(Intro music including montage of writers speaking)
DN: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest Viet Thanh Nguyen is Professor of English, American Studies, and Ethnicity at The University of Southern California. He is the author of the nonfiction works Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and the forthcoming War, Memory, Identity. Viet Thanh Nguyen is also co-director of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and editor of their blog diaCRITICS. His short fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices, Narrative, TriQuarterly, and was the 2007 winner of the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. He is here today to talk about his debut novel The Sympathizer from Grove Atlantic, a book The Washington Post critic Ron Charles says is “surely a new classic of war fiction…a cerebral thriller, startlingly insightful and perilously candid…a book that opens with a terror that feels so real that you’ll mistake your beating heart for helicopter blades thumping the air.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
VTN: It’s my pleasure to be here.
DN: Let’s start with your protagonist, your unnamed protagonist. He…tell us a little bit about him. He’s a double agent, but he’s also double in many other ways.
VTN: That’s right. He’s a Communist spy in the South Vietnamese Army, and personally he is the progeny of a French priest and a poor Vietnamese maid, so even from the very beginning, he’s illegitimate, and because he feels that he’s torn between sides, between his French and Vietnamese halves, that gives him a predisposition to be able to look at things from both sides, to feel empathy and sympathy for different kinds of people, and as we discover very early on, that’s his great talent. And as we discover by the end, it’s also going to be the source of his downfall as well.
DN: You mention that he’s of hybrid race essentially, but he also even having studied in America and being Vietnamese, so in a way being Vietnamese American he would already be sort of double, belonging to both and not belonging to either, which we double down upon with his two ancestries. Are there other ways that he’s double?
VTN: Well, I think that duality of being a Vietnamese American like you say is really critical to the novel because as a foreign student to the states studying in the 1950s, which I didn’t—1960s—which was not something I made up. There were many Vietnamese foreign students here, and he comes to love American culture and to really know it almost from the inside out, and that’s going to add to his sense of being of both sides and being able to empathize with the Americans that he’s going to spy on as well. But, the core duality that totally drives the nove,l is the fact that he’s torn between his political beliefs. He’s a Communist by profession, basically, having committed to the revolution at a very young age, but the more he gets to know his American friends and his South Vietnamese comrades that he’s spying on, the more he also feels drawn to their capitalist lifestyle and their democratic values and their pop cultural ideas and their romantic love songs, so that’s really what is part of the motivation for putting him into various precarious plot situations.
DN: And also with the unique issue of being a double agent, you have to often do things that are against what you ultimately want to prove your allegiance to the people you are actually not supporting.
VTN: Yeah, he, for example, he obviously is there to spy on the Americans and the South Vietnamese, but because he becomes friendly with them and because he sympathizes with them and understands their point of view, he finds himself torn when he’s asked to do things that spies are typically asked to do, which is, you know, to report on their activities, to betray them, and even ultimately to kill them as well, and this is the source, obviously, of great confusion, consternation, and distress for him. And for us as readers, it’s a source of tragedy and sometimes of tragicomedy.
DN: Tell us why you chose to set the beginning, the opening opening that Ron Charles refers to, around the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of certain South Vietnamese to the United States.
VTN: Well, I think I opened that way because it was extremely dramatic. The first fifty pages of the novel is, from what people have been telling me, gripping, which is a good thing to hear, and it’s also because if Americans know one thing about the Vietnam War, it’s the fall of Saigon. Those images of the helicopter landing on the roof of the CIA hotel and people climbing up to get out has been imprinted upon the American imagination, so Americans are familiar with that, and that’s my entry way into the American consciousness, to seize an American reader through something that he or she thinks she knows something about and then to tell a story that’s completely different from what that reader knows.
DN: You have this quote in one of your scholarly essays, an essay titled “Just Memory: War and the Ethics of Remembrance,” that says, “All wars are fought twice: the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” And this seems to be one of the major themes of The Sympathizer to me, that the battle in The Sympathizer is the battle of representation and isn’t the actual battle of the war. Can you elaborate on that?
