by Terry Hong
Việt Thanh Nguyễn—Associate Professor at USC in English and American Studies—has a 25-page CV online that highlights countless publications, including articles, essays, book chapters, reviews, blog posts, commentaries, short stories, and more. His accomplishments are numerous: citations, awards, fellowships, etc. All that aside, the single unique part of his resume is his first and only novel—at least, thus far.
The Sympathizer just hit shelves on April 7, and has already garnered starred reviews and been heralded as a top book to watch in 2015. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” the unnamed narrator begins his confession to the unseen Commandant…and to us, his readers. He produces a sheaf of 295 pages (which makes up the bulk of the almost 400-page book), in which he writes the story of his life, from his birth as the illegitimate son of a Frenchman and his teenage maid, to his experiences as a “bastard,” to his mission as a double agent with connections to the CIA and the winning Vietnamese Communists. Part bildungsroman, part spy thriller, part cultural and political reclamation, The Sympathizer is a magnetic debut about identity, morality, and the impossible price of loyalty.
Terry Hong: Your personal website is topped with your name, and then the monikers “professor, writer, scholar.” Can you talk a bit about each of your identities?
Việt Thanh Nguyễn: I thought about just calling myself an author or writer, but my identities as professor and scholar are also very important to me. What I’ve learned through my research, my reading into theory and criticism, and my teaching have all inflected and informed my fiction. For example, I’m finishing an academic book now called War, Memory, Identity, which I think of as the critical bookend on a creative continuum whose fictional bookend is the novel The Sympathizer. I don’t divorce my critical self from my creative self; they’re both crucial to me.
TH: When did you decide to make the public transition from teaching literature to creating literature? I understand you started writing fiction in college, but your first novel is being published decades later. And, since this is Bloom, what took you so long (no disrespect intended!) to get this first novel out?
VTN: I published short fiction beginning in my 20s, and had quite a few short stories published since. I thought, in college, that writing short stories would be easier than writing a novel. How wrong I was. It took 15 years to finish an entire short story collection, and most of that experience was characterized by drudgery and despair, laced with a few bright moments when the stories were published or won awards. My short stories were what drew my agent’s interest, but he told me, as agents do, that I needed to write a novel to get published in New York. So I sat down and wrote The Sympathizer in two years. And it was a wonderful, even ecstatic experience, with very few downsides. I felt I had finally found the right form, something huge and expansive that could accommodate everything I wanted to say. But I was only able to get to that point because of the 15 years of struggle with the short stories. If I had begun writing fiction with a novel, I think I would have been just as miserable as with the short stories. So the answer about why it took so long to get the novel out is that learning to write is a long process, and while I wish I could have been the blazing star of youth that the literary publishing industry likes, the reality is what it is. And in some ways, things worked out, because the novel is infinitely better for being written when it was, after many years of practicing the craft and doing the scholarship and thinking about the political, ethical, moral, and aesthetic issues that inform the novel.
TH: So besides those 15 years of “drudgery and despair” and the urging of your agent, who/what else inspired you to specifically write The Sympathizer?
VTN: I wanted to write a novel that confronted history head on, and for me, history meant the war and everything that led to the war and everything that issued from the war. I also wanted to write a novel that was not only ambitious but entertaining, so I had to find the right narrator and the right plot. In the back of my mind were stories that I had encountered of communist spies in South Vietnam, and the experiences of Eurasian and Amerasian children during the colonial and war periods. I figured that a mixed-raced character would allow me to get at the issues of being hybrid, divided, and conflicted, which for me were aspects of Vietnamese history. And a spy novel would let me be entertaining. I didn’t want to write another one of these historically and politically concerned novels that were long on mood and commitment, but short on the entertainment. But what I just said about the drawbacks of some historical and political novels could also be said of much mainstream literary fiction. I didn’t want to shy away from the power of genre to pull in the reader, and in fact, the genre fiction I read the most—detective and crime—is often deeply interested in history and politics, as well as plot, much more so than a lot of mainstream literary fiction. I was fortunate to have as an agent Nat Sobel, who works with many crime writers. He was always reminding me of the importance of plot and keeping the reader’s attention, and that paid off in the end.
