Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen for Literature Interpretation Theory (LIT)

This interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen was conducted by Ruby Perlmutter for LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory. 

Published in 2015, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer tells the story of a communist spy sent to California after the so-called “Fall of Saigon” (April 30, 1975); his mission involves working as an informant within a newly formed Vietnamese refugee community in Los Angeles. Narrated as a confession, The Sympathizers unnamed protagonist details his experiences as a refugee operative whose dealings include South Vietnamese generals and leftist ex-patriots, US politicians and a Hollywood director, and his communist handler, Man. In the process, The Sympathizer renders visible a complicated and in many ways fragmented history, destabilizing dominant-held US notions of what it means to be Vietnamese and a refugee post-Vietnam War. In 2016, Viet Thanh Nguyen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel The Sympathizer. The Pulitzer Organization described the book as “A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States” (np). In the months since its publication, the novel has received further praise; Nguyen—the subject of numerous articles and interview—has emerged as a major contemporary author. To be sure, much of the praise and criticism about Nguyen’s novel echoes the Pulitzer Organization’s characterization of The Sympathizer as an immigrant story. Yet, as Nguyen himself repeatedly maintains, the novel tells the story of a refugee, not an immigrant. And in eliding that distinction, much of the criticism about the novel has failed to discuss the matrix of political circumstances that distinguish a refugee story from an immigrant one.

Nguyen himself was born in Vietnam and came to the United States as a refugee in 1975. After living in Pennsylvania for several years, he and his family settled in California. This history, at once deeply intertwined with the content of the book and sharply removed from it, has become a significant presence in criticism about the novel. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the story Nguyen tells in The Sympathizer bears little resemblance to the author’s actual life. In this juxtaposition of a critical desire for autobiographical authenticity and the narrative’s denial of that comes a powerful critique and another duality: the novel quite deftly explores this type of identity fragmentation while drawing on the readers’ tendency to unify. Nguyen’s work also reveals this tendency as it applies to the study of war. In periods of war, this duality becomes crucial—as Nguyen asserts in much of his scholarship, war extends well beyond the dates of official conflict. To wit, in his 2016 monograph Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen avers, “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” (4). This opening statement has, in the past months, become something like a synecdoche for Nguyen’s larger body of work and the way that we think about the American War in Vietnam.

Situating Nguyen’s work within memory studies and critical refugee studies, these rich fields offer dynamic contexts and ways of reading The Sympathizer. For example, Um writes, “The evacuation from the originary source denies refugees and diasporas of a milieu de memoire, where memory can be enveloped and anchored. Instead, memories, like the refugee body that they inhabit, are fractured, dispersed, multiple, and diverse, foregrounded and invisible” (835). Memory severed from place and nation easily disappears, absorbed by dominant national narratives of conflict — as we see in popular American film and literature about the American War in Vietnam. Yet, there remain avenues for recovery, as Schlund-Vials writes in War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work that artistic production can then serve as a mode of reconstituting memory to “engender in their respective productions alternative modes for and practices of justice” (4). Further work by scholars such as Yến Lê Espiritu, who argues that popular American narratives of Vietnamese refugees served to justify US military intervention retrospectively in Vietnam and ongoing globally, and Jenny Edkins, who examines public memorial sites as potential sites of resistance, build a context in which we can situate Nguyen’s work. As he produces academic as well as literary work, Nguyen participates in the project of recovery and reassertion of previously lost memories and histories. In the essay, “Becoming Bilingual, or Notes on Numbness and Feeling,” Nguyen reflects upon his life as a writer and his negotiations between writing fiction and academic critique, and invites the reader into the different ways we might read and write memory. He writes, “the ideal that I held before myself was that perhaps it would be possible to write fiction like criticism and criticism like fiction” (306). In this endeavor, Nguyen challenges the very duality that seems so central to his novel and its narrator. As his work embodies, softening this line between genre and form might in fact grant access to work that does not sacrifice feeling for critique or critique for feeling.

Because of this dialogic relationship between critique and fiction, Nguyen’s critical texts greatly inform the theoretical foundations we find in his fiction, providing a rare service to the thorough reader. In his article “Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique” (2012) and his book Race and Resistance (2002), Nguyen calls upon American Studies and Asian American Studies scholars to allow for more internal multiplicity, and we see this manifest in The Sympathizer, whose narrator alone embodies some of that multiplicity in one body. Beyond Nguyen’s own critical writing, The Sympathizer has become a point of external discussion and criticism, and that criticism has interacted with the text in ways that raise further points of inquiry and open new avenues for reading and engagement.

