Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Sympathizer and the Vietnam War in this interview with Robert Scheer of KCRW’s Scheer Intelligence.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author discusses his acclaimed novel and the legacy of the Vietnam War.
USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer and is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. He tells Robert Scheer he wanted his novel to tell a story with the Vietnamese experience in the foreground unlike previous narratives about the country. He tells Scheer the United States has often in recent history used its overwhelming power in spite of its ignorance about a foreign country’s culture and people. And he says the independence that Vietnam now has allows the country to control its fate but also destroy its future.
Read the transcript below:
Speaker 1: (singing)
Speaker 2: Hi. It’s another edition of Scheer Intelligence where the intelligence comes from my guests, in this case, Viet Thanh Nguyen, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for an incredible book called The Sympathizer. He’s written a number of nonfiction important books, The Refugee and the other one-
Viet: Nothing Ever Dies.
Speaker 2: Nothing Ever Dies about memory and a lot about cemeteries. He teaches here at USC where I’m recording this from. Is it English professor?
Viet: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Speaker 2: It is an incredible book. I just reread it for the second time in preparation for this so I stayed up all night and reading it. I know this may sound like a corny, dumb question. Is there a positive message here?
Viet: Of course, I think there’s a positive message here. I think that the positive message out of The Sympathizer, if we’re talking about politics and revolution and things like that, is that you actually have to work through the contradictions and the complications of revolution, that time period that we had stereotypically called the 1960s when people were waving, the Viet Cong and all these kinds of things. That was very positive, but it was also simplistic at least in relationship to what was happening in Vietnam. I think that a more hopeful leftist politics, which is I think what the book is working towards, actually has to confront the failures of revolution in order to renew it. That’s what I think is the positive part of the book.
Speaker 2: Let me ask you another approach because we do have the Ken Burns’ 17 part series or I forget how long it is.
Viet: 18 hours.
Speaker 2: 18 hours. The problem with that documentary from my money and I should say, I did visit and write about Vietnam beginning in 1964 and ’65 as a reporter and then I was in the south as well. I spent time in Cambodia and Laos and so forth. I happened to talk to you before this discussion. I was predictable. I brought up Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I like all of Graham Greene’s writings for one important … Politically, I like him aside from being a good writer, not as good as you, I have to say. I think it’s an incredibly well-written book, The Sympathizer, incredible piece of literature.
Speaker 2: What I got out of Graham Greene’s writings, all of his writings, whether it was about Mexico or Haiti or about Cuba, about Vietnam, was really a message of caution. Don’t intervene in other people’s history. You’re only going to make it worse. Not that they’re going to make it wonderful and beautiful. They’re going to have their conflicts after all the Vietnamese and the Cambodians and the Laotians and the Chinese and everyone else managed to find lots to fight about and within their countries find a lot about. As a caution against intervention that you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the history, you don’t know the nuances, and you don’t really love the people and care about their survival and their freedom, so stop kidding yourself. Isn’t that basically the message of your writing, both your fiction and nonfiction on Vietnam?
Viet: I’m a big fan of Graham Greene. I’ve been reading Graham Greene since I was in high school and I find many of his novels very powerful. The Quiet American is an interesting case, exception for me because I think I’m very close to the topic of The Quiet American, and it was actually writing against The Quiet American when I was an undergraduate that helped me to clarify some of my thinking or begin to help me clarify some of my thinking about what was potentially wrong with the liberal or the left take on the situation in Vietnam, the Vietnam War and what came before it.
Viet: Of course, I think you’re right. Greene is a cynic, and he’s cautioning us against the arrogance of Western imperialism and so on, American imperialism also. I think as a writer, what he does in The Quiet American and then maybe another works is that he foregrounds the subjectivity of the West. He’s critical of the West, but he’s also foregrounding that subjectivity. It’s all a drama about what’s wrong with the West. That also continues to force us to talk about the West. If you read The Quiet American from an Asian American or Vietnamese perspective, it’s hard not to see that the Vietnamese are still the backdrop for this debate between Anglo-Americans.
