Spies Like Us: A Professor Undercover in the Literary Marketplace

Timothy K. August discusses The Sympathizer and other novels by Viet Thanh Nguyen in this review for Literature Interpretation Theory

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize win has fundamentally changed the way Vietnamese American writing is read. Or at least Nguyen is actively trying to change the way that Vietnamese American writing is read. Leveraging the access that his Pulitzer Prize win has garnered, over the past two years he has toured the book tirelessly to educate readers, reviewers, editors, and interviewers about the literary and ethical choices available to Vietnamese American artists. Nguyen’s unique position as a visible Vietnamese American author and academic provides him with the cultural capital necessary to speak brazenly and effectively about the ongoing legacy of the American interventionist war in Vietnam during his promotional tours. Through his consistent foregrounding of the refugee position, Nguyen has argued that Vietnamese American literature is particularly important during the present moment, as the experiences of refugees and their descendants can provide necessary and trenchant critiques of empire, neoliberal governance, and militarism.

Nguyen’s critical perspective has been developed through a sustained academic engagement with Asian American and postcolonial studies, and this academic approach informs both his fiction writing and literary persona. Previous to his Pulitzer Prize win, Nguyen was best known for his position as an Associate Professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, where he has served as a leading figure in Southeast Asian American, and more broadly, Asian American studies.11. Nguyen has recently been promoted to “Full Professor” status at USC.View all notes Intimately concerned throughout his scholarly oeuvrewith the ways that Asian American writers are represented and represent themselves, Nguyen is well aware of the pitfalls that an Asian American work can encounter when it is delivered to the literary marketplace. For him, the stakes of creating this body of work are high, as, in his own words, “Asian American literature literarily embodies the contradictions, conflicts, and potential future options of Asian American culture” (R&R 3). Yet as he argues most persuasively in his first academic book Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (2002), once an Asian American literary work is put into circulation the political significance of the book is shaped as much from the “biases and priorities” of critics as from the text itself (vi).

With this holistic view of Asian American literature in mind, I propose that Nguyen’s professorial record, his public persona, and his unique celebrity must be analyzed in concert with his literary creation when assessing the impact that The Sympathizer has made, as both a text and object. Or to phrase it slightly differently, in this article I consider The Sympathizer, its massive publicity tour, and the ways Nguyen frames the book to be a unitary performative piece. Approaching this entire enterprise as the object of study spotlights many of the contradictions that Asian American authors face, and the tactics they deploy, when crafting their texts for consumption in the literary marketplace. For instance, in Nguyen’s fiction, he steadfastly refuses to pander to his non-Vietnamese readers by “translat[ing]” cultural elements of the text, and he is not willing to tailor his work towards a niche audience, writing instead as “if [he] had all the privilege a majority writer” (Guardian). Yet in the selling and promoting of the book he is frequently presented as a “Vietnamese” author who can present a unique take on, or “the other side” of the war. In these moments he is tasked with presenting this “take” while also appealing to and selling the book to a predominantly white American audience who already has a deeply entrenched impression of what the “Vietnam war” was about and means. Faced with this challenge, instead of assuming the role of the cultural translator, Nguyen takes on the authority of a professor, and when discussing the novel he expertly steers the discussions toward the relational ethics behind war, the enduring qualities of the refugee condition, and the process of writing as a Vietnamese American. This professorial ease in guiding these debates provides him with the dexterity to firmly set the parameters for these dialogues, taking these opportunities to present nuanced, and at times contrary, versions of events that have become central to the American consciousness. Selling the book, then, gives Nguyen the educator an opportunity to assume the role of a public intellectual, in the sense proposed by Edward Said, whereby Nguyen uses his platform to actively advance broad humanitarian concerns of freedom and knowledge, while, at times, upsetting the status quo (Said 36–39).

Considering the breadth, richness, and scope of Vietnamese American writing in the present moment it is worth contemplating why and how Nguyen’s debut novel has resonated so profoundly to a broad audience while other Vietnamese American literary work remains read primarily within Asian American literary circles. For his entry into the literary marketplace has occurred during a particularly fertile and active period for Vietnamese American literature, where new writers like Ocean Vuong, GB Tran, and Thi Bui are using a wide array of literary forms to build upon the ground established by authors like Aimee Phan, Bao Phi, Bich Minh Nguyen, Linh Dinh, and Lan Cao. Before the rise of The Sympathizer, Monique Truong’s 2003 The Book of Salt—an inventive, worldly, and profoundly literary work about a queer colonial Vietnamese chef living in Paris—was the most well received Vietnamese American text amongst critics and in college curricula. While it won a handful of awards, including the PEN literary prize, it certainly did not acquire the crossover appeal of Nguyen’s novel. Conversely, Le Ly Hayslip’s 1989 memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace, gained widespread notoriety when Oliver Stone adapted it for his 1993 film, Heaven and Earth; however, the book has not endured as a literary text and is all but unread in university classrooms. Perhaps this is because Hayslip’s book was read by the mainstream press simply as a “lesson” for the United States about the perils of war, told by a woman who had produced a “searing and human account” (Shipler), instead of something with a uniquely Vietnamese voice. Indeed, the Washington Post’s proclamation that “No one who reads [When Heaven and Earth Changed Places] will ever be able to think about the Vietnam War in quite the same way again,” demonstrates how Vietnamese voices can become obscured in the rush to read the book as a “lesson” about the Vietnam War, which oftentimes involves reading a Vietnamese story a general “human” one. On the one hand, then, Truong’s work may have been too literary and esoteric to garner a poignant response from the broader American reading public, but as Hayslip’s book was marketed as “universal” in scope the specificity of her voice did not endure long past the historical moment that it was written in.

