Viet Thanh Nguyen: From both sides

In fiction and nonfiction alike, this Pulitzer Prize winner aims to shed fresh light on war, race, culture, and, ultimately, our humanity.
By Jack Smith | Published: January 17, 2017


Viet Thanh Nguyen

Photo: BeBe Jacobs

Viet Thanh Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Fiction writer, nonfiction author, scholar, and professor at the University of Southern California, Nguyen was only 4 years old when the Vietnam War ended, and yet he has given voice to a generation of Vietnamese people caught up in the war. His body of work constitutes an alternate version to the American story of the war “over there,” however critical the various books and movies on that conflict have been. Nguyen’s story is not only that of the 3 million Vietnamese lives lost in that war and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people who were lost at sea, but also the lives of surviving refugees in their American diaspora.

Nguyen, Sympathizer PB cover 9780802123459The Sympathizer is told from the point of view of a young Vietnamese
captain who is ostensibly on the side of the South but is actually a communist sympathizer – a “man of two minds,” as the Pulitzer Prize committee put it. When Saigon falls, he and other refugees find a safe haven in America. Dense with prose, the novel is thick with interiority, fleshing out the unnamed narrator’s complex stance on the war and his attendant guilt when he’s required to kill two suspected communist sympathizers in America. The war, we discover, is not over for him or his fellow refugees. The Vietnamese General, whom the narrator served under in South Vietnam, remains his superior in the United States and hopes still to continue the war back home by gathering a voluntary army. Meanwhile, we watch the anti-communist political turmoil that remains a constant among Americans who are unhappy with the way the war turned out, most notably Nguyen’s unforgettable blustering American Congressman.

In his nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Nguyen spares no punches in letting readers know that the Vietnam War, like other wars the United States has fought, is part of a history of U.S. imperialism. The Vietnam War didn’t go well. The American soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery and honored on the Memorial Wall constitute an attempt to give meaning to the deaths of American soldiers. Yet memory is a politicized construct, Nguyen says. In America, there is no wall to remember the Vietnamese. If one were built, it would be nine miles long. In Vietnam, those who opposed the winning side are left to decay unmemorialized and forgotten.

Hollywood especially receives Nguyen’s penetrating criticism. As he states in “Our Vietnam War Never Ended,” which serves as an afterward to his novel, Hollywood war films seemed to be all one-sided, and that side wasn’t the Vietnamese: “I watched Apocalypse Now and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched Platoon and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes, although fictional, left me shaking with rage. I knew that in the American imagination I was the Other, the Gook, the foreigner, no matter how perfect my English, how American my behavior. In my mostly white high school, the handful of Asian students clustered together in one corner for lunch and even called ourselves the Asian Invasion and the Yellow Peril.”

Just like in his nonfiction, Nguyen’s fiction is hard-hitting and spares no punches. At times, The Sympathizer is raw with black humor: The narrator’s political assassinations are both savage and over-the-top, reminiscent of black comedy in Tim O’Brien’s work. Nguyen’s novel is also satirical. The blustering Congressman calls to mind Ben Fountain’s Texans sold on Iraq in his recent novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But Nguyen’s voice is distinctive, and clearly a new American voice. And it must be said that The Sympathizer can’t be categorized simply as a war novel. It’s much more universal than that. On a larger scale, it’s a novel full of humanity, laying bare a dark side easier to ignore than contemplate.

 

What drew you to write a novel about the Vietnam War and its aftermath?

Although hundreds of novels had been written about the Vietnam War in several languages, none had done what I wanted to do. That was to write a novel that addressed the viewpoints of all sides, and to be critical of all sides. The war was a tragedy and a horror that everybody who fought in it was responsible for, and while some previous books had recognized that, they focused only on the experience of one side. Inevitably this produced some limitations in perspective and in understanding the war, its participants, and its observers. My goal was to encourage a re-examination of all the viewpoints of war through centering an approach from Vietnamese perspectives, which have been overwhelmed by American stories in the postwar period.

 

You’ve said elsewhere that you did some research for The Sympathizer. Did you conduct your research before or during the writing of the novel? Which method do you think works best with historical novels (or does that depend)?