VTN: Absolutely—yeah. Well, I think of this as a post-Vietnam war novel because the other way that Americans know about the Vietnam War is typically through Hollywood movies, which are set during the height of the conflict on the ground, and so on. And while that’s very important, and it appears to a degree in my novel, what I really wanted to also talk about was how wars don’t end simply because a seize-fire has been signed, or simply because our troops have been withdrawn, but for so many people wars continue on after the fact because they’ve been traumatized, because they’ve lost their country, they’ve lost their friends and so on, and they can’t let go of the past. And that’s what I mean when I say that wars are fought twice. Even after the shooting has finished, we continue to replay our wars in our feelings, in our memories, and in the stories that we tell, and this is as true for Americans as it is for the Vietnamese. And so again, Americans have written many books, made many movies about this, they’re still talking about the Vietnam War today, and the irony for me as a Vietnamese American and someone who grew up with Vietnamese refugees is that that’s not the story that I’m familiar with from home.
DN: Right, so in a way, the, even though the Americans lost the war, in a way they’ve won the war of representation, in a sense…
VTN: Absolutely. This is part of the irony of the book that I explore and part of the difficulty that I had growing up, which is I would, I grew up hearing all of these tragic stories from other Vietnamese people, and these stories did not make it into the American press or the American media, and the way that Americans won the war in representation, or in fiction, was to ensure that their viewpoint in their stories were what was going to circulate, which was certainly true within the United States but also because Hollywood is a global power, it meant that America’s Hollywood imagination circulated globally as well, so the Vietnamese, even though they won the war, could not compete at that level of being able to tell their stories globally.
DN: It reminds me of something that Nam Le said, the Vietnamese Australian writer, that when we hear the word Vietnam, we think of a war not a country, and we think when we hear the word Hiroshima, we think of a bomb not a city, which seems to be this strange way in which one narrative is, has, taken over—there’s no sense of competing narratives. There’s the sense of one narrative.
VTN: And it’s a dangerous narrative, um…it’s a dangerous narrative because Americans continue to understand other people solely through the way that Americans have interacted with them, which is through bombing them or fighting wars on their countries. But then for someone like me, it’s a dangerous narrative also because I’m really aware that Americans do think of Vietnam first as a war, and yet here I am telling the story about a war. So, I think it’s important to sort of counteract and to fight against dominant American narratives, but there’s also a danger of continuing to put Vietnam on the map because of this war.
DN: You also mention in your scholarly work the idea of, or the question of, ethical memory. And I’d love for you to talk about what ethical memory is, and then also your proposal that, around a doubled ethical memory, because doubling obviously is very big in The Sympathizer, and I’m curious about the double ethical memory as it relates to the novel.
VTN: Well, what I argue is that typically, for any nation or culture or group, we tend to remember our own…this is the ethics of remembering our own group, right? And because we think we like to remember the ones that we love and hold near and dear to us, in contesting against that there’s another model of ethical memory which is to remember others, to remember people who are the far and the feared, and both of these ethical impulses are present in American culture, which is why, with a certain kind of remove of distance and time, Americans are able to remember other people, whether it’s minorities within this country, or whether it’s former enemies with which we’ve fought wars. But that doesn’t actually prevent us from continuing to fight further wars. Right? We’ve learned, for example, you know, Clint Eastwood can make a movie about Iwo Gima and reconcile with the Japanese…That does nothing in terms of preventing us from going on to further wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, what I argue is that the kind of ethical memory that I’m interested in, the double kind, requires us to remember not just our own humanity, which it’s very easy to do, but to remember our inhumanity as well, which is very hard to do. Because we like to think that other people—the enemy—is inhuman but we’re human. But in actuality, we wouldn’t be dropping bombs on Hiroshima, we wouldn’t be fighting terrible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam, if we ourselves weren’t capable of inhuman behavior as well. And that’s the most difficult thing to recognize.