TH: You touched briefly on your hapa narrator just now. Indeed, hybrid identity looms large throughout The Sympathizer. While I did know that Beethoven was of “hexadecimal descent” (haven’t heard that phrase ever, but love it!)—only because of Nadine Gordimer’s Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black—I didn’t know that Dumas was a “quadroon,” born half-slave, half-noble. Can you talk about a bit more about why the mixed race theme is so crucial to The Sympathizer?
VTN: Certainly the situation of mixed-race people has become more visible in the United States, with Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. Anyone interested in race needs to think about how mixed-race people throw racial categories into question. So there was that contemporary basis. And since I’m a scholar of American literature, I’m aware of the tradition of mixed-race characters in this literature, where the hybrid person is oftentimes a “tragic mulatto.” In this kind of literature, the tragic mulatto is explicitly figured as a person who represents the tragedy of being caught between racially divided worlds. Unfortunately, the tragic mulatto usually meets a bad fate as a result. I think it’s valid to think that a mixed-race character could embody the issues of being divided between cultures, races, and worlds, but I wanted to be careful in doing so. I didn’t want to fall into old stereotypes about how exotic or how tragic such figures often are. So while my narrator is caught up in tragedy, he’s also very capable of comic vision. The tone of the novel is tragicomic. And that tone is a result of my wanting a mixed-race character who could both speak to historical divisions and conflicts but not be totally trapped by them. Instead, he can be self-aware, even to the point of laughter.
TH: So much of the Vietnamese War literary canon has NOT been written by Vietnamese/Vietnamese American voices. That’s being addressed more recently—a more equal representation of multiple “sides,” so to speak … how do you think this latest generation of Vietnamese American writers are faring?
VTN: There has been a slowly growing body of Vietnamese American literature, but most of it is not seen as being “war” literature, because these works are often about refugees, and refugees are not soldiers. The authors are younger, the 1.5 generation born in Vietnam but raised here, and have chosen to write about what they know, the experiences of flight and resettlement. But the Vietnamese American literature in Vietnamese often does confront the events of the war directly, but obviously Americans can’t read that literature and don’t know what that generation thinks of the war (and of Americans).
All that being said, there are some writers in English who have attained visibility in writing about the war, namely Le Ly Hayslip and Andrew X. Pham. But it’s a struggle, still, to get the Vietnamese refugee and Vietnamese American point of view into American discussions about the war, because Americans still equate war with soldiers, and with men. So even if we keep on writing as we do—and there are more and more of us, writing and writing well—I’m not sure if we’ll be able to overcome the deep ethnocentrism in American culture, and the American tendency to think of war as a discrete event, over there, fought by soldiers, rather than as a total event that involves all of American society and which pulls in civilians. It’s no surprise, then, that when Americans want to read about the war from Vietnamese perspectives, they turn to writers in Vietnam, like Bao Ninh (The Sorrow of War, a wonderful book) and Duong Thu Huong (Novel Without a Name, and others). They would rather read their former enemies in translation than read their allies, here in America, in translation.
TH: Your galley comes with blurbs from some of the top Vietnam War literary canon-makers. Robert Olen Butler, Karl Marlantes, etc. How have they helped/hurt representations of the Vietnam War experience?
VTN: These two writers are among the more reflective and self-aware writers of the American experience in the war. Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn is a masterful depiction of the American soldier’s combat experience. But it’s really almost a World War II kind of novel in what it depicts, a clear distinction between American soldier and Vietnamese enemy, with no civilians or guerillas present to muddy things up. This is because that’s the kind of war he saw. In one way, then, his novel fits into a movement in American memory that focuses on the experience of the combatants without the contamination of things like atrocity and civilian death (the cinematic equivalent would be the Mel Gibson film, We Were Soldiers). And the novel is really focused on the internal divisions of officer and grunt, black and white, against a shadowy enemy who, when he appears, is treated as a noble, virtuous, brave enemy, which is progress in terms of racial representation, but which also fits into a different memory of the war than the one about it being a dirty war.
