“Nguyen is an intriguing, inventive, and perceptive writer and his mesmerizing memoir takes hold of us . . .”
How does one begin to make peace with an impossible past? Is it possible to navigate the minefields left over from a painful childhood without exploding into pieces of irreparable hurt? Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen attempts to come to terms with his family’s beginnings in his shattering memoir, A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial. This is new territory for Nguyen who resisted writing about himself until he was persuaded by his publicist to do so.
Nguyen struggles to recreate for us his growing up years in San Jose, California, where his parents worked long hours running their Vietnamese grocery store. He came to America when he was only four. After the family spent time in a refugee camp, he was placed with foster parents for almost a year as his parents struggled to find a way to make a living. His brother was placed with another family. Nguyen has difficulty finding the right words to explain the intense suffering he endured not understanding where his parents had gone and when or if they would come to fetch him. It is a mark that remains with him always. The family eventually reunited, and their life in America began.
Nguyen’s childhood memories are fractured and filled with holes. He is unaccustomed to speaking in a personal voice about matters of the heart. The narrative voice he settles upon seems shaky at times, sort of a lopsided first-person voice that tends to begin his sentences with “You” instead of “I.” When things get too dark, Nguyen segues to short meditations of cultural criticism almost as if he is trying to catch his breath before returning to his story.
He presents his opinions about current events separated from the rest of his prose by adding additional lines of white space both before and after his commentary. These contemplations look like miniature billboards on the page. He also surprises us in an almost Sebaldian fashion by plopping pictures of his family on random pages that take us by surprise. We see his handsome father who has the same serious sad eyes that he does. We see his mother whose beauty we notice even though it is covered by exhaustion.
Nguyen thinks of his parents as eternal refugees, just as he sees himself and his brother despite the success both brothers have had. His brother is a doctor. His parents were less enthused about Nguyen’s choice to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature. Only when he won the Pulitzer did his father call him with congratulations. Neither of his parents read his books, and Nguyen always understood that the act of writing itself is foreign to them, almost dangerous. Ironically, the book that won him the Pulitzer was about a communist spy who had embedded himself with the ex-military Vietnamese sheltered in California, only to report back to his communist superiors in Vietnam about their activities. Nguyen claimed finding the voice of the spy came naturally to him. One senses it was easier for him to write about someone who hid his essence rather than what memoir requires him to do, which is to reveal it.
Nguyen explains how he has been taught since childhood to be courteous. He writes about his indoctrination, and we sense his lingering resentment:
Speak only when spoken to.
You learn this as a Vietnamese child and as a refugee.
But you have a character flaw.
You are an ingrate.”
Nguyen endured his pain privately growing up and never believed he could find emotional sustenance from either his parents who seemed lost in their own unspoken traumas. It always upset him that there was no hugging and kissing between anyone and no expressions of love. Yet he knew they loved him.
Nguyen describes their family as serious and solemn and can’t remember music ever being played. Nor was there much laughter. He recalls his father’s thick mane of hair and how handsome he looked when he wore it slicked back. He loved the way his mother seemed to worry about whether he ate enough and had the proper things laid out for school. They sent him to Catholic school, which he detested.
There was a horrifying night when the phone rang, and he found out his father had been shot by a robber at the family’s store. His brother was wailing, but Nguyen remained silent. His father eventually came home from the hospital and returned to the store. No one ever spoke about it. It was almost as if his parents believed silence could erase suffering. But he knew better.
His parents never offered any information about their years in Vietnam. It was shrouded in secrecy. When Nguyen found out his mother had left an adopted sister in Vietnam when the family fled, he was mortified. He never asked his mother why.
Decades later, he met his sister in Vietnam and found her to be a congenial middle-aged mother of two who spent the afternoon with him mostly laughing and smiling. He didn’t feel any sense of connection to her though, nor did he feel close to his extended family who came to greet him. Nguyen writes cryptically:
“Vietnamese is your mother tongue
But you barely talk to your mother
Vietnamese is your native tongue
But you left before memory.”
Nguyen defines his childhood home as an ordinary house “by the freeway in San Jose, stained a dark brown meant to evoke tree bark, built from wood and shingle, stucco and silence, memory and forgetting.” There are countless sentences throughout this memoir with this sort of squeezed eloquence. Nguyen married a Catholic Vietnamese woman who is a poet and the mother of his two children, and he hints that his journey back in time is perhaps a way for him to get in closer touch with himself so that he can be more present for them. He speaks in interviews about reading to his children every night, and how much it means to him that they will grow up without the baggage he has.
There is one memory that rattles him more than others. It was a bout of severe depression his mother suffered though he isn’t sure precisely when. He remembers her coming home from the hospital and his father being more attentive to her needs. He explains how his father always participated in the family chores, which was unusual at the time for Vietnamese men. But after his mother’s collapse, his father was particularly alert to her state of being almost as if he feared she might succumb to her sadness again. His father, Nguyen tells us proudly, never drank or played billiards or had mistresses, and we hear Nguyen’s respect for his responsibleness. There were no violent outbursts in their home either. Just silence. Plenty of silence.
Nguyen must strain to think of any physical closeness with his mother and comes up short. He does recall her allowing him to tweeze gray hairs from her long dark hair.
Nguyen seems to start to tire of his own solemn story. He starts to speak to us about Trump and how he gaslit hate for the Asian community. He speaks about feeling distanced from others in America, always a foreigner, saying “those who are not refugees see you refugees as the zombies of the world, the undead rising from dying states to march or swim toward the border of the living in endless frightening ways.”
He hates the ways Asians are presented in our culture. He recalls watching Apocalypse Now while in graduate school and recoiling from the way the Vietnamese people were ill-considered while the American G.I.’s obscene behavior was heroized. He found the Broadway play Miss Saigon despicable in the way it presented Vietnamese life as less worthy than American lives. In a poetic burst of rage, he records for us the names he has had thrust at him at one time or another: “jap, nip, chink, dog-eater, slant-eye, kung fu . . .”
Nguyen is an intriguing, inventive, and perceptive writer and his mesmerizing memoir takes hold of us even when he starts to disappear. There is an anecdote he tells us that remains with on because it touches a chord. It was about Nguyen taking a course in college with Maxine Hong Kingston who told him he was too alienated and not present enough in her classroom. She felt these traits would hurt him as a writer. There are times Nguyen seems to leave his own narrative almost as if it is too much for him. We hear a certain tremor in his recollections that seem to send him reeling. His attempt to remember what he has spent a lifetime trying to forget is an admirable one best expressed by Nguyen himself:
“You have done your best to
Forget. You have become very good at
Forgetting. And now it is difficult, having
forgotten so many parts of yourself and those you
love, to re member your many disremembered pieces.”