DN: And then you often look in your scholarly work at the ways in which we memorialize things, and I remember a quote that you bring up around the Vietnam memorial in D.C., which memorializes American dead, and I think is a hundred and fifty yards long, and if it were to memorialize the Vietnamese dead would need to be something like nine or ten miles long, which is just an incredible fact that I think most Americans would be startled by.
VTN: And I can’t even take credit for that. That was the Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, who was very active during the Vietnam War, photographed and published a very important book called Vietnam, Inc. And he was, clearly, an anti-war photographer, and anti-American as well in terms of who he was laying the blame on, for, for the war itself. And the irony of the nine-mile-long idea is that only accounts for the Vietnamese who died during the war, about three million altogether, but Americans also forget that the war was fought in Laos and Cambodia, and a million people died in those two countries during that same time period. And then many, some historians, blame the United States for the intensive bombing of Cambodia during this war that destabilized Cambodian society, allowed the Khmer Rouge to take power, and then, of course, after 1975 when the United States abandoned Southeast Asia including Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge came to power and killed 1.7 million people. So, it’s a very difficult history that is simply erased and forgotten about in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
DN: In case you just tuned in, we are talking today to debut novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen about his book The Sympathizer…And that also raises the question of how Vietnam memorializes the war, also. And you mention that the inadequacy of calling it The American War, which is what it’s referred to in Vietnam, and, obviously, that doesn’t take into account the French, the Cambodians, the Laotians, and their own participation.
VTN: Yeah. I mean, I think what’s interesting is that many Americans who go to Vietnam feel that it’s important to call it The American War because we need to, as I said earlier, remember others. But in so doing, Americans overlook the fact that the Vietnamese are just as intent on remembering themselves, and so that’s why, in Vietnam, memorial culture about this war is totally focused on what happened to the North Vietnamese and to Vietnamese Communists. And the Vietnamese are just as unwilling as Americans to remember not just Americans but also the Cambodians and the Laotians whose countries they fought their war on. And the Southern Vietnamese, their brothers and sisters and enemies in this civil war, and revolutionary war, that was being waged. So one of the ironies is that many Americans who go back to Vietnam are thrilled to discover that the Vietnamese, for the most part, are not hostile to them. What they don’t notice is that those same Vietnamese are actually pretty hostile to the Southern Vietnamese who fled to the United States.
DN: Hmm. Well, let’s have our listeners hear some of the prose fromThe Sympathizer. Do you have a section in mind?
VTN: Sure. This is the opening of the novel, and it sets the tone for what we’re going to encounter.
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 horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes, I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. A talent you cannot not use, a talent that possesses you, that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear. The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was a month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and a beginning of—well, peace is not the right word, is it, my dear Commandant? It was a month when I awaited the end behind the walls of a villa where I had lived for the previous five years, the villas’ walls glittering with broken brown glass and crowned with rusted barbed wire. I had my own room at the villa, much like I have my own room in your camp, Commandant. Of course, the proper term for my room is an isolation cell, and instead of a housekeeper who comes to clean every day, you have provided me with a baby-faced guard, who does not clean at all. But I’m not complaining. Privacy, not cleanliness, is my only prerequisite for writing this confession.
DN: You’ve been listening to Viet Nguyen reading from his debut novel The Sympathizer. You mention in some of your scholarly work about the writings of W. G. Sebald and his model of memory and the way in which people who actually experience certain traumas pass on them to further generations as secondhand experiences, which reminds me of a sentence that you wrote in one of your essays: “Even as an American child, I was always aware of the presence of the dead.” Can you talk a little bit about your experience, your childhood growing up in America, with your family coming over as refugees and the ways in which that intersects with some of the themes in the book?