In this article I argue that Nguyen’s take on spy novel produces a marketable war and refugee story with the right auratic mix of “universality” and “specificity” to engage both critical and popular audiences. Creating a spy novel that offers Asian American critique challenges, or perhaps even aspires to reinvent, the boundaries of a genre with a long history of producing and reinforcing pernicious racist and sexist stereotypes (Huang 1). Nguyen’s multi-ethnic and transnational narrator, in particular, upsets the orderly racial and national structures that the spy novel’s stereotypes typically rely on. Yet as an alcohol-fueled womanizing bachelor with the flashy and suave demeanor of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the narrator provides comfort to the regular reader of spy fiction by fulfilling characteristics common to this genre’s male protagonists. As Kathryn Cope suggests underneath this veneer is a character that also has much in common with the spies found in the novels of Graham Greene and John le Carré: “world-weary agents who have become morally exhausted by the corruption they have witnessed on both sides” (45). Instead of resting on the frustrations of living in an overly bureaucratized world, however, Nguyen’s book reminds the reader that navigating social and political relations in a global network of competing interests requires more than good intentions, and instead requires an active intelligence—which indeed, is the fundamental moral lesson offered by The Sympathizer’s ghostly influence, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. This brand of active intelligence is driven by self-reflexivity and rigorous introspection about the position(s) that one holds in the world, which not coincidentally are the attributes that educators in the humanistic disciplines seek to develop in readers and students in order to produce social change. As Asian American studies scholar Daniel Kim has suggested, the book is in many ways Asian American studies 101, yet to those unaware of the debates central to this ethnic studies field, the spy novel allows Nguyen to present the narrator as working through seemingly “universal” quandaries.

Studying the Literary Marketplace

Along with the meteoric rise of The Sympathizer, an unprecedented level of celebrity has been afforded to Nguyen himself. And indeed, Nguyen’s status as a highly visible Asian American author presents him with a unique opportunity to play a large role in in positioning how his book is read. His literary and intellectual approach cuts against the grain of conventional and iconic immigrant narratives, and among many other honors, this approach has provided him with the opportunity to write for The New York Times, serve as a keynote speaker at the national convention for the Modern Language Association, and be interviewed by Travis Smiley, Charlie Rose, Seth Meyers, and Terry Gross. Yet in many ways this brush with celebrity is not his alone, as the unprecedented visibility he has garnered influences the reception of Asian and Asian American literature writ large. Read by interviewers as a Vietnamese American, and oftentimes the live correspondent for the “missing Vietnamese voice” from the Vietnam War, how he addresses these assumptions certainly frames potential readings of The Sympathizer, but also impacts the marketability and aesthetic position of other Vietnamese American’s literary products. In this light, his paratextual performances can be read as interpretations of, and interventions in, the marketing and reading practices that determine the place of Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, and Asian American entries in the literary marketplace—particularly when these works are assumed to bring the voice of “the other.”

Anticipating these types of pressures—or, perhaps, opportunities—the act of consuming and framing images of your “own” ethnic group is a key storyline in The Sympathizer. At one point the narrator is tasked with reviewing a script for an Apocalypse Now-type Hollywood film about the Vietnam War called The Hamlet. The narrator’s primary critique is that there are no speaking parts for Vietnamese characters, and, even once they are (reluctantly) added to the script, the narrator travels to the set to discover that Vietnamese roles are not being played by Vietnamese actors. The animosity that develops between the narrator and the director over the representation of Vietnamese people in this somewhat farcical section reaches a boiling point when the narrator is severely injured on set by a “misfiring” special effect that later is implied to have been an “accident” coordinated by the director in order to rid himself of the narrator’s meddling presence. Even though this episode is presented in a darkly humorous manner—where a White American director filming a movie about U.S. heroism and benevolence during the Vietnam War stoops to nearly killing a Vietnamese person in the process—the grave consequences involved in the interlocking of representation and war are no joke.Identifying these reflexive moments as central components of Nguyen’s narrative performance, Karl Ashoka Britto insists that, “at its core, The Sympathizer is about power and representation, about stories that function to justify torture and murder, and about words that make abstract the bodies of people whose lives have been shattered by colonialism and war” (Public Books). I would add that when taking into account Nguyen’s academic interest in the ways that popular stories shape national memories and wartime projects, one can see how The Sympathizer is positioned as a postmodern performance piece that lays out the stakes of its own existence. Directly engaging the conversation regarding literary representation, Nguyen uses a critical psychosocial reflexivity to both document and counter stories that “make[s] abstract the bodies of people whose lives have been shattered by colonialism and war.”

Nguyen’s Race and Resistance contends that the conventional criticism of Asian American literature revolves around a fundamental misreading, as this body of work is usually assessed along the axis of accommodation or resistance. Arguing that this approach reflects more the desires and politics of the critics themselves rather than the actual contents of literary works, he calls for readings that consider the “ideological heterogeneity” of the Asian American body politic (7). This concern over ideological heterogeneity is driven by the recognition that whoever frames a binary choice (“for or against,” “accommodation or resistance,” etc.) holds great power in defining the terms and, indeed, the very subject that is to be interpreted. Retrospectively, we can see this argument as the beginning of his ongoing critique of the U.S.-centric master narratives that surround the Vietnam War, as denying the Asian American community’s ideological heterogeneity is analogous to the carelessness and danger involved in broadly grouping together all elements of “the Vietnamese side” in order to form a rhetorically cohesive oppositional other.