Viet: The Sympathizer, while it shares many of the politics of Graham Greene, is very critical of continuing to return to the subjectivity of Westerners when in fact, what we’re talking about is if we’re talking about self-determination and let’s get the West out of these other countries and so on, it can’t simply be a discussion between Westerners. That’s where The Sympathizer really departs from The Quiet American.
Speaker 2: People have I guess a right to make their own history. They certainly have the intimate knowledge of who they are. Just reading … reading. I shouldn’t say just reading. One of the delights of reading your books, there’s a nuance and the texture and whether it’s a different urban city, whether it’s a group or that group or north or south or what have you. You could spend a lifetime trying to absorb that. I should point out you were born in Vietnam and then you left. I guess you were born in ’71, four, five years before the war officially ended, and then you ended up having refugee status and being in the United States. I don’t know. That could be a very important takeaway of self-determination for other people.
Speaker 2: The other thing I think your book asserts, I don’t want to put this idea, is that they’re fully human and complex and you turn this whole question, is it the mysterious East or the West? Well, they’re all mysterious, but the fact is we assume we have the right to make our own history in the United States or in France or what have you. This is an assumption we don’t easily extend to others. I think it’s continued in the Burns’ documentary. Again, yes, there are, as you did in your play, in the book, you are advising on the making of a movie about Vietnam. I think Apocalypse Now must have been the model, right?
Viet: I think Apocalypse Now formed the model, but the movie that’s being satirized in the novel is a compilation of the entire Vietnam War genre from Hollywood.
Speaker 2: It’s the Hamlet. Again, I remember because I read that script from Francis Ford Coppola. He asked me to read it before it had become a movie, and he asked Francis Fitzgerald to read it. Both of us had the same reaction. Wait a minute. You don’t really get the Montagnards. The label itself doesn’t quite work and you’re trying to make a movie about heart of darkness in Africa and it doesn’t fit and it’s a very different culture and so forth. I just wonder whether that’s the lesson we really haven’t learned because we’re everywhere. Whether we go into Iraq or Libya, and not just us of course, and the other nation that goes and intrudes. It’s the intrusion that I think this book is offended by.
Viet: It’s the intrusion. It’s also this idea … I have to agree with you. Obviously, self-determination is important. Independence is important, but also the refusal to romanticize or dominate other populations is important too because once people have the right to determine their own futures, you can’t tell what they’re going to do. One of the points that the book makes is that once the Vietnamese had their own independence, what do they do? The victorious Vietnamese turned around and tortured and imprisoned and persecuted the defeated Vietnamese. That’s what you do when you have independence. There’s a way in which the West has discussed Southeast Asia, what we call Indochina or something that obscures that.
Viet: Once you grant people the capacity to determine their own future, what you’re doing is you’re granting them the same kind of humanity that you claim for yourself. From our own debates within the West, we know that the West is capable of good and bad types of things, a full range of human and inhuman behavior. Well, that was happening in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos too. That’s what the novel is foregrounding that it’s easy to talk about let’s have independence in these other countries, but are we really willing to confront what that means when these populations, these nations, do what they want to do with their own independence, whether it’s in politics or whether it’s in telling stories?
Speaker 2: Let me just cut to some of the things that are really troubling in your book as far as a political analysis. It’s the prevalence of torture. It’s the contempt for sacrifice of human life, whether it’s using napalm and destroying whole villages or it’s killing a friend in Orange County or someone you knew because it’s convenient to some larger plan, your own survival or political survival. Really this is an anti-war novel as much as anything.