VTN: Well, I came when I was four years old, so I had no memory of the war or Vietnam, and what I experienced was a kind of osmosis through, number one, hearing the stories that my parents were telling of what life in Vietnam had been like and some of the terrible things that they had experienced, and I knew that they were probably not telling me other things—and the things that they told me were scary enough as it were, you know. My mother, for example, was alive during the famine of 1945 that killed a million people in northern Vietnam, and said, Oh, there were dead people on my doorstep, for example. And then, I grew up in a Vietnamese ethnic community in San Jose, California, where the presence of the war was very present. During the anniversaries, men would come out in uniforms, they would sing patriotic songs, so there was the distinct sense that the war was still going on. And outside of that, there was an unspoken way in which the war was present, and I think that was through the sense of loss, of trauma, of people having left behind loved ones, of having lost homes and identities and dignity and their homeland, and of the sense that the violence that had pervaded their lives in Vietnam during the war continued on in the United States through other things like domestic violence, or through home invasions where disenfranchised youth would form gangs and attack their own country people. So that’s what I mean by secondhand memory…You know, Sebald was obsessed with the Holocaust and with World War II even though he was a baby in the crib when the war ended, but he grew up with that idea that Germany, even though it wasn’t speaking of the war, was always thinking of the war, and that was pretty much my sense of what was happening in the Vietnamese community, too.
DN: And yet, you also considered yourself an American kid and were consuming a lot of the same pop culture that non-Vietnamese Americans were consuming, and you mention some real pivotal moments in your childhood—scarring moments—around certain books and certain movies, which very explicitly enter into The Sympathizer. Can you talk about some of those moments for you where you realized you weren’t a typical American kid in this regard?
VTN: Yeah, you know when you watch, when you’re reading books and watching movies, of course you identify with the protagonist or the heroes, and that certainly was the case for me watching American war movies or reading American war novels. I identified with the American soldiers. Up until the point they killed Vietnamese people. Or raped Vietnamese people. And at which point I thought, Wait, am I the American soldier, or am I the Vietnamese who’s getting killed or raped in this situation? And it was a real moment of disjuncture for me, and two texts that I really remember are Larry Heinemann’s novel Close Quarters, in which there’s a really graphic rape scene where the soldiers gang rape a Vietnamese woman, and that was one of the first scarring moments of my life. And the second was Apocalypse Now, a famous moment—an infamous moment—in which the American soldiers massacre a boat full of Vietnamese civilians, and it left me shaking with rage, even years later when I was recounting that scene, and these were generative moments for me because they affirmed for me the power of storytelling, that stories could be real, if they could have this emotional impact on someone. And they also began for me this long journey that eventually ended with this book, or at least has reached this book, where I wanted to also be able to tell my own stories, to at least fight back against these American stories that had been so traumatic for me.
DN: Since we are talking about the war of representation, you weren’t just—let’s be clear—you weren’t just shaken by the portrayal of a horrible act, but you were shaken also by the perspective taken in that portrayal of that horrible act, so tell us a little bit more about, um, because these were tales told by non-Vietnamese people, the horrible choices, potentially, that were made, consciously or subconsciously, that made it particularly scarring.
VTN: Well, I think that what, for instance, Ford Coppola and Larry Heinemann wanted to do, was to show without apology and without sentiment what American soldiers were doing in Vietnam. And to that extent, these are anti-war texts, and they’re very brutal, and they’re very powerful, and what I learned from them—because I admire these texts in the end even though I find them troubling—what I learned from them is that it is important not to editorialize and to sentimentalize. So horrible things happen in my novel, too, and I don’t allow the reader the comfort of me saying, This is wrong. They have to live with that discomfort just as I lived with that discomfort in the works of Heinemann and Coppola. But at the same time, the difficulty in doing that, in those two texts, is that even though it’s important to portray the inhumanity of man or soldiers, is it possible to also give space for the humanity of the enemy that you’re encountering? And that’s why, in my own work, I feel that I don’t want to simply reverse the story and show heroic Vietnamese—or anti-heroic Vietnamese—people and villainous Americans. In fact, I think the Americans come off—even though they’re satirized—they come off pretty well as human beings who are complex subjects. And that’s, I think, that’s a possibility that art can do, to show both the inhumanity and the humanity at the same time.