The task of writing stories that counter these U.S.-centric narratives is addressed in a 2006 piece “Speak of the Dead, Speak of Viet Nam: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Minority Discourse,” where he argues that the act of speaking of the dead is an ethical obligation of the refugee writer, even if this ends up “perpetuat[ing] the haunting, rather than quell[ing] it” (9). This act of speaking of the dead, which is potentially disturbing, turns attention to the speaker/storyteller themselves, and to Nguyen, this requires the speaker/storyteller to claim responsibility for their work rather than hiding behind esoteric ideas about aesthetic play or poetic license (10). In his own work, this responsibility is evident in his dedication to acknowledging, while not altogether embodying, the plurality of voices that underwrite both his literary and academic endeavors. Perhaps one could read this 2006 article as a challenge to himself to write in a way that rectifies, or at least acknowledges, the conventional rhetorical limits that both academic and creative genres face; and while a comprehensive perspective may be impossible, a comprehensive performance is at least glimpsed through his impressive achievement of publishing three works, in three different genres, in three consecutive years. This combination of academic and literary success provides Nguyen with the generic flexibility and public profile to consistently reinterpret images of himself and his work, an introspective and strategic process described by Sarah Brouillette, where, “literary production is influenced by the development of authorship as a profession and by the process through which writers consume images of themselves and reinterpret those images in order to negotiate and circulate different ones” (2). The need for this reflexive interpretational act is acknowledged in his second academic monograph, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), where he suggests that the minority writer, while often speaking on behalf of the victim, must also have a sophisticated sense of their own position—specifically their ability to both heal and harm. Underwriting his admonition that one should not claim the simplistic position of victimhood, then, is a recognition that writing from a minoritarian perspective requires representing a plurality of voices that often contradict each other in their goals, desires, and methods.

In his academic criticism Nguyen examines the historical interplay of aesthetics and politics, focusing on how literary tastes, exotic representational histories, and the battle over wartime memory shape the representations and representational power of Vietnamese people across the globe. This scholarly perspective allows Nguyen, in interviews, to draw a straight line between what it was like to live as a Vietnamese person in the US during the refugee era and the material and representational challenges that Vietnamese Americans face today. When addressing readers, editors, and interviewers he takes on the dual role of pedagogue and artiste by providing an expansive cultural history lesson that focuses attention on the decisions that he makes as an author, while surreptitiously moving the discussion around like a scholar. While he could rest on alerting readers to pernicious, stereotypical representations of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American experience, his choice to guide interviews towards his own creative choices illustrates the parallels that exist between both himself and The Sympathizer’s protagonist, showing how they are equally thoughtful, minoritarian, and dangerous. Blurring the divide between his fictional account of a Vietnamese American spy and his own challenges writing as a Vietnamese American author, this continuity between the diegetic world and Nguyen’s life eschews the idea that they are both merely victims and instead presents two different men who are complicated, and indeed, unique. When Nguyen frequently turns interview time to his own struggles and failure to find his voice, in many ways he is drawing attention to the process of trying on different expressive forms that will persuade the reader to engage larger social issues. Speaking out about the representational choices and contextual struggles available to a person in his position, then, demonstrates how Vietnamese writers can transform the contradictions and violence embedded in their own performance of ethnicity into a political project of remembrance where they speak as, and for, a number of heterogeneous voices.

In a 2016 book chapter, “What is Vietnamese American Literature?” Nguyen identifies writing about “the war” and refugees as the central challenge that Vietnamese American authors face. However this challenge is not only a matter of representing what are undoubtedly traumatic events, but also developing a critical position that can call out and at the same time decenter the U.S.’s position in this international conflict. As Nguyen explains, there is an ontological riddle woven into Vietnamese American critique, for “On the one hand, this literature speaks of the war and the terrible things that happened to the Vietnamese and that the Americans did in the name of supposedly defending freedom. On the other hand, the existence of Vietnamese American literature proves that America, in the end, is a beneficent country that ultimately fulfilled its promise of freedom” (54). As there is a persistent belief that the American author is supposed to “speak up” and “speak out,” telling “their story” in real time, Nguyen argues that it is extremely difficult for the immigrant, refugee, exile, and stranger, who often come to the United States speaking a different language than what is primarily spoken in the country that they are entering, to tell “their” story with the requisite amount of urgency and force to immediately intervene in the common national discourse. Since the first wave of migrants are only “heard” in their own ethnic enclave communities, they must wait until the second generation can speak for the first generation if they are to be heard by the wider American public (50), which only comes at a time when there already exists a large body of non-Vietnamese American writing and cultural production about the war. This puts the second-generation author “behind” in regards to temporality and archival authority. Further, even when second-generation Vietnamese American authors may want to write about something else, they know that speaking to their elders’ history is expected from their community (and perhaps their own sense of justice), and they understand that writing about this history is also rewarded in the literary marketplace (53). Speaking for their community does accrue these authors some cultural and economic capital, but as Nguyen points out, “in an economy of narrative scarcity and inequality, the ones with the real power are the outsiders to the ethnic community who already have so many more stories and who are the real insiders: the readers, agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, and critics who demand that things be translated to them” (55). This economic and aesthetic structure mirrors the cultural myth of the perpetual foreigner, where in order to gain access to the literary marketplace the Vietnamese American author remain on the outside, positioned only to add details that endorse the American dream and the American way of life.