In the interview that follows, Nguyen addresses many of the ways that his work—both fiction and scholarly—resists the tendency to understand texts in terms of preexisting generic categories. Especially with a novel that begins at the end of the American War in Vietnam, the ways it departs from popular and national narratives holds much more power than the ways it may align with them. Nguyen’s attention to and engagement with multiplicity within academic fields, literary genres, and public histories, appears strongly in this interview where he addresses the balance between entering the public imaginary and destabilizing the same. This interview occurred over email ahead of the release of his 2017 short story collection, The Refugees.

Ruby Perlmutter:

I’ve noticed a tendency in book reviews and literary criticism—both about your work and more generally—to look to an author’s own background and personal life as a signal of authenticity. The Sympathizer I think resists that quite effectively, as the notion of authenticity is destabilized through the narrator to begin with. Still, your own personal identity’s entrance into the conversation seems more or less ubiquitous. I wonder how you see discussions of your personal history that occur around the text of the The Sympathizer affecting (or not) how the book is read? Does the inclination to align fiction with autobiography do a disservice to the text or not? Or do you write with that effect in mind?

Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Minority writers, and debut writers, are often seen as writing autobiographically. In the case of debut authors, this perception may arise because the fictional story or protagonist bears some resemblance to the writer’s life. For minority writers, the resemblance could be fairly thin and the book could still be seen as autobiographical, because majority audiences already tend to expect minority writers to be historians and sociologists of their particular minority condition, as well as translators of that condition. So, in general, yes, the inclination to read autobiographically does a disservice, especially if the writer isn’t actually writing autobiographically. Such a tendency distorts fiction into nonfiction (which is different than when the author deliberately seeks to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction).

In my case, I’ve been self-conscious about the role my autobiography plays in how my novel is read. On the one hand, I’ve exploited my autobiography. I deliberately delayed publication of the novel until April 2015, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Predictably, this led to thirty interviews in thirty days around the publication, and much of the interviews revolved around history and my autobiography. These are selling points, and a writer has to be savvy—or should be savvy—about how to sell her or his work. On the other hand, the novel cannot be read autobiographically. I deliberately wrote a novel far removed from my own life or my family’s life so that no one could think of mistaking me for my narrator. At the same time, even if the novel is not autobiographical, it seems like it could be nonfictional. It uses the genres of confession and memoir to create a nonfictional effect, which, for some readers, seems “truer” than fiction, and which for me as the author allowed the possibility of engaging in nonfictional narrative strategies that aren’t often seen in contemporary American fiction: most notably the use of didacticism and “telling” rather than “showing.”


You write a lot about memory, about the industry of memory, about wars fought a second time in memory. The Sympathizer of course is written in the form of a confession — so the events of the novel begin as memories. Nothing Ever Dies is bookended with discussions of “just memory” and “just forgetting.” In addition to sort of re-membering a version of the years following the American War in Vietnam, how do you envision your work as also participating in “just forgetting”?


Just forgetting can’t proceed only from narrative acts of remembering and reconciliation, although it can’t proceed without those acts. Just forgetting also requires justice in the world of politics and economics. There must be political acts of remembering and reconciliation, in the form of apologies, treaties, reparations, trials, convictions, memorials, and the like. There must also be economic justice, in the form of all people having access to the means of production. Without such access, they do not have equal opportunities when it comes to the means of memory and hence forgetting (the industries of memory, as the term implies, are actual industries that are owned not by the people but by capitalists, corporations, or the state).

My fiction and nonfiction participate in just forgetting at the narrative level, and are therefore limited in what they can accomplish. However, both the fiction and nonfiction are explicit about the political and economic issues around memory and forgetting. The fiction is explicit through the use of didacticism and satire, while the nonfiction is programmatic and theoretical, spelling out in much greater detail what I describe in the paragraph above. In explaining how things like collective memory is also corporate memory, for example, I hope to prevent the easy slide towards thinking of just forgetting purely in the ideal realm of speech and narrative acts. Just forgetting only happens with justice in all arenas—in short, a revolution.


This question is mostly of genre. The Sympathizer has been widely categorized as a “Vietnam War Book.” But, it strikes me as particularly important that the events of the novel begin after the war’s end and take place largely in the United States. Of course, the war lives on in films, media, people, etc., but is this a Vietnam War Book? To what extent is challenging that genre-fication important or not important?