DN: Well, let’s have you read from that section about, you have a large piece in The Sympathizer that is a movie that feels like it evokes Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and you refer to the Coppola-like character as the auteur. Would you mind reading from that section?
VTN: So what happens is that our narrator, once he gets to Los Angeles as a refugee, finds a job as the authenticity consultant for this epic Vietnam War movie that will be set in the Philippines, and in this scene he has just met with the auteur to talk about the screenplay, which our narrator has a lot of problems with:
After I descended from the auteur’s home to the general’s, thirty blocks distant and down the hills to the Hollywood flatlands , I reported my first experience with the motion picture industry to the general and madame, both of whom were infuriated on my behalf. My meeting with the auteur and Violet, his assistant, had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. “True,” Violet interjected, “but what it boils down to is who pays for tickets and goes to the movies. Frankly, Vietnamese audiences aren’t going to watch this movie, are they?” I contained my outrage. Even so, I said, do you not think it would be a little more believable, a little more realistic, a little more authentic, for a movie set in a certain country, for the people in that country to have something to say instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, cut to villagers speaking in their own language? Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English, you know what I mean…ching-chong English, just to pretend they are speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand? And don’t you think it would be more compelling if your green beret had a love interest? Do these men only love and die for each other? That is the implication without a woman in the midst. The auteur grimaced and said, “Very interesting. Great stuff. Loved it, but I had a question…what was it? Oh, yes—how many movies have you made? None. Isn’t that right? None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. And however you say it in your language. So, thank you for telling me how to do my job. Now get the hell out of my house and come back after you’ve made a movie or two. Maybe then I’ll listen to one or two of your cheap ideas.”
DN: You’ve been listening to Viet Nguyen reading from his debut novel The Sympathizer. It’s interesting when you think about different countries confronting their own participation in non-glorious acts. I think about all the representation around Vietnam and America, but also lots of movies about Iraq, and surely many, if not most, are problematic in their representation. And on the other hand, I think of France, who until very recently had almost no movies about Algeria, the best known one being from Italy, and that silence of not grappling with it at all. I mean, I’m not sure that I have a question here, of which one is better, because obviously I would guess that grappling is better than not, even if you fail, but I didn’t know if you have any thoughts on that…
VTN: Yeah, and you know, ironically in France the Vietnam War was not the dirty war, it was the Algerian War, so if you go there today, the French really have a problem with their Algerians but not with the Vietnamese, who they think of as their model minority in France, right? And I think that in comparison, the American culture, as complicated as it is, is still preferable in this regard because the American tendency is still to want to have others speak. This is the impetus of multiculturalism, right? Americans want speak for others, but if those others can also speak for themselves, that’s a good thing. And so there is an opening created for someone like me, a Vietnamese refugee and a Vietnamese American to speak about the war, because Americans, even though they like to hear their own stories about themselves, they are also sort of vaguely aware that there’s a big silence, a big gap, in terms of what it is that the Vietnamese have to say. And so there is an opening created for a certain body of Vietnamese American literature to tell stories about Vietnam and about this war, but it’s very ironic that we keep doing that. I mean, there’s actually many Vietnamese American authors who preceded me who’ve written about Vietnam or written about the refugee experience or so on. But Americans still have a hard time hearing…that’s why when Philip Caputo, a very well known writer, who also wrote a book about Vietnam called Rumor War, which is a classic, when he reviewed my book for the The New York Times, in a very positive way, which I was very happy about, he started off his review by saying I give voice, that is me, I give voice to the voiceless, which I was very sad about hearing because we are not voiceless, actually. We’ve been telling stories in Vietnamese and in English, it’s just that Americans are either deaf or monolingual or don’t want to hear.
DN: Well let’s talk more about the literature of Vietnam, and could you talk a little bit about some particularly bad or/and good examples, ones that you would hold out as—if there are some—good examples, some noteworthy examples of Vietnam literature and some ones that maybe feel like are celebrated but shouldn’t be?
VTN: You mean by Americans?