As Nguyen slyly suggests, “Vietnamese Americans have the war, or perhaps the war has them,” (53) as all Vietnamese American authors are expected to anchor their work around a potentially divisive topic; and if they do not, then their work is marked by the war’s absence. No matter how inventive Vietnamese American literature becomes aesthetically, the readerly demand for the war fashions Vietnamese American writing into a volatile cultural product. Yet this particular form of attention can also be productive, as the demand to produce war stories gives Vietnamese American authors a forum to take on the contradictions created by the legacies of war and the associated geopolitical subterfuge. For, if as Nguyen suggests: “The ghost that continues to tie Vietnam to America must be dealt with if Vietnamese American literature is to be more than ethnic literature that ultimately affirms America” (61), then Vietnamese American authors can speak about pernicious global logics of capital, race, governance to a ready-made audience who are eager to hear about “the war.” Instead of being read as just another entry in a run-on sentence of multicultural authors, Vietnamese American authors might use this interest in the war to direct readers to the complexity involved in the refugee experience, in particular.

Perhaps this is why Nguyen bristles when The Sympathizer is described simply as an “immigrant story,” rather than a refugee or war story. For Nguyen, the refugee story is an opportunity to tell “the war story” in a way that an American audience may neither want nor expect. As he succinctly expresses in a tweet from April 22, 2016, “To be an immigrant is to be part of the American dream. To be a refugee is to be part of the American nightmare.” When Vietnamese refugees are properly remembered as being part of the wartime experience, they can serve as a physical reminder of an embarrassing war that is continually recovered and papered over into victory through American-centric narratives. As Yen Lê Espiritu and Mimi Nguyen have argued, the United States has tried to turn this lost war into a “good war” through the recuperation of the refugee figure—where the receiving state is positioned as a benevolent agent. These narratives, of course, spectacularly fail to acknowledge the geopolitical role that the United States played in creating Southeast Asian refugees to begin with. On the other hand, if refugees are written about in a way that expresses their own heterogeneity within the frame of a war narrative, then the unruly refugee body can leverage the interest in the war to open up space for a variety of social justice topics.

Writing as a refugee can be an act of refusal, then, upsetting the way that the Vietnam War is conventionally represented, placed, and considered within the confines of U.S. concerns. And due to the overwhelming abundance of American-centric narratives that exist both domestically and abroad this “memory industry” can erase cultural and national histories that preceded U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia. In an interview with NPR Nguyen explains,

I’m a refugee and the story I’m telling is a war story because one of the ways that the United States tries to contain the meaning of these histories is to think that all of these Asians are here because they’re immigrants, and that their story begins once they get to the United States. But again, my understanding is that many of these Asians are here because of the consequences of wars. And many immigrant stories and refugee stories need to be understood as war stories. (Fresh Air)

In response, crafting and promoting a refugee story as a war story serves two purposes: first, it exposes the role that the United States has played in producing the conditions that create refugees; and secondly, it frames the movement and mobility of Vietnamese people in a way that re-presents the past in a manner that makes the Vietnamese American present particularly germane for other immigrant and refugee populations. Positioning The Sympathizer as a refugee story during interviews can be considered a pedagogical performance that provides context to the process of producing refugee subjects, in an attempt to persuade the audience that refugee stories are a necessary continuation of, and counterpoint to, conventional war stories. For Nguyen, this is a process of countering accepted reading practices where, while “the refugee who becomes a writer is given the license to tell a refugee story, he or she is not seen as writing an actual war story, at least not one that is given the same weight as a soldier’s” (Nothing 248).

In the interviews and promotional material that accompany The Sympathizer, there exists a rhetorical jostling between the attempts to locate and contextualize Nguyen, and Nguyen’s own positioning of himself. For instance both high-profile reviews of his book in The New York Timesmake the claim that he is giving “voice to the previously voiceless, Philip Caputo.” Yet there is a stark difference between the groups of people that the reviewers assume are “voiceless” and who Nguyen represents in his book. To whit, the narrator in the novel is a North Vietnamese spy embedded in the upper echelons of the South Vietnamese army—serving as a confidant of a South Vietnamese general that he follows to the United States following the fall of Saigon. Even through this narrator is a double agent who spends much of the book recording and recoding Vietnamese life of the North, South, and indeed, the Vietnamese American diaspora, Nguyen is presented in many reviews and interviews as providing a monolithic, previously voiceless “Vietnamese” side of the war. This ignores the many different “sides” of Vietnamese life that Nguyen offers up, and the polyphonic, divergent voices that are produced in such an arrangement. Nguyen notes that the very idea of “the other side” or “the voiceless” is an Orientalizing binary gesture, and that there is a fount of wartime writing by Vietnamese authors in Vietnam about the “second Indochina war” that comprise plenty of “voiced” Vietnamese accounts of the colonial war, if one takes the time to find them. The rhetorical imbalance, then, is not a matter of a need for a “Vietnamese account” but rather the effects of a powerful American memory industry that programmatically ignores the other accounts, or as Arundhati Roy’s frames the quandary, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (Sydney Lecture).

