes in movies like Apocalypse Now as long as they’re the stars, right?
Rich Fahle: Right. They’re not always the good guys.
Viet Nguyen: Yeah, but it’s better to be the villain and be the star, than to be the faceless extra who’s virtuous and good.
Rich Fahle: Right, right, exactly. You know, the other element about this that struck me is that when the South Vietnamese … It was either the fall of Saigon or I guess it could have been on the flip side, they were saving Saigon from the North Vietnamese side, but when the South Vietnamese left, I think there was always an impression, or at least as you read this, that these generals, these other people that were stuck in this country that were running gas stations and doing things, that they were going to go back. At some point they were going to be able to return to their country, and they were going to be able to reclaim their lives. That was the tragedy as I read this, sort of understanding that they weren’t going to be able to have that world again.
Viet Nguyen: That was true whether you were a general or a private or just a civilian. I grew up in San Jose which had a very large Vietnamese community, and I just remember, just the feelings of loss and anguish and bitterness that people had about having lost their country and dreaming of going back someday when communism had failed or when they could take the country over. So part of the plot of the book is about these South Vietnamese soldiers who haven’t given up the fight yet and they’re trying to organize a revolution to go back and take Vietnam from the communists, and that was real.
Viet Nguyen: I grew up in the community and I would go to these community celebrations and there would be pictures of these guys living in the Thai jungle wearing camouflage uniforms getting ready to stage that revolution, and the point of that was that we were supposed to contribute money to help that cause, so it touched everybody in the Vietnamese refugee community.
Rich Fahle: I did not realize that spies from the North Vietnamese side were actually sent into America to continue the process of monitoring what was happening with the South Vietnamese soldiers or the South Vietnamese effort to come back and take it back.
Viet Nguyen: Well, there was a very famous spy who was sent here in the 1950s and studied in Orange County and then went back to become such a famous spy that everyone knew him but never knew that he was that spy, so that story partially inspires this, but that other idea that even after the war, that there were communist spies sent her to infiltrate the South Vietnamese community, that’s never been proven, but the South Vietnamese community certainly thought that it might be true, and so that led to things like paranoia and killing people, that some people in the South Vietnamese community suspected to be communist or communist sympathizers, so I grew up hearing these stories, especially about journalists, who broached the idea of reconciliation with Vietnam, and that was completely unacceptable, and some of those people actually were murdered.
Rich Fahle: The other element that I want to talk about a little bit is Vietnam itself. As we’ve begun to see an influx of fiction and non-fiction from Iraq and Afghanistan in the United States, people start to look at war differently. There’s something in a different kind of war in Vietnam, but it’s still in top of mind in the United States certainly, and certainly in Vietnam. When you started to write The Sympathizer, what was your thoughts about the time between Vietnam War and now?
Viet Nguyen: My feeling is that Americans and also the Vietnamese want to compartmentalize the war. This was something that happened 1965 to 1975. Now it’s over and now we can be friends, and my point of view, though, is that this was actually part of a much longer history of warfare, at least from the American perspective, that we’ve been expanding across the Pacific into Asia since 1898 and the Vietnam War was an interruption of that, and ever since then, Americans have been trying really hard to rebuild that inclination to keep on expanding their interests into not just Asia but the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan are the consequences of that. So when I was writing the novel I couldn’t help but think that many of the things that I was writing about were actually being repeated in slightly different ways in Iraq in Afghanistan.
Viet Nguyen: So for example torture was very big on the American mind in the 2000s, right? Still is to some extent. Those policies that were so controversial with Americans like waterboarding and other kinds of techniques, those were actually developed during the 1950s and implemented in Vietnam, and the manual that the CIA wrote, which I talk about in this novel, continued to be very influential in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rich Fahle: A lot of this, I think about your life in two worlds. You say you weren’t comfortable in either. Do you consider yourself a sympathizer to that degree? Here you are, having to sort of find your comfort, find your home, to figure out what it is that feels like home to you, and to be empathetic, to understand other cultures at the same time. Do you feel that yourself as that character often times, as the sympathizer?
Viet Nguyen: The novel is not autobiographical in any way, which, if you’ve read the novel, you’ll take great relief in that, except for the sympathizing part, and I really do think that having grown up on the margins of different societies, I always felt the need to listen to people, to hear what they had to say, and sort of in that sense eavesdrop on them and on other kinds of conversations, and that’s a good skill for a writer, to actually be able to listen to people and to sympathize with them. For me it was an outcome of, again, always feeling just never quite at home, and wanting to understand what other people’s perspectives happen to be.
Rich Fahle: I’d argue that it’s a good skill for humans to have, and I hope that we all learn it a little bit more.
Viet Nguyen: Well you’re an interviewer, so you know the value of asking questions, and maybe you know that most people don’t know how to ask questions.
Rich Fahle: Or listen, you know?
Viet Nguyen: Yeah.
Rich Fahle: Both. They’re both challenging for all of us, but listen, the book is amazing. The Sympathizer. Everything that’s happening to you now is really wonderful. I’m happy for you and I hope it continues, and thanks so much for joining us.
Viet Nguyen: Thanks very much, Rich, for taking time out to talk with me.