DN: Yeah…well, not written by Americans necessarily, but, you know, books that Americans are reading in English about the Vietnam War.
VTN: Well, I think, I just want to give props to probably the best know Vietnamese writer about the Vietnam War, who is Bảo Ninh, who is himself a North Vietnamese war veteran, who wrote a book called The Sorrow of War, which is available in translation in English, and I think it does provide a rebuttal to so many of the American war stories that feature American soldiers. And in the Vietnamese American context, there are a number of young writers and older writers who have been writing very vigorously about this, and probably the most early important one was Le Ly Hayslip who wrote When Heaven and Earth Change Places, which Oliver Stone turned into the film Heaven and Earth, which I still think the movie’s not that great, but the book itself is really very wonderful. And then Nam Le, as you mentioned, has a very powerful book called The Boat, which has an incredible story about the survival experiences of Vietnamese people during that time. And in terms of American literature written by Americans who are not Vietnamese about the war, I think it’s an actually very rich body of literature. I actually enjoy reading it because I’m a fan of American lit, I’m a fan of war literature, so even though I have a lot of problems with the ways that Vietnamese people are represented or not, I still respond to that literature, so obviously people like Tim O’Brien, Robert Olen Butler, Karl Marlantes…Sigrid Nunez wrote an overlooked book called For Rouenna, which is about Vietnam War American nurses, as well…so there is a huge body of literature out there, and I give enormous recognition to those American authors for even trying to cope with a very difficult history.
DN: Well what do you think about white American authors, the few that do, who try to imagine the Vietnamese perspective from the Vietnamese perspective? So, we often see what you’re talking about, say a Vietnam story either in film or in books that are from a white perspective and don’t lend the humanity to the enemy. But what about the reverse? A white person trying to imagine from the Vietnamese perspective? Do you think that’s a worthy enterprise, or a problematic enterprise, or a problematic but worthy enterprise?
VTN: Problematic but worthy (David laughs)…well, I mean, I give, again…Oliver Stone made Heaven and Earth, which, you know, was a good effort, but not a great movie. Robert Olen Butler wrote A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which is a collection of short stories told entirely from the point of Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana, and it won the Pulizter Prize back in 1992. James Janko has a book called Buffalo Boy, actually, I can’t remember the title, but it’s a book about a Vietnamese peasant during the war. So there are a number of these Americans who have tried, done this, and there are also a number of American veteran authors who have gone back to Vietnam to reconcile with their North Vietnamese enemies, people like Wayne Karlin and Larry Heinemann as I mentioned, W. D. Ehrhart, Bruce Weigl…so, I respect them all for the work that they have done. From the Vietnamese American point of view, part of the problem that we encounter is the idea that perhaps America publishing and the American movie industry are more interested in American—white Americans—who tell the Vietnamese story than in Vietnamese Americans who tell the Vietnamese story, so that’s not something that these authors or artists are responsible for, but we as Vietnamese Americans and refugees suffer from that because it becomes so much more difficult for us to get out story out there, and that’s been the major challenge is this idea that, again, in American culture you are responsible for your own fate in terms of representation. So if we as Vietnamese Americans feel that we are suffering from misrepresentation or lack of representation, then it’s up to us to finally take control of the storytelling ourselves.
DN: You’ve mentioned before in interviews that The Sympathizer you think is in conversation with Ellison’s Invisible Man. Is that the way in which it’s in conversation, the way in which voices are being made invisible?
VTN: Yeah, I mean the opening of this novel really echoes the opening of Invisible Man, and part of what Ellison deals with in that beginning is this idea that to be a Black man in America means you’re invisible until you’re hypervisible, there’s nothing in between. Either you’re not seen at all or you’re seen as a threat, and we still see that today. And the experience of Vietnamese Americans, but also Asian Americans in general in the United States, while not as drastic as it is for Black or African Americans, follows that same trajectory, I think. We are invisible until some kind of a crisis makes us super visible, like war or economic competition with China or Japan or something like that. And so the book is very self-conscious about struggling with what it means to be able to try to be visible and audible in an American society that doesn’t want to see you and doesn’t want to hear you.