Having a Vietnamese American stand in for the Vietnamese experience of the war, with little regard to the differences and history of Vietnamese people and Vietnamese Americans, silences Vietnamese American voices as well. Even though Nguyen is very forthright that he is a Vietnamese American whose family left Vietnam when he was four years old, his Vietnamese American voice remains unacknowledged and unheard in this reading. Instead, in this position he functions only as a translator or archeologist that unearths the previously “lost” Vietnamese version of the war. Even Nguyen’s own publisher, Grove Press, could be considered as trafficking in an elision of the Vietnamese American experience by marketing Nguyen’s book as the “new,” “the fresh,” and the “unheard.” The press’s breathless exaltation of the book on its website sells the book as, “A startling debut novel from a powerful new voice featuring one of the most remarkable narrators of recent fiction: a conflicted subversive idealist working as a double agent in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.” Discerning whether or not The Sympathizeris one of the most remarkable narrators of recent fiction is a needless debate, and perhaps risks taking promotional language too seriously—as who could make a claim about the entirety of “recent fiction”? But more tellingly, I would ask why the reader should be “startled” by his book? By marketing the book as startling or surprising, Nguyen and his narrator are considered to bring something to the reader that is remarkably and perhaps radically different. Certainly, The Sympathizer is an innovative work written with a unique reflexive voice, but similar claims could be made about the books of other writers like Vu Tran, Truong Tran, Linh Dinh, and many more. In other words, to those of us paying attention to the rich dialogue among authors, critics, and community members that create and promote Vietnamese American literature another strong and accomplished Vietnamese American voice should not be much of a surprise. But in order to court a general reading public, these authors are perpetually delivered as “new,” “different,” and “other.” Economies of the “never before heard of” positions the Vietnamese American voice, once again, as foreign and outside the mainstream—even at a moment when, courtesy of the Pulitzer Prize, The Sympathizer has assumed center stage. Although, Nguyen’s genre choice could be considered as a gesture that “secretly” confirms and subverts the book’s own promotion. For while the spy novel usually has a comfortable conventional arc that resolves the various conflicts in the interests of the state and/or status quo, Nguyen’s refugee spy story elongates the temporality and geography of the war—weaving through various strata of social life to highlight the long-lasting affective and political consequences of wartime decisions.

Undercover in the Asian American Spy Novel

Nguyen is certainly not the first Asian American to write this brand of genre fiction, as authors like Ed Lin, Henry Chang, Don Lee, Naomi Hirahara, and most famously Chang Rae Lee all engage spy, detective, or crime stories with Asian American themes, characters, and/or settings. Susan Koshy identifies the 1980s and 1990s as a productive moment when the spy genre, in particular, developed into a playful device used by Asian American authors. The spy story provided a literary form that could be manipulated to frame the challenging paradox that Asian Americans faced as they were gaining a larger degree of mainstream recognition, “as the passage from invisibility to recognition is a treacherous one…because recognition may again endorse racial difference, however well intentioned.” During this period the spy genre became a way to creatively articulate the disconnect felt between racial expectations and subjective experience. More specifically, the tropes of spying, trespassing, and disguise could “reveal the gaps between the ideals of emancipation and equality that drove civil rights struggles and their outcome in the liberal pluralism of a multicultural polity where recognition of diversity reifies and congeals identities” (1059). Accounting for these gaps, Tina Chen has argued that “impersonation” is a distinctive technique that Asian Americans often employ in order to inhabit the multifarious category of “Asian American” itself. A textual and meta-textual technique, impersonation “foreground[s] the limits of subjectivity,” while at the same time acknowledging the need to inhabit a subject position. Chen contends, then, that in a spy story impersonation should be read as an expression of Asian Americans’ multiple allegiances, rather than a trope that simply implies deceit or an embrace of the impostor position (xviii). As the title of Chen’s book, Double Agency, suggests, her reading of impersonation recognizes these multiple allegiances, but also sees impersonation as a way that Asian Americans claim agency and write their own selves into different forms of subjecthood.

Choosing to write The Sympathizer as a spy novel provides Nguyen with the generic versatility necessary to craft a narrator unique to Vietnamese American fiction, while also presenting the reader with a dangerous figure that transgresses conventional representations of the refugee. A biracial loner who gains credibility throughout the book with his ability to see multiple sides of a situation, the narrator’s ethical and ethnic elusiveness troubles the impulses of an audience who may be eager to consume the Vietnamese and/or Vietnamese American experience as a stable entity. Adding to this tactical obfuscation is that the narrator’s hardened voice, stylistically, is “removed” enough to create a universalist allure, while, at the same time provides the reader with intimate, subjective details that would normally only be familiar to a cultural insider. Most “cultural insider texts” with commercial ambition encounter the problem of having to translate ethnicity for their audience or marketing their book towards a niche readership that has already decided the culture is worth consuming. The spy novel, on the other hand, is a popular genre that courts a broad swath of readers that likely fall outside the audience of those usually attracted to tales of the American immigrant experience. To this “new” group of readers, the book promises international intrigue and presents them with existential quandaries of right and wrong; loyalty and progress; and the attention to self and other. At first blush, these problematics seem like universal quandaries, yet in their contextual application Nguyen can rewrite history to demonstrate that the refugee experience profoundly shapes both state and ethical borders.