As for Robert Olen Butler, he, along with other veteran authors like Wayne Karlin, John Balaban, W.D. Ehrhart, and Bruce Weigl, have tried very hard to overcome the racial antagonisms between Americans and Vietnamese that were so fundamental to the conduct and memory of the war. Their efforts are very important, both for what they say and simply by their existence. I remember being very impressed by Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain when I first read it in college. The stories are all from the viewpoint of Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana. There is a question of whether this is an appropriation, as Monique Truong raises in her essay on the need for a Vietnamese American literature by Vietnamese Americans, and I think it’s a fair question to ask without any clear-cut answers. But another way to approach his book is to do a blind taste test and imagine how the book would have been received with a Vietnamese name on the cover. I think it would have done well, which says something about his talent, and about how Vietnamese American authors may not need to write that book anymore.
TH: I assume you’ve read Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s This Is All I Choose to Tell? She comments that while Butler wins the Pulitzer Prize despite “his portrayal of sweet and off-beat Vietnamese American caricatures,” the defiant, multi-faceted Vietnamese American writer Linh Dinh (Fake House) is “denigrated and dismissed for addressing the ruthless reality of life on the margins, which includes caricatures of offbeat white characters,” and bestselling author Monique Truong (The Book of Salt) is asked by her first publisher “to simplify the language because they said a Vietnamese cook could not possibly have such sophisticated thoughts and the language was too poetic for an uneducated Asian character.” The publishing industry seems to be proving (again) that the authentic needs to fit the so-called mainstream, but the exotic can beget Pulitzers …
VTN: I’d say that Butler won because he wrote about sweet and off-beat characters. I didn’t see them as caricatures, because as I imply above, my imaginary Vietnamese American author may very well use the same characters. In short, the temptation to appeal to the mainstream is there for the Vietnamese American author, too. I don’t know if that’s what Butler had in mind, appealing to the mainstream, but certainly the act of writing in the voice of others has an inherent mainstream appeal, where the white author gets the benefit of doing the heroic literary act of imagining people not like himself. So the Vietnamese American author who writes about Vietnamese Americans is seen as only writing about who he or she knows, which is not as impressive. It’s definitely true that Vietnamese American authors have a hard time escaping the racial binds of authenticity in literature, which exist because of racial contradictions in American society overall. Some of these constraints are out of our control, and I’m certainly aware of them as I think about how my book will be reviewed and positioned by others, and what I need to do and say to fight against being placed into narratives I disagree with. But Vietnamese American and other ethnic writers can play into those narratives, too, and need to be aware of how to up their game and to control it as much as they can in their own writing. That’s why it was important to me to have a narrator who not only depicted the suffering and problems of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, but who is equally critical of American culture, history, and politics. Too much of Asian American literature in general doesn’t take America and Americans to task, and not doing so is one way of trying to appeal to the mainstream.
TH: So since crime novels/thrillers are your fiction of choice as a reader, as an Asian American author, might you be planning a crime novel without an overt backdrop of history or race/ethnicity?
VTN: I’m not really interested in the genre for its own sake. I don’t want to be a crime writer. I’m interested in what I can learn from the genre for my own purposes. I think crime is an important genre for me because the best of the crime writers connect their individual stories to larger conditions, where a crime is not just a singular case but a symptom of a troubled society that is already criminal at the highest levels. So the crime genre works for me in this case because the war was a crime, and so was colonialism. My narrator is the product of a crime, the pedophilic relationship between a French priest and his Vietnamese maid. More crimes happen as the novel progresses, and all of these crimes are the outcome of history and politics. I do plan to write another crime novel, the sequel to The Sympathizer, but again not purely because of the genre but because the sequel takes on drug running and the importance of drugs to French colonialism.
TH: And when might we see that sequel?
VTN: Good question. I wrote The Sympathizer in two years partially because I was on leave and only had to teach one course during that time. I’m not sure how fast I can write while teaching a lot more over the next few years. We’ll find out.