Viet: Absolutely. It’s an anti-war novel and it’s also a novel that is deeply concerned with ideology, what it means to believe. I’m speaking as someone who came of age in Berkeley much later than you were there, but still we had that whole idea that we as students in the 1990s what we were embarking on was a political struggle, whether it happened to be through electoral politics or movement politics or the law or literature and so on. We were all, my friends and I, committed to this idea of struggle. I was also remembering the legacy of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the defeated Vietnamese people, now the Southern Vietnamese people. I disagreed with Southern Vietnamese political ideology, but I’m very sympathetic to what happened to them at the hands of their victors.
Viet: What that taught me was that there is no nobility necessarily inherent in any ideology. Ideologies are ways of looking at the world, of trying to get people to do stuff to change the world. It’s that truism that power corrupts was evident to me in looking at Vietnam and Cambodia, for example. If that was the case, we have to be suspicious of any kind of ideology, even our own, and that’s really hard for people to do, whether we’re on the left or the right or whatever kind of ideological position that we take. It’s always easier to look at someone else’s ideology from the outside and say those guys are blind what they’re doing and they’re just conformist to their ideology and so on. Well, we are too, or the people that we’re following, our allies are too. That’s what the novel is also investigating. It’s not just a critique of how excess of this war was from all sides and the deployment of torture from all sides, but also everybody, all the different factions, total investments in their own ideologies.
Speaker 2: I think it’s also important to get into this question of cultural arrogance. The book is very … You can’t control your contempt for cultural arrogance. The book … All of your writing just reeks of it. On the most simple level, like your nonfiction books, just the recognition, they too have dead, they too bury them, they too honor them, they too have history, they have complexity, they also have a sex drive, they also love poetry, they also care about the nuances of food. The one dimensional view of the enemy is critical to the waging of war.
Viet: Absolutely. Obviously, from my perspective, as someone who is both an American but is an outsider to some extent to American culture, I can easily see that when it’s applied to the Vietnamese or Southeast Asians or Asians in general that Western representations of them, whether we’re talking about politics or journalism or popular culture, reduces other people to simplifications and stereotypes. They’re very powerful. I have to sometimes work against my own tendency to flatten and simplify other peoples and other cultures that I’m not familiar with, and I’m someone who is sensitive to those kinds of mechanisms. We have a lot of work to do, and it’s hard work, to understand the humanity and the complexities and the contradictions and failures of other peoples with whom we have no relationship with or more minimal relationship with.
Speaker 2: There’s a simple caution that one could assert. Ho Chi Minh did start with the words of the Declaration of Independence in his original declaration of independence. We do have a model in our own American constitutional experience of nonintervention. We violate it in relation to Native Americans. We violate it in a number of places increasingly through our history with great abandon. This idea that you mentioned of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely is the caution, and the answer is limited government. The answer is restraint. The answer is respecting the rights of the individual, including a ban on torture, unreasonable punishment, to respect their privacy. There is, if by ideology we mean some grand idea, there is an ideological alternative, which is hold power and check.
Viet: Here’s another one, which is live up to our ideals. How about that? Instead of intervention, military intervention, building bases, occupation, this kind of stuff, maybe we could just try to help people by giving them assistance, giving them development without strings attached, helping them make economically with the recognition that this kind of aid is just as beneficial for us as it is for them, that maybe they would actually care more for us as Americans, if that’s the perspective we’re talking from, if we help people versus forcing them to do things.
Speaker 2: Time for a break. I’ve been talking to Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer.
Speaker 4: This week on The Document, a prison warden tells his chaplain they’re going to reopen what would become the country’s busiest execution chamber.
Speaker 5: He looked at me and he said, “You will be there from the time the inmate gets there until the time the man dies.”
Speaker 4: That’s The Document, KCRW’s mashup of radio and documentaries. Check it out and more great shows at kcrw.com/podcasts.
Speaker 2: I’m talking with Viet Thanh Nguyen, and we’re talking originally about The Sympathizer. The main insight is that individuals have individual personalities, tastes, desires. They come up against cultures in complex ways. One particular theme that appealed to me in your book is the notion of the bastard. Your hero is somebody who has a French father and a Vietnamese mother, French priest seduces his parishioner. That’s a theme that runs right through The Sympathizer.