The spy novel as refugee story troubles the easy nod to sympathy that usually accompanies tales of downtrodden refugee life and redemption. As Nguyen himself contends, “The idea that refugees are victims simply becomes a way of not sympathizing with them. We continue to treat them as less than humans. If you see people only as victims and therefore as less than human, they’re still not the same as you are” (USC Dornsife). Indeed, essential to Nguyen’s scholarly criticism is the idea that one must see the inhuman, or potential for inhumanity, in “the Other” before they can be fully appreciated as an active human agent (Nothing). Narratively in The Sympathizer, this inhumanity is found in characters that gain power through nefarious means, speak out of turn, and behave in ways that run counter to liberal notions of gender and racial equality. Nearly everyone in the story is flawed and willing to shift alliances at a moment’s notice, and the narrator himself is involved in the killing of many, including one who is “as innocent as one can be.” While the figure of an anti-hero is not new to American accounts of the Vietnam War, the anti-hero familiar to American readers is a white American soldier or veteran disillusioned with the ethical and moral quagmires that develop during wartime. This presents the white American as a complex and divided figure that stands, allegorically, for the U.S. nation, while Vietnamese people and interests remain singular and muted. As the war is fought abroad—over there—the return of the veteran back “home” allows for a clean separation between “here and there” and provides a convenient end-point to the war’s conclusion. However, by presenting an untrustworthy transnational spy as the protagonist, Nguyen’s biracial Vietnamese antihero troubles the clear divide between Vietnamese and American interests, and having him involved in the Vietnamese American refugee community extends the timeframe of the war’s afterlife. The narrator’s multiple allegiances suggest that he cannot easily be read as an allegory for any particular nation, and presenting numerous Vietnamese American figures that have rational yet fluid moral sensibilities runs counter to the usual presentations of refugees as powerless masses.

The narrator, while subject to many political and personal agendas, remains composed throughout the book, cutting a suave, cunning, and, at times, swaggering figure. He is not a powerless refugee, but rather an agent who reveals that everyone—North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, refugees, the United States—is culpable and part of this global drama. Nguyen’s attraction to the spy novel, in part, was because they,

typically operate as first-person narratives for formal reasons—you’re embedded in this person’s point of view, creating an unreliable narration. But that also allows a great degree of intimacy with this person’s voice…I wanted the narration to be extremely intimate, and that you would be carried along with his emotions and his ideas…I liked the fact that I’d be forcing the reader to empathize with this person. Someone who’s probably quite alien to most people and does things that most would consider to be objectionable or reprehensible. (Los Angeles Review of Books)

This swaggering “bad refugee” upsets many of the pernicious model-minority stereotypes often attributed to Asian Americans, and in its place provides a complex, and ambiguous vision of Vietnameseness written on Nguyen’s own terms. The intimacy of the spy’s first-person narration forces the reader to not only observe but also empathize with an unusual character, and in this account the readers are presented with waves of “emotions” and “ideas” rather than something akin to a stable psychological portrait. Nguyen’s spy protagonist, then, serves as a central node that provides Nguyen with the versatility to travel through various social types, class positions, and notions that were circulating around the refugee community during this time period. Again, his scholarly research is evident in this move, as Nguyen is forthright that he modeled many of the characters and moments in the book after actual people and events, using extensive archival material to mold this fictional, yet plausible, world.

David Seed offers that the spy novel differs from the detective story insofar as there is no discreet crime involved, but rather a “covert action that…transgresses conventional, moral, or legal boundaries” (115). Further the agent is involved in the world of deception themselves, implicating them in the very action that they are investigating (ibid). The figure of the insider/outsider spy gives Nguyen the flexibility to create a deceptive “ethnic” character that does not belong to any social group—a literal “bastard” outside of familial lineage and communal alliance. Throughout the book the narrator takes great pride in being set apart from the masses, and when he does seemingly take a side, the group serves as a cover for his eventual subterfuge. The narrator meets his communist co-conspirator, Man, in Catholic churches, reveling to the pleasures of hiding amongst the believers in plain view—disguising himself as devout while, in fact, reveling in the blasphemy and the transgressions. In contrast to spy novelist John Le Carré’s characters who strike out against soulless bureaucracy, Nguyen’s narrator is most critical of those who too easily or stably identify with their station in life, whether this encompasses their military affiliation, ethnic position, or national allegiance. In this context Nguyen’s narrator’s “individualism” is determined by the contexts surrounding his birth, and while the narrator is sympathetic, he is equally unrelenting in his assessment of others around him. Nguyen’s world is one where firm alliances are few, self-interest is rampant, and just actions go unrewarded. Yet even though it is gritty and cynical, this world is not altogether bleak. For the narrator’s ability to see both sides of a scenario allows him to carefully navigate the wide variety of scenes and social settings that he finds himself in. Weaving through these different social groups provides a bountiful source of readerly pleasure, and the narrator’s wry remarks about the people he meets builds a conspiratorial intimacy—that indeed foists culpability on to the reader who chuckles along. While the majority of the book is written as a confession to his captor, the intimate address the narrator uses gradually pulls the audience into the position of a trusted friend, or at times an accomplice. For the narrator shares with readers the details that, as a double agent, he cannot say aloud, assuring the reader that despite his dashing exterior he really is, in many ways, like “us.” Through this act of confidence the narrator slowly unfolds to the reader a set of practical ethics that are as applicable to the nameless reader as they are to the nameless narrator.