As with my answer about autobiography, here the situation is that I seek to exploit and subvert the label that is put on me and my work. “The Vietnam War” as a genre is what is applied to all Vietnamese American writers who touch on the history of that war. It’s easier to be recognized as a Vietnamese American author, and to get published, if one writes on that war. That’s obviously both an opportunity and enormously frustrating. One tendency might be to refuse to write about the war altogether. But that’s a reaction to an either/or option offered by dominant culture that traps the minority writer, in this case the Vietnamese American writer. The dilemma is universal for all minority writers: write about the history that defines you as a minority, or do not write about your history at all.

My response to that dilemma was not to deny myself and my history, but to write about that history on my own terms, not those of dominant culture. So I would write within “The Vietnam War” genre, which would allow me to sell my work to an audience that knows nothing about Vietnamese people but knows something about the Vietnam War. Once I have my hook in the reader, however, I will do what I want with that reader through a book that attacks, very vigorously, as many American assumptions, hypocrisies, and blind spots as I could imagine. That is one way to defeat the genre even as I write within the genre.

The novel also begins as the war technically ends. The point is that the war’s not over even when the ceasefire is signed. What I wanted to do here was to show that wars are hard to contain with dates. Trauma, malevolence, revenge, endgames continue. “The Vietnam War” looks quite different as seen through my novel versus how it appears in Hollywood or American journalism or political discourse. But it will really take the sequel to The Sympathizer to show that my real interest is not only with “The Vietnam War” but how that war fits into a longer history of French colonization and American imperialism. To reduce “The Vietnam War” to an episode of a centuries-long geopolitical game of western domination is the ultimate way of destroying the genre and revealing that the true war is perpetual war.


In past interviews, you have mentioned that the process of writing a book makes you more empathetic. The “empathy” argument is often deployed as a justification for the value of teaching literature. Do you expect your work to invoke or develop empathy in your readers? Is prompting or resisting empathy on your mind when writing and teaching fiction?


The readers who like or love the novel are reacting empathetically and aesthetically to what they read. The readers who dislike or hate the novel are not empathetic to the novel or its aesthetics. Given that, those who do respond empathetically are of course the audience that I hope to reach in my writing and my fiction. This readerly empathy can be useful in the classroom, in the privacy of one’s mind, in cultivating an appreciation for difference, the other, our own responsibility to the other, and so on. But is empathy political? In and of itself, empathy is politically limited. It has to be connected to action to be meaningful. This is where deliberately resisting empathy in the writing of literature may be useful. By refusing to make us comfortable, an anti-empathetic literature is asking us why we want to be comfortable, why we want cathartic identification.

The Sympathizer both seeks to cultivate empathy and also is moderately not interested in an empathetic reaction from readers. When I wrote the book, I enjoyed writing it very much and identified deeply with my protagonist, and I wondered who wouldn’t agree with him? So I thought that there was a lot to be empathetic with. At the same time, I knew that some readers wouldn’t find him likable and hence might not empathize with him. That didn’t matter to me, as likability is overrated in life and literature. The politics and didacticism of the novel could also throw off readers who were not used to encountering such things, and the ending of the novel, with its deep inward turn as the protagonist is put under high duress, likewise could put some readers off. In others, however, it can inspire deep identification. The upshot is that The Sympathizer is not a radically anti-empathetic novel, but it is willing to be anti-empathetic, to a degree, in order to force readers to confront their willingness to be comfortable with certain ideological and aesthetic assumptions.


What other literature, film, or music have you encountered that contributes to a more just collective remembering of the American War in Vietnam?


Emile de Antonio’s 1968 documentary In the Year of the Pig, which is just beautiful and which provides subjectivity for the Vietnamese, partly through showing their silence in the face of American ethnocentrism. Peter Davis’s 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds, which is intent on giving us Vietnamese voices and is very critical of American involvement, although it carries out its mission by being unsympathetic to southern Vietnamese (who are depicted only as collaborators or victims). Christian Appy’s oral history, Patriots, is a wonderfully readable collective history from all sides of the war. Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is also very readable and compelling, and tells a story from a Vietnamese peasant’s view. The war was being fought to save Vietnamese peasants, or so the story goes, and yet we never get their view directly from them. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, about a northern Vietnamese soldier’s experience, is one of the great war novels of the world, period. Duong Thu Huong’s Noel Without a Name is also an important novel of wartime and postwar disillusionment with Vietnamese communism. Finally, because the war in Vietnam also deeply affected Laos and Cambodia, we need to remember the experiences of Laotians and Cambodians as well. Two powerful films that have emerged from Laos and Cambodia are, respectively, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) by Thavisouk Phrasavath and Ellen Kuras and The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh.