TH: You clearly have a considerable background in Asian Pacific American film history, peppered throughout The Sympathizer, especially in terms of representation on and off camera. I had flashback visions of the film Apocalypse Now and Jessica Hagedorn’s response-novel-of-sort, Dream Jungle. Are you a film junkie, too?
VTN: I love to watch films, although junkie is probably going too far! But certainly when it comes to the war, I’ve watched nearly everything Hollywood has made, and a lot of independent, documentary, avant-garde work as well. And I’ve read Dream Jungle. I first saw Apocalypse Now in the early 1980s, on my family’s VCR, when I was not yet a teenager, and it was way too soon to see it. The film really scarred me. My voice would shake when I talked about it later, even in college. So I wanted to take my revenge on that movie and all of the Hollywood canon about the war, for as I say in the novel, this is the first case in history where the losers get to write the history, albeit through films.
TH: How did you do your research? Because a LOT of research clearly had to happen to write this novel! You couldn’t have been more than a tween in 1975 when Saigon fell and the U.S. ended its involvement in the Vietnam War, and your family landed in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.
VTN: I was four. In a sense, I’ve been researching this book my entire life. I was aware from early on that the war had made me, brought me to America, divided my family, traumatized the Vietnamese refugee community that I grew up in. So I was curious about it, and I also had a fascination for all things military. I was an excellent reader, and so read way above my grade level, about this and other wars, beginning with All Quiet on the Western Front in the sixth grade. I read high and low literature of the war, from Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters (another work that scarred me for life, but in a good way) to the adventures of Vietnam War veteran Mack Bolan, where I first encountered the word “prostitute” and confused it with “Protestant.” In college, I read seriously into the academic work on the war and Vietnamese history, beginning with Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam. I read The Quiet American and wrote a thesis on it, and I read anything that Vietnamese people had written that was available in English. So when it came time to write a novel, I didn’t have to do a lot of research. I knew what I wanted to say and what the history was. The two exceptions were the fall (or liberation) of Saigon and the making of Apocalypse Now. I read everything I could about those two things so I could accumulate the necessary details that would give an accurate picture of what the collapse of the city was like, hour by hour and day by day, and what the making of a movie was like.
TH: With which of your characters do you identify most? How much of your/your family’s history might be contained in these pages?
VTN: I identify with the sympathizer the most. He is my alter ego. He is the character I created to allow me to say everything I wanted to say without coming off as didactic. That is, no one wants to hear the author pontificating. But if the character has a reason to say things, the reader is willing to listen. So he is very important to me. As for my family’s history, there are only a few glimpses. We’re Catholics, and I was born in Ban Me Thuot, a small town in the Central Highlands. Catholic history and customs run throughout the novel, and I made the sympathizer’s birthplace my own.
TH: You mentioned that you became a father recently. Will you raise your child/children to be multi-lingual? How will you raise them to be multicultural?
VTN: We’re trying our best. We speak mostly in English but also use Vietnamese, and he understands Vietnamese commands. I think he even spoke his first Vietnamese word recently, nước, or water. Being multilingual and multicultural is very important to us, and that’s one reason why it’s hard to leave LA or California, which are so rich in both cases. When he’s older, we hope to check him into a French international school, so he can learn the language of his parents’ colonizers. Meanwhile, he gets Spanish from his nanny, and knows more Spanish words than Vietnamese ones. And he will most likely be forced to suffer the experience of Vietnamese language Sunday school, which I hated, but oh well. It will be good for him.
TH: So upcoming: a Sympathizer sequel, check. Short story collection after 15 years of suffering? And then …?
VTN: Did I mention finishing my academic book, which has taken twelve years of research and writing? I will submit the book by this May. And after that—so many ideas. I’d like to write a short book on The Great Anti-American Novel, and another one on writing with politics, history and anger. And The Sympathizer is supposed to be a trilogy. He has a lot of business to settle.
Click here to read an excerpt from Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s debut novel The Sympathizer.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.