Yet this complicit comradeship ultimately exposes the ethically dubious proposition that either the narrator or the reader can think of themselves as sympathizers who unproblematically “see the other side.” As David Palumbo-Liu argues in his The Deliverance of Others: Reading in a Global Age, contemporary “global” novels are valued in the literary marketplace by how much otherness they can deliver to the consuming public. Of course, in this exercise, the reader regulates and chooses the amount of otherness that they want to take in, and therefore, at the level of the literary marketplace there is a constant calibration and recalibration of what kinds of otherness is acceptable. Nguyen’s decision to write in the spy novel genre was, in part, a way to highlight this act of discerning and placing otherness. Central to this enterprise is the malleable moral compass of his protagonist, and the seemingly measured way that he accesses the world around him. Nguyen speaks at length about not knowing what this fictional work was going to be about until he found the voice of the narrator, and in interviews he repeatedly identifies the opening lines of the book as defining the tone and themes that would unfold throughout the rest of the book. These lines begin, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides” (1). In this opening, explicitly crafted to be memorable, the narrator describes this ability to see both sides as a “talent,” which suggests that he has an extraordinary ability to process multiple points of view, as well as an expertise in mediating the flow of otherness. Having this “guide” that can access Vietnamese, American, and Vietnamese American communities lures the reader into thinking that they will receive the “balanced” account of the war missing from previous iterations of the Vietnam War story. However, Nguyen slowly subverts this reading through his unreliable narrator, and when Nguyen’s narrator finds himself being tortured close to the conclusion of the book it becomes clear that there are certain events that he has left out of his previous account to the commandant and reader. What is revealed in this moment is that his ability to “see” any issue from both sides falls short—as he has not been able, or willing, to live each issue from all sides at once—and cannot trust himself to remember and represent others in a manner that gives voice to the plurality of actors that he encounters. This revelation fundamentally brings into question the very means of knowledge production that the reader is participating in, and exposes the narrator’s and the reader’s desire to think of themselves as unproblematically seeing the other side.

Exploring the ability, and limits, of seeing multiple sides was a central theme in the first Asian American spy novel with grand literary ambition, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. Mixing the genre’s fascination with clandestine operations with an extensive commentary on American race relations, in Lee’s book, “the spy’s ‘multiple roles,’ are a logical extension of his personal history as a Korean American struggling to negotiate the divide that separates how others perceive him and how he sees himself” (Chen 638). As opposed to a detective novel where the reader follows along with the protagonist (and their perspective) to solve a central crime, both Nguyen and Lee’s novels play with what Tina Chen calls “the trope of undetectibility”—when protagonists are dropped into a multiplicity of spaces where they are able to pass as a native (640). Indeed, both Asian American protagonists find the ability to move fluidly through spaces thrilling, as conventionally they are told to stay “in their place.” That is not to suggest that either protagonist is beyond race, but on the contrary, their racial features and ethnic knowledge provide them with distinct tools that separate them from other investigators. In both cases the protagonists are not trying to be James Bond, the ultimate cosmopolitan, but rather, their profoundly local racialized performances mark them as unique, valued, and seemingly irreplaceable agents, for both the organizations that they serve and the reader.

Of course, framing The Sympathizer as a refugee spy novel distinguishes Nguyen’s work from Lee’s. Chen suggests that Lee’s work does not attempt to speak for social and political programs, and instead deconstructs the genre itself in order to upset conventional forms of reading and stereotyping. Nguyen’s work, on the other hand, wears its political and literary ambitions more openly and directly. In the book and in his promotion of The Sympathizer, Nguyen seeks no less than to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath in America. Reluctant to have readers approach The Sympathizer as a character study, Nguyen openly calls out American ignorance regarding the Vietnam War and in an interview with Travis Smiley on national television, states, “that most Americans knew nothing of what had happened to the Vietnamese people. They understood what happened to Americans, but for the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, a complete blank” (The Travis Smiley Show). Again, instead of being satisfied with generic literary play, he doubles down on his professorial credentials to do this work of filling in the blanks by redirecting conversation.

Specifically, he steers conversation towards his own place within the scholarship and activism that define the history and present of Asian American studies. Nowhere was this more evident than in his public Facebook post following his Pulitzer Prize win, where he offers:

We all owe so much to the collective struggles and activists that preceded us, that laid the foundations for our individual achievement, to everyone lucky enough to be remembered and so many who have been forgotten. Great love to Asian American Studies, to Ethnic Studies, to UC Berkeley, my alma mater that made me into the person that I am, to all who fight the good fight and who will never, ever believe that they are only individuals.