DN: And your ending in The Sympathizer lands on a different philosophical sentiment than Ellison’s. Can you talk, can you contrast, a little bit the way in which you feel like you land emotionally in The Sympathizer versus the way he does in Invisible Man?
VTN: You know Invisible Man was something I read in college and it was a huge impact on me. It was one of the most important novels I read, and I still love that book, but where I depart from Ellison is that in his novel his invisible man becomes a revolutionary and the revolution fails him and betrays him, and in the end he goes into a hole, grapples with himself, and emerges hopeful but an individual. And that really fit the mood for 1950s America, this idea of a turn to the individual as a way of combatting revolution, Communist revolution in particular. And that was not how I wanted my novel to end. My narrator, as readers will discover, does have a difficult time with the revolution, but he doesn’t give up on revolution in the end. He recommits himself to solidarity and to a communal struggle. He’s a revolutionary in search of a revolution by the end of the book, and that’s a very important departure for me, from what Ellison is doing, and how I wanted to mark my difference from the, sort of, the political and artistic project that Ellison had.
DN: Well, we should mention we are talking a lot about the philosophy behind the book, but The Sympathizer is also really funny. And one of the ways in which I think it is particularly funny is in the way it satirizes Americans in the way in which they view Vietnamese in stereotypical ways, or Asians in stereotypical ways. You have this quote at one point, “Did anyone ask JFK is he spoke Gaelic, visited Dublin, ate potatoes every night, or collected paintings of leprechauns,” which I just loved. But I was interested if you had any places you drew inspiration for your sense of humor in the book, because obviously this is a painful humor, it’s a dark humor, but funny nonetheless.
VTN: Well my life—I think every (mutual laughter) Asian immigrant or refugee has gone through many of the things that I talk about in this book, and for us, the challenge is when do we get a chance to talk about these kinds of things? Because in American culture, the place for Asian Americans is to be the quiet model minority. No one expects us to be angry or to talk back, and that certainly characterizes a lot of Asian American literature: to be quiet, or if the literature is angry, it’s angry about Asia or angry about the Asian patriarch, for example. And so in this book I really did want to be satirical of American culture and American people, American history, American customs, because I thought if I can be funny enough maybe Americans in general will laugh with me, too. If I can show them some of the blind spots and hypocrisies and the ludicrousness of how it is that Americans perceive Asians relative to themselves. And certainly one of the sources of inspiration for the quote that you just read was David Hwang’s M. Butterfly where he does exactly that kind of reversal and cites the Kennedys as well as a moment of contrast, right? And so, throughout the book there are many episodes like that where I try to make Americans see their own habits from the eyes of an outsider.
DN: I think you definitely succeed in that regard, both implicating the white American reader and making the white American reader laugh at the same time. It’s an accomplishment, I think.
VTN: I’m glad to hear it.
DN: There’s a really powerful section near the end of The Sympathizer that is around torture, and you have a quote at the beginning by Nietzsche…
VTN: “Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word torture. In this particular case, there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word, even something to laugh at.”
DN: Tell us about the relationship between the epigraph by Nietzsche at the beginning and the way torture is used in The Sympathizer.
VTN: Yeah, I didn’t actually set out to write a book that would make torture funny…it just sort of happened that way as the book progressed because as he becomes involved with the making of the movie in the Philippines, what happens in that movie is torture happens. And because the book is a satire, partially of American movie making and the ways that Americans tell stories, then that torture scene in the middle of the book set in the movie becomes quite funny, I hope. But that eventually just foreshadows what happens at the end of the book, which surprised me, when it happened—I didn’t plan for that, the torture scene at the end to take place. And I think I put that in there because torture was very much on my mind. Anybody who investigates the history of any war probably encounters torture. It was certainly true in Vietnam, but I was writing this book and from 2011 to 2013, as our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were supposedly winding down, and of course as Guantanamo was still going on, so writing about torture in the past was also a way to comment about torture in the present as well.