Speaker 2: It hit me because I am also a love child. My German Protestant father and my Jewish Russian mother produced me. My father had another family and so forth. Growing up in World War II, I can’t say my experiences were similar to your main character, but I’m always torn because the conventional wisdom in the United States before the rise of Hitler, and I was born in ’36 so I can even remember that as a young child, the Germans were the best educated, the most enlightened people in the world. They had the finest music, the finest science. There was a large number of people and they had the largest immigrant group in the United States, still do actually. There was a feeling like they can’t possibly become barbarians.
Speaker 2: We had no trouble accepting the Japanese as barbarians, suicide bombers and so forth. We rounded up large numbers of Japanese, put them in concentration camp, even though they’ve been here longer than many of the Germans and were farmers and so forth. We had an idea of the ideal society, and Germany was pretty close to it. One half of my family, like one half of the character in your book, they became the enemy. He was the French priest. The victim, in my case, my mother has Jewish family in Russia, were all wiped out. The greatest barbarism was done by one half of my family.
Speaker 2: Your book resonated with me because it denies that any one culture, any one religion will form desirable traits. It’s the interplay between that and reality and how you respond to it that will shape you.
Viet: Absolutely. It was a very deliberate choice to make him a bastard or someone of mixed race descent for a number of different reasons. One of them has to do with exactly what you just talked about, which is you used a German example, in this case, my character’s father is a French priest, and there’s both Catholicism and colonialism involved here that both of these projects brought to Vietnam and to Laos and Cambodia were supposed to civilize the Indochinese or the Southeast Asians and elevate them not quite to the level of the French but close to them, right beneath them. Of course, the point here is that France just like Germany has a civilizing mission, but it’s also riddled by that contradiction of the potential for savagery, which is what happens in colonialism regardless of how the French think about it or how they’ve denied that.
Viet: Another reason to make him mixed is also something that you implied, which is the refusal for purity. I think people who have pure identities, whatever those happen to be, and take their identities for granted are sometimes very potentially dangerous people because they take it for granted that they know who they are and that there is such a thing as being homogenous. Those who are of mixed race can see because they’ve been subjected to discrimination and epithets and things like that, that within these highfalutin civilizations, there is built within them, most of them, the potential to denigrate, to marginalize, to persecute and so on. That’s what the narrator experiences, his awareness of how he falls between the cracks of these civilizations and therefore his skepticism about the rhetoric of civilization, whether it’s from the French side or from the Vietnamese side.
Speaker 2: It’s interesting. In your book, The Sympathizer, humanity is expressed in the mundane, in the ordinary, the affair between the secretary and the department and the young students, actually a celebration, believe it or not, of auto eroticism as a release and as a common phenomenon of different cultures. The admission that food can motivate the person who was about to be killed but enjoyed his meal and the food and the nuances of different people’s food and how they’re prepared, whether prepared by the mother of the main character or by the person who’s … well, the wife of the person who’s about to be killed.
Speaker 2: Throughout that, you have a sense that the ordinary life should be respected, that daily culture should be respected, whether it’s traditional, whether it’s modern, the music that attends to it, the weddings, the family, that there’s a texture of life that ought not to be ripped asunder and that the capacity to tear it apart exists in all of us. There’s a barbarism in all of us, which I think The Sympathizer evokes as meaningfully as almost anything I’ve ever read.
Viet: Well, there’s both … For me, culture is both civilization and barbarism all at the same time. Again, there’s nothing that sets Americans apart from the Vietnamese in this regard, except for the degree of power that Americans, old versus the Vietnamese or other small countries. Certainly growing up again in the United States as someone who is both being raised as an American but who was also a refugee and an outsider, I completely sympathized with American culture. I think I completely understood all these aspects of American culture, and I felt great warmth and attachment to American culture, but then I thought, well, why don’t Americans reciprocate that? Why don’t they see that in the cultures of other countries that they’re involved with, particularly in Vietnam, but also other places too?
