Sitting in a café at San Francisco International Airport between flights (mine to Paris, his from LA), Viet Nguyen and I had a conversation about his debut novel The Sympathizer. Nguyen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California, and is perhaps better known for his elegantly articulated book Race and Resistance. Nguyen’s first novel, released to mark the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War, tackles post-war trauma with a dark tone that resonates with global tensions, rather than the more familiar Vietnamese American emotional terrain. The path of the narrator, from the end of the war, to post-war America and later back to Vietnam, pulls the reader deep into the experience of espionage, military corruption and post-war desperation. The novel’s descent into hopelessness compels readers to interrogate their own reasons for reading, as it does not offer a vision that reaffirms trust in the world. But Nuygen’s nihilistic vision, crafted in black humor and delivered in an original voice, is a worthwhile journey for his readers.
Hyphen: Hello, Viet! Can you talk about your development as a writer?
VN: I’ve been writing fiction since I was an undergraduate. But I decided to get a Ph.D., and so I had to put that on the backburner. After I got tenure, I started writing again, and I did a writing fellowship and residency. I had a bunch of short stories already written and I thought I’d just polish them and have a short story collection .... I gave [the collection] to my agent who said, you need to write a novel, otherwise it won’t sell in New York City. And so I sat down and wrote a novel in two years. I think two things happened: I had spent ten years writing short stories, which paid off. The other thing was that the novel [turned out to be] the right form for me. I had had trouble squeezing myself into the short story genre, and with the novel I had the space to say everything I wanted to say. And so it was an extremely liberating, even joyful thing to write this, versus the ten years of misery I had gone through writing short stories.
How did you combine the literary style and the nonliterary subject matter?
The seed of this was planted in me because when I was reading all these histories of the Vietnam War and postwar life. What struck me was that the self-criticism session -- forms of forced confessions from prisoners-- was really critical to the Vietnamese and Chinese communism and in the reeducation camps. You would have to write these endless repetitive confessions, autobiographies, and the literary qualities of this really struck me. People had to write, then they had to read each other’s writing, then they had to criticize each other, and that mode -- this stuck in my mind -- is the writing workshop! ... I don't know if anyone has made the historical connection between the rise of the writing workshop and the parallel rise of self-criticism in the world of communism.
The confessional method [used in the novel] is supposed to invoke all these memoirs and biographies of all these ethnic writers in the United States who have to write this way. It’s also meant to invoke the writing workshop.
Vietnamese refugees came to America thinking that the United States would protect them, but they instead were completely alienated. And the anger and resentment after their arrival is palpable in your book. It will be interesting to see the audience reaction.
I didn’t worry about the audience. My wife would ask me whom I was writing this for, and I would respond that I’m writing this for myself. That’s not the answer the editor or agent wants to hear, they want to hear you are writing for a big audience. To me, that was irrelevant.
Audience reaction is tied into American feelings about the Vietnam war ... And this is a difficult situation ... part of what I’m getting is that this audience wants me to be the Vietnamese voice for the Vietnamese people, whose stories have not been told in the American realm. That’s not what I wanted to do, but that’s how I’m being read. So for me it’s a delicate negotiation.
So when I wrote the novel, I made the conscious decision that I would not set this novel during the Vietnam War. I felt that a lot has been written about it, and I did not need to write the war novel. I needed to write the novel to talk about stuff that the world and Americans have not really dealt with, which was the post-war situation, the consequences of war ... my focus was on emotions, interior life and feelings, and I wanted to do justice to how I had seen Vietnamese people on all sides deal with this war emotionally, which was a very complicated thing for them, whether they were victors, or losers.