So while Nguyen’s struggle with the book was, in his own words, “learning not to write like an academic,” we should not be blind to the notion that this refugee novel overflows with academic concerns, in its genesis, marketing, and literary execution. Indeed, the final sixth of the novel, where the narrator undergoes excruciating torture at the hands of the commandant, is deliberately written in a difficult and disorienting manner—undoing the intimacy, comfort, and trust built throughout the previous 300 pages, while deviating from the genre’s conventions of leaving the reader with a comfortable orderly world. Even though The Sympathizer presents many of the broad themes, settings, and characters common to the spy genre this is not a novel written for mass consumption. While he has certainly reached audiences larger than most other Asian American literary writers, he was not writing by the word, and the book does not have the action, dialogue, and narrative pacing common to dime-store spy novels. Rather, it is filled with literary allusions; it is thoroughly researched; and attempts to tell the story in a way that can be interpreted on multiple levels at once. Nguyen’s incursion into the genre anticipates the desire to reify and congeal “different” identities, and in response he presents readers with an elusive protagonist that is difficult to place, a narrator who embraces a multiplicity of roles and positions that trouble recognizable identity categories. While these uncertainties may discomfort the conventional reader of the spy novel, I would argue that through his promotional enterprises Nguyen offers himself—the author—as a trustworthy remedy to these interpretive quandaries, framing himself as a palatable (yet secretly calculating) guide.

Conclusion: Clandestinity and the Refugee

Immigrants are used to being invisible in everyday life, only to be put under intense scrutiny during times of crisis (MPR News). Which is why it is no coincidence that the opening paragraph of The Sympathizer is inspired by, and echoes, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man—a book where racialized minorities remain invisible until they are acknowledged as threatening. While speaking about this lineage in an interview with Kerri Miller, Nguyen suggests that, “Vietnamese people were [also] invisible until they became a threat…during the Vietnam War…so [the challenge became] how could I write a novel that responded to that crisis from the perspective of the invisible person?” (MPR News). Positioning his book next to Ellison’s classic places The Sympathizer within a literary tradition of ethnic American fiction that identifies and critiques the sociopolitical contexts, aesthetics, and institutions that determine how racial others are seen, or oftentimes not seen. And indeed, in response, both books are alike insofar as they embrace the “threat” that these invisible actors can pose to others, and to themselves.

As a clandestine spy, the narrator embodies this invisible ethnic threat, with danger lurking behind his placid surface. And similarly, I have been demonstrating that Nguyen hides the countercultural qualities of his own position as an ethnic studies professor under the coifed and charming persona of the literary celebrity. As The Sympathizer was strategically released on April 30, 2015, exactly 40 years after the Fall of Saigon, every aspect of how the book was promoted wears the war’s history on its sleeve. But in calling attention to the linkages between the war and its aftermath, Nguyen writes a work of refugee literature, that, in the words of Marguerite Nguyen and Catherine Fung, combines “refugee ethics that elicit the care of the international community…with…refugee aesthetics, which reveal how the complex histories, geopolitics, and memories of refugee migrations are…brought into view in ways that might not be apparent in what is explicitly said” (2). Best expressing this covert and coded aesthetic style through his narrator “of two minds,” throughout the book Nguyen subtly urges his audience to think comparatively across refugee stories, war, and memory making (3). On a performative and aesthetic level, then, Nguyen demonstrates that refugees, while seemingly a temporary bureaucratic identity, still exist and shape the fabric of the United States—even as they are aggressively forgotten.

The ethics involved in “eliciting care” for the refugee is different from eliciting pity, and for Nguyen embracing the full political potential of the refugee position requires speaking up and speaking out about sensitive topics that can upset both the readership and the represented community. As he relates, “Many Vietnamese refugees feel the Americans betrayed by [the US] pulling out, but they would never say it publicly in English…because the Vietnamese people are grateful to America for rescuing them, and they don’t want to contaminate that narrative. But I’m willing to because it’s what is said in private, and Americans need to hear this complexity” (LA Times). While “contaminating” common narratives could be considered a risky move, after the release of The Sympathizer readers inundated Nguyen with letters, eagerly confessing that they never knew that the events described in the novel had happened to Vietnamese people—even when these letter writers lived in places like Westminster, California, a city that has thousands of Vietnamese refugees living in the community (ibid). Reading this spy novel, these “new” readers were drawn into an intimate relationship with the protagonist, intrigued by his emotions, ideas, and points-of-view, rather than being consumed with the search for a “ethnic” social type. Yet the publishing industry often inhibits ethnic American authors’ ability to reach out to broader audiences—for despite its genre-bending premise, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker was marketed by its own publisher only as an “immigrant novel” rather than a spy thriller (Huang 1). This practice suggests that leaving the reception of his book to the whims of the market is too risky for an Asian American author with literary ambitions, which explains why Nguyen aggressively educates and speaks out to readers when marketing his own book.

The ability to ethically negotiate between individual acts and collective action is a common talent of both the spy and the public intellectual, and Nguyen sees himself, “as a writer who’s writing his books alone in his room, but who also imagines himself, in collaboration, in solidarity, with many other political and social movements outside of literature” (MPR). One could say, then, that as an author Nguyen serves as a backroom agent for these political and social movements, while leveraging his literary celebrity and pedagogical talent to manoeuver his book into the American literary canon. If he succeeds in garnering market and literary success his work will become a vehicle to circulate ideas generated by ethnic American social and political movements amongst multiple generations and audiences. Traversing the gaps that exist between academia, publishers, and the greater reading public, Nguyen has successfully created a book peppered with the generic pleasures of a spy novel, while also feeding the American reader’s desire for war stories. Instead of being satisfied with momentary market success, however, he has also “spoken out” through a refugee story about race, power, and representation, producing a story that, he hopes, will have lasting literary impact.

Timothy K. August (2018) Spies Like Us: A Professor Undercover
in the Literary Marketplace, Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 29:1, 60-79, DOI:

Category: Reviews


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