Viet: Yes, the novel is deliberately looking at both the best and the worst aspects of American and Vietnamese cultures. There are all these issues that you indicated. While there’s great criticism of American culture in this book, I hope there’s also a great love for it as well, great knowledge of the details of American culture. There’s also great knowledge of the terrible things that the Vietnamese did as well.
Speaker 2: There’s one important distinction. They’re doing it to themselves. They’re making their own history for better or worse. They had lots of shots at it. There was Bao Dai and the old Mandarin reform who resented the French. There had been lots of different periods and lots of different ways of suggesting Vietnam should develop. At the end of the day in victory and our great defeat, the exact opposite happened to what we predicted of an overall terms, strategic terms, excuse for the Vietnam War was we had to stop dominoes from falling. Well actually, they stopped with victory, and the Vietnamese communists and the Chinese communists went to war. They didn’t go conquer San Diego or something.
Speaker 2: The political analysis was just dead wrong and had to be known in real time that it was wrong, that these were primarily nationalist movements. You may not like them and so forth, but at the end, we’re going to defend their borders or fight over islands, which the Vietnamese and Chinese communists are doing right now. The basic structure was idiotic, which I think Graham Greene captured, but the Pentagon papers captured, which were kept from us. What is left out of the piece.
Speaker 2: I think I wanted to mention something about the Ken Burns thing. It opens with this statement about these were good people with good intentions, the American policymakers. That’s what I deny categorically. I was in Saigon in ’64 and ’65. I was in that area. No, they didn’t have good intentions. They claimed that Ngo Dinh Diem was a great liberate of his country. They found him in a Maryknoll seminary in New Jersey. They brought him there, and then they killed him, chased him through the sewers of Saigon brutally and he was executed. They went with another corrupt general or another corrupt leader and so forth.
Speaker 2: I don’t think this was a failure of good intentions. I think it was indifference. That’s I think the message, I don’t want to read a message into your book, but this cultural arrogance and it really translates into a criminal indifference. You don’t really care who you’re bombing. We should not forget, we dropped more bombs on Laos, a little tiny primitive country. When I visited Laos in ’64, pencils were a gift you could bring to some villages, and then we dropped more bombs there than we did on Japan, and not to mention what we dropped on Vietnam and Cambodia and so forth. This is genocide that is somehow cloaked as a failure of good intentions. The big difference is the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Laotians, they didn’t drop napalm on New Jersey and Chicago. We’d have a different discussion now.
Speaker 2: I think with the Ken Burns’ movie and others, there’s a tendency to forget that. We, with our enormous power, visited the greatest destruction that we’ve actually seen in such a small area. Whether the figure is three and a half million died, the figure McNamara uses up to six million as others use, this was genocide, was it not?
Viet: No, absolutely. The book is actually very clear about that. This is something I do share with Graham Greene in The Quiet American. Obviously, that book is very well-known for its depiction of American innocence as a fundamental character flaw that the Americans actually are not innocent, but they believe in their innocence even as they’re doing terrible things. They can excuse themselves for doing that. The Ken Burns’ documentary, at least in the way that you’re talking about it, follows in that tradition. We didn’t do anything out of meanness or spite or arrogance or anything like that. We did it because we made mistakes out of our noble intentions.
Viet: In The Sympathizer, it’s very clear in saying that Americans are contradictory. That, on the one hand, they believe in their eternal innocence when it comes to going abroad or even within the United States, obviously, in terms of settler colonialism, but they also believe in the fact that they are a Christian country that’s already fallen. These two things are intentioned at the same time. The Americans, at least in their own self depiction, are always playing out this psychodrama between being fallen and being innocent.