Much of the research was already done because I had read books and seen films about the war all my life. I also drew on my life experience growing up in a Vietnamese American community. Even so, I still needed to do additional research for the novel, in particular for the fall of Saigon and the making of Apocalypse Now. Since the fall of Saigon is the opening sequence, I researched that before I began writing, and read every book and some articles that had been written about it. I found many useful anecdotes and vivid details, and I was able to compose a timeline of the fall – or the liberation, depending on one’s point of view – down to the minutes of the last days. That timeline was critical for the pacing of the sequence. As for Apocalypse Now, I researched that while I was writing the novel, in anticipation of that sequence, and again read all the books about the movie and Francis Ford Coppola. In addition, I did a considerable amount of online research to fill in many finer details of the novel – street names and maps, logistics of military organizations and bureaucracies, the plot to take back Vietnam, CIA torture techniques, and the like. I think doing enough historical research to stimulate one’s writing is necessary, but writers shouldn’t wait to write until they think they’ve researched everything. In that case, you’ll never write anything at all. Do enough to start, and save the rest as necessary while you write.

 

How long did it take you to write this novel, and what was your overall
process?

A little over two years. The context, however, is that I suffered for well over a decade writing a short story collection before the novel. That was a miserable experience, but it apparently taught me a great deal about literary craft. It was like the wax-on, wax-off training sequence in The Karate Kid, which Daniel (Ralph Macchio’s character) hated but which paid off in his sudden ability to defend himself. Coming to the novel was like ceasing to do chores and getting to do the fun stuff. I was lucky that I had two years off from teaching due to a fellowship and sabbaticals, and I wrote four hours a day every day of the week, in the mornings and early afternoons. Then I’d go to the gym and run on a treadmill for an hour, which was a very important part of the process. I was inspired by Haruki Murakami, although he runs marathons outdoors. I like air conditioning. After 15 minutes or so, the runner’s high would kick in and all kinds of ideas would start emerging in my mind about the next day’s writing. That’s how I plotted the novel, because I only had a two-page synopsis when I began. I had the broad strokes, but the details came from the running and the momentum of writing. I wrote a chapter a month, which included a first draft and a revision. By the end of the second year, I had a full draft that had already been revised once. I did one more revision in a few months, and that was what was sold. It was 170,000 words. Working with my editor, I cut it down to 145,000 words in a matter of weeks. That involved trimming back language and cutting a few scenes, but keeping the structure intact.

 

What motivated you to write your nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies?

I’m a scholar. I had spent a decade researching Nothing Ever Dies while I was also writing short stories. All that research about the Vietnam War – and all the thinking about theories of representation and ethical memory that I processed during that time – fed into the novel. The novel’s explicitly political and philosophical, and that came from my academic work. Some readers don’t like that, but to me, most contemporary American fiction seems to lack any kind of serious politics or serious ideas. The novel likewise influenced the writing of Nothing Ever Dies, injecting it with fictional strategies of rhythm, emotion, and narrative. Fiction and nonfiction accomplish very different things, but they can overlap. I wanted my fiction to seem nonfictional, and my nonfiction to seem fictional. At the same time, in fiction I could say things I couldn’t get away with in nonfiction without footnotes. And in nonfiction, I could make things explicit that I couldn’t say in fiction because of the viewpoint of my protagonist.

 

How do you view The Sympathizer in the tradition of war novels, not only in American literature but other literature as well?

When most people think “war novel,” they think of soldiers’ stories. The Sympathizer has those. But it also has the stories of civilians. Implicitly, the novel insists that a true war story has to take into account not just combat and soldiers, but civilians, the home front, and the military-industrial complex. For me, war is more than guns and shooting. That’s the spectacle that distracts us from how pervasive war is throughout a society and how it makes all of us complicit through things like paying taxes and watching horrifying images on TV without doing anything to stop them from happening. I was inspired by unconventional war novels like [Kurt Vonnegut’s] Slaughterhouse Five and [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, which begins in World War I and then goes all over the place. And António Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World, about Portugal’s Angolan War and how it never ended for its protagonist. Wars don’t end just because politicians say they do – that’s another key point of The Sympathizer.

 

How did you decide on your protagonist and his political leanings?