I’m curious about the relationship between scholarship and literature. As a writer who publishes across realms, I wonder how you have experienced the effect that scholarship (and interviews like these) has on the life of the novel? Does the novel function differently as a result of surrounding criticism by other scholars and authors? What have you found is the relationship between the text itself and the writing it inspires?


I have conducted nearly a hundred interviews since the novel’s publication about twenty-one months ago, and there have been several dozen reviews. Inevitably these interviews and reviews have had an impact on the novel’s success and visibility, and have helped to shape the reception and interpretation of the novel. Some of that interpretation is out of my control. Interviewers tend to ask the same questions, for example. What is in my control is to try and (re)frame the novel and me through my answers, as well as through the writing of op-eds and magazine essays where I have said things like how I am not an immigrant but a refugee, and how The Sympathizer is not an immigrant story but a war story.

There have been some academic conference papers on the novel, but nothing published so far as I know, and I avoid listening to the papers if I can. I wouldn’t want to make the presenters uncomfortable. But interpretation can usually only be good for the life of the novel, even if the interpretation is critical. Even Chinua Achebe couldn’t kill Heart of Darkness with his critical assessment of what he saw as its colonial racism. While I don’t know what the scholarly assessment of the novel is yet, of course the novel must function differently once it has an apparatus built on it, versus when it didn’t. The novel is deemed worthy of discussion and critique, which elevates it in critical eyes as well as in the commercial marketplace, so that it stands visibly above the many hundreds of other novels of 2015 that came and disappeared, even if they were worthy of memory.


The Sympathizer in many ways tells the story of a man belonging to many and also belonging to no nation. The national status of the refugee is also ambiguous — something you have discussed in previous interviews. I wonder to what extent you think the political nation is necessary for personal identity?


To the extent that nations are still important for determining rights and privileges, they matter for personal identity. Which is to say that for most of us, they remain very important. Life without a national identity, or where it is of minimal importance, is only possible for the very wealthy. The spiritual cosmopolitans who are not wealthy but who see themselves as citizens of the world may have left the nation behind in spirit, but probably not in fact. They still have passports.


As a teacher and professor, have you thought about how students might encounter and interact with your novel? Your own critical work of course illuminates much of the theoretical work that the novel explores, but what other texts do you imagine The Sympathizer in discourse with? Do you see it as part of any type of canon, either established or newly invented?


It’s been strange and gratifying to see the novel being taught in graduate seminars, college courses, and even high schools. Recently I spoke at a high school where the entire tenth grade had read the novel. I never imagined that people that young would read the book, although I was the type who would have read a book like it at that age. I’m thrilled they’re reading my book, but I wonder if some of them resent having to read it, or how the book will age with newer generations of students.

I did imagine and hope that the book would be taught in college courses. When I was initially doing scholarship on the Vietnam War as an undergraduate, I came across articles by Americans that said, basically, we know very little of what the Vietnamese think and if we don’t know that, we’ll never understand the war. Today, there are probably still many courses and discussions on the war that cite not a single Vietnamese point of view because the people involved are ignorant. Well, now, they can’t plead ignorance without truly showing their ignorance—that’s what the Pulitzer grants the novel, an automatic legitimacy.

So The Sympathizer will, I hope, at the minimum be placed in conversation with the Vietnam War canon of writers like Tim O’Brien and Michael Herr, and films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. I’ve seen the novel compared to Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, so I hope it will be in conversation with larger bodies of war literature and satire, especially as I drew from those works. Outside of war, I think of the novel as a European version of an American novel, so I hope it can be seen as engaging with writers that I was influenced by: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Günther Grass, W.G. Sebald, António Lobo Antunes, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Junot Díaz. Through that intersection of the European and the American, not to mention the Asian content, I see the novel as being both an example of national literature and international literature. Lastly, it’s also an ethnic novel, an Asian American novel. It’s an angry novel, and I hope its anger is productive in pushing so-called ethnic literature to be angrier, more political, more critical, more confrontational.


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