Viet: The movie, Apocalypse Now, that is being satirized in this book and my book is completely acceptable to Americans. On the one hand, Americans can watch the Ken Burns’ documentary and say, yes, we’re good and we just made mistakes. They can also watch Apocalypse Now, which depicts Americans doing some really horrifying things and say, yes, we can do that too. These are two aspects of the American character that I think Americans are somewhat comfortable with.
Speaker 2: This whole idea, again, the third force that America is not colonialist. It’s democratic. It’s the melting pot of all the world. We have Vietnamese here that we know and so forth. We care about … We are championing universal rights. What your book suggests is that these people are really boobs. They’re foolish. That’s an idea we don’t like to entertain that you can actually be powerful and foolish, dangerously foolish. You didn’t even know anything about these people. Your book has anger in it. The anger is, you don’t even understand them in Orange County, California. You don’t them. You don’t ascribe or attribute any complexity, any significance to their relations to where the mothers loved their children or anything, whether their religious values or their complexity. You do feel that.
Viet: Yeah, but I think the United States has always been that way, powerful and foolish at the same time, except that in the history of the United States, the power has often been triumphant over the foolishness. The United States, Americans or whatever, white settlers didn’t know anything about Native Americans either. They still wiped them out. They had enough power to do it. It’s not that foolishness is irreconcilable with power. It’s just that by the time that the United States got to Vietnam, circumstances had changed in a variety of ways. The United States finally met an opponent or a geography or a situation in which the application of US power simply didn’t work anymore.
Viet: The figures that are depicted in characters like [Phi] or Claude, the CIA agent, they were doing what had always worked, except now it didn’t work in the case of Vietnam or Indochina, and it’s still not working. This is where I think what happened to the United States in Southeast Asia marks a turning point in American history that all of the typical set of patterns and beliefs that Americans have always used finally started to fall apart. The contradictions within them started to be exhibited. We’re still dealing with the fallout of that in the contemporary perpetual war, forever war that we’re waging in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East.
Speaker 2: The great success of The Sympathizer and I suspect it’s why it won the Pulitzer, why it’s getting a big international audience, why it’s a classic book, is it forces us to deal with the complexity of the individual human experience no matter where you’re born. Your hero, such as he is. His mother was very poorly educated. She’s a woman who was exploited by a French priest, but we were introduced to her as a loving, caring, complex, devoted human being. All of the people in this book had the capacity and exhibited within their own life of being good and bad. Even when you make the categories of which Vietnamese are to be tortured and the American sponsored program, maybe VC, tending to VC or possibly … Maybe we got the wrong one, but so what? They’re all wrong ones and all that.
Speaker 2: It really challenges, I guess as a good closing point, it challenges the arrogance of the empire builders and saying you really, at least in that case and probably any other, don’t know what you’re talking about. You really don’t know what you’re doing. To play on The Sympathizer, you’re not really sympathetic to the aspirations, needs complexity of others. As a result, you end up being barbaric and you end up being genocidal. Is that a fair-
Viet: Of course, it’s a fair attrition … Can I use four letter words on this show?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Viet: Well, there’s a very key line that was very important to me in The Sympathizer that takes place towards the end, which is that one of the successful revolutionaries says to one of the defeated revolutionaries, “We’ve won the right to independence and freedom.” What that means is that the French and the Americans are no longer screwing us. I’m substituting the word I actually used in the book. We’re now capable of screwing ourselves. That’s what it means to be independent. That I think is one of the harsh but also liberating truths I hope that The Sympathizer puts forth. That’s one of the ways it means to be free and to be independent. We control our fate, which means we also can control … We can also destroy our future at the same time.
Speaker 2: On that note, I want to thank Viet Thanh Nguyen for writing his great books, beginning with The Sympathizer. Please read them. Our producers have been Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers, Mario Diaz and Kat Yore at KCRW. Here at USC at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Sebastian Grubaugh, the exemplary engineer who’s taken us through this. See you next week.
Speaker 1: (singing)