DN: It makes MLK seem very prescient, in the quote that you cite in one of your essays, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. The war in Vietnam is but a symbol of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” You feel the roots of Abu Ghraib and some of the things that you encounter in The Sympathizer.
VTN: If there’s one thing that I think Americans should read about the Vietnam War, it is the speech “Beyond Vietnam ” by Martin Luther King, Jr., which was given almost exactly one year before he was assassinated. And if you read the speech you know why he got assassinated. Because Americans know him for his speech about having a dream, obviously, but in “Beyond Vietnam,” it’s a very radical speech that connects American militarism to American racism to American imperialism and calls for Americans to empathize with the experiences of Vietnamese people and predicts that if Americans don’t resolve the issues that brought them to Vietnam in the first place, they will continue to repeat those problems in other countries. And that’s pretty much exactly what has happened.
DN: Well, there’s another quote, I think from the same speech—you can correct me if I’m wrong—where he says, “While minorities within the U.S. may experience oppression, discrimination, marginalization, exploitation, these same American minorities may also participate in or benefit from American militarism, imperialism, and global domination.” Just because someone has been oppressed doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to take the side of the oppressed in another scenario.
VTN: I wrote that actually (David Naimon laughs), but it was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. because he has a very famous line in the “Beyond Vietnam” speech where he talks about how even though in the United States at the time of the 1960s whites and blacks were divided against each other increasingly, especially in the cities, in Vietnam, he says, white and black men fight in brutal solidarity with each other against the Vietnamese. So he’s pointing out both the problem of racism directed against African Americans in the United States at the same time that these poor young African American men are being sent to kill people of color elsewhere.
DN: Well, I notice on your website that you have a project you do with your students around memorializing the Vietnam War in a different way. Can you talk a little bit about that one?
VTN: Well, I teach a class about the Vietnam War, and it’s always interesting to me that most students who come to take this course don’t know very much about the Vietnam War outside of a few things they might have heard of in a history book or the movies that they have seen, and one of the projects that they do to really get them, give them a sense of how the history continues to live, is to interview a survivor of the war, of any background, you know. And so, there are Americans, there are Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and among Americans there’s men and women, there are soldiers who went and there are people who didn’t go, and they’re the wives and children left behind and so on. One of the interesting things about this project, for me, is to discover that Americans had a really diverse range of experiences, many of them have been deeply affected by the war even if they didn’t go to the war, and many of the soldiers who went to the war didn’t fight, so they had really boring experiences.
DN: Mmm hmm.
VTN: So the number of interviewees who will actually talk about their combat experience is very small. But on the side of the Southeast Asians— the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians—all of them have terrible, traumatic stories, because if they’re in the United States, what it meant is that they survived a war and that they survived a horrifying refugee experience to get here to the U.S.. And so, one of the things that I hope people learn from that course, and in general with what I do, is sense that wars are things that don’t happen just to soldiers and to men. They affect civilians, they affect women, children, the elderly, and that’s an experience that Americans have been spared for the most part.
DN: What’s up for you next? What is your next project in your writing life?
VTN: Well, I am finishing up that book War, Memory, Identity, which I think of as the critical bookend to an intellectually creative project whose fictional bookend is The Sympathizer. I promised my published I’d deliver that in May, and then after that I’d like to write the sequel to this novel.
DN: Oh, really—a sequel! Do you have a, can you give us a little teaser about where that might begin?
VTN: Well, I have to give away part of the ending, which is that he lives (laughs), not necessarily to fight another day, but to live another day, and he’s going to go to Paris where he’s going to encounter another colonial history that affects him because his father was a French priest, and encounter a completely different set of racial and revolutionary politics.
DN: Wow, I can’t wait for that.
VTN: Thank you.
DN: Thanks for being on Between the Covers today, Viet.
VTN: It was my pleasure.
DN: We are talking today to Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympthizer. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.