At the same time, I wanted the book to be fairly comprehensive about the Vietnam War. Part of the way I wanted to do that was to deal with the Vietnam War as cinema, which allowed me to talk about how Hollywood and America has remembered it but also to satirically depict the actual war itself. And then I wanted it not to be a novel that affirmed American ideas about the Vietnam War
Vietnamese literature has grown a lot since the time I started writing fiction, and a lot of the Vietnamese or Asian American fiction about the war is forced into a narrative, or writers perhaps actively participate in this narrative, of ending in the United States. They live through hell and then they come to heaven. And here we have it, or if they go back to Southeast Asia, it’s a narrative of capitalist redemption. Which is, they go back and they are rich Americans or they buy property there and everything is ok because they are rich, relative to the Southeast Asians. So it’s important that this novel not end on these kinds of notes, which is why he had to go back to Southeast Asia, he had to go back to Vietnam, and then when he leaves Vietnam he doesn’t go to the United States. I think some people read this book and think, “Oh! He’s going to America!” but that’s not what’s going to happen. First of all there’s nothing in the narrative that says he’s going back to America, and in the sequel [to the novel] he’s not going to America. When he finally gets out of the refugee camp, he could go to the US but he’s going to Paris for very particular reasons. So the narrative is a stringent critique of American culture, American politics and the American Dream. But I also needed it to be a critique of South Vietnamese and Vietnamese communism as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Is there a character you identify with?
The sympathizer. [Smiles.]
His narrative energy? His conflicted worldview?
As a critic and a scholar, I have a lot of things I feel and want to say about all these different issues the novel touches on. But I couldn’t write a novel in which it is a critic or academic saying all those things. No one would want to read that book, so I had to create a character who could legitimately say all those things as a part of his persona. I created the character who allowed me to articulate everything I believed in theoretically and politically, and it would be organic to say these kinds of things. So he’s not me, as I needed to create someone distant enough from me so no one would interpret this person as being autobiographical. But he is me in the sense that his worldview is in many ways similar to my own, and he is the character I created to address the question I always had, which is 'What would I have done if I had lived during this time period?'
Did you learn anything surprising about the Vietnam War while writing this?
I found out [about the history of torture while] reading Alfred McCoy’s book [Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation]. He writes that it began with the CIA in the fifties, Cold War strategies and all that kind of stuff. The Vietnam War was a testing ground for all these kinds of techniques.
I used to think it was stoicism that prevented survivors of horrible things from talking, but I think it’s also their own feelings about participating in the horror -- even if they were simultaneously victims. The line isn’t clear. And then, they don’t want succeeding generations, like their own kids, to know about this stuff.
Yes, I believe a lot of veterans or survivors don’t want to talk about what happened, not just because terrible things happened to them but because they probably did some terrible things. Even though those things may be justified in their minds, other people aren’t going to understand. So that is what the book is about: a lot of sentiment about the human condition and the human voice.
It’s really the inhuman condition, I guess.
What I want to do is talk about the inhuman condition, which is our condition. The things that the narrator does and the things that are done to him are not exceptional, they are routine. Given the right circumstances, the darkness of this book is that we could all do these things, we could probably do any of these things.
The lack of love in this book is startling. The fact that he remembers his mother who provides the book with the only real images of love is notable.
I had a conversation with an editor who almost bought this book but didn’t, and one of the things he said was, “You need a love relationship in here, you need another person.”
Even with the nihilist and dystopian literary trend, an editor still might want a romantic heterosexual relationship in there? Fascinating.
There was not going to be a romantic redemption with another person. That was part of the artistic vision by the time I finished the novel. I created a character and I had most of the plot available to me and I really loved writing through his point of view. But I didn’t realize what a misogynist he was until I got halfway through the book. Then I thought, this is kind of a complication. I was just having fun with it, which meant that I was giving in to my own misogynistic tendencies, too. But look, the novel is a kind of exploration of dark stuff in me. I had nightmares while I was writing but I had to go there in order to create this character.
I didn’t see the main character as the ultimate misogynist, there was way more misogyny on the part of other characters, for sure.
He didn’t really hate women, but he couldn’t have a human relationship with them like you said, so there’s something wrong with him, all kinds of things, racism too, and I didn’t realize until I was halfway through. So by the end of the book, the reason why there needs to be a sequel, is that he was destroyed and needs to be reconstructed -- but that’s barely begun by the end of the book.
I forgave him. I mean, if you kill somebody during your lifetime, I’m not sure you can ever be healthy.
But I could not, in this novel, have him turn around and recognize all the things that are wrong with him. In the sequel, I don't think he becomes a better human being, but he struggles to try to deal with many of the things that he now understands.
Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch’ien is currently a Marie Curie Sklodowska Fellow based at Jean-Moulin Université Lyon III in Lyon, France, and has also been a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. She has taught internationally, most recently as an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Among her many publications, she has published Weird English.