Making him a spy, and choosing the spy novel as a defining genre for my book, came immediately to me. I wanted to tell a serious story and an entertaining story, and spy novels have a long tradition of being able to do both through authors like Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John Le Carré, to name just three. To make my narrator a mixed-race person of French and Vietnamese heritage was also logical, because part of the seriousness of the novel was about the conflict of race, culture, nation, and difference that involved Vietnam, France, the United States, and all of the East versus West stereotyping that has saturated European and American thinking about Asia. So my character as a spy was going to be involved in many major political events, and as a Eurasian was going to be constantly dwelling on his duality, which would stand in for a universal sense of duality. Part of that duality extended to his politics, which were, on the one hand, a commitment to communism, and on the other hand, an infatuation with American culture and capitalism. He would be very capable of criticizing American culture and capitalism, but he would love them, too, and that capacity would influence his views on the failures of communism. I wanted this novel to be very political but not dogmatic, and making my narrator ambivalent in this way helps to prevent that slide into dogmatism.

 

What are some major literary influences on your fiction? Can you comment on specific evidence of influences, if any?

From American literature: [Herman] Melville and [William] Faulkner’s interrogation of flawed American character and ambition, especially around racial sin; Joseph Heller’s satire and humor; dashes of [Nathaniel] Hawthorne’s allegorical sensibility and [Edgar Allan] Poe’s haunting; [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s philosophical gaze on the American self; the whole tradition of African-American literature and its vital sense of anger and sorrow and its deep critique of the American horror, especially as found in Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man I am deeply engaged with and against in The Sympathizer. From European and Latin American literature: Gabriel García Márquez’s use of history and national culture as his palette; [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, who influenced Ellison, and whose focus on insanity, interiority, and interrogation, and on crime and guilt, in books like Notes from the Underground, The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment were fundamental to me; [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline and his willingness to reject realism, sending his protagonist from the trenches of World War I to Africa to Detroit and back to France in the span of a hundred pages, which inspired me to think I could cover vast territory as well; Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum did similar work for me and made me want to come up with a protagonist who could be at the center of war and history, too; [Charles] Baudelaire’s images, which I read to fire up my own imagination as I reworked every single sentence in search of an image; W.G. Sebald, whose melancholic meditations on the inescapable tragedy of the past are very important to me, as is his digressive, sprawling style; and finally [António] Lobo Antunes and his dense, imagistic prose, which served as the catalyst for my own. I read a few pages of his novel every day, and when I started to get hot, I began to write.

 

viet-fileYour novel is certainly heavy with prose, and yet quite scenic. Why did you go with a relatively experimental method of no punctuation of dialogue?

I like high modernism and low genre. I’m bored by middlebrow literary realism, which seems to be the dominant mode of contemporary American fiction. I don’t care about quotation marks and directing the reader and making things easy for the reader. I don’t want my fiction to be an example of the MFA style of “show, don’t tell,” of giving the reader a window onto reality, of lending a sense of transparency to the prose. Stylistically, I wanted something dense, image-heavy, and digressive, because I like those things. But I think they also serve purposes in relation to my narrator and my subject. He’s writing under interrogation, and he’s defiant. His interrogator wants straightforward, simple writing, and our spy won’t do that. He’s trapped in his own head, his own memories, and the style expresses that sense of being trapped, in this case in words and images. At the same time, I also wanted the novel to be constantly moving forward, and that’s why I use the generic conventions of [a] spy novel, hardboiled detective story, political thriller, immigrant saga, historical fiction, black comedy. The dense words are moved forward by the plot, or so I hope. The density of the words, meanwhile, serve as a screen over the actions of the plot, a filter that the reader notices and through which he or she must see.

 

Setting is very important in this novel. Can you tell us how you went about creating setting?

I wanted settings to be clear but not overly described. Not Dickensian. Not concerned with very fine details you might find in realistic fiction, like long descriptions of scenery, or furniture, or food, and so on. I think the description of settings tends to be cinematic, because I use details sparingly, and focus not only on material or geographical things, but also on people and moods. One example is the General’s liquor store and the gathering of exiled southern Vietnamese veterans. I spend little amounts of time on the neighborhood; on some of the store’s contents; on the clothing and comportment and mindset of the veterans; and then move towards the General and his wife, Madame; and onwards to the reporter interviewing them, Sonny; and then finally to Sonny and our narrator meeting. The camera, in other words, gradually moves in from outside to inside, from wide angle to close up. Each part of this move isn’t oversaturated with details, but the accumulation of a few details for each move adds up to describing the entire setting and atmosphere.

 

What tips do you have for beginning fiction writers?

Plan for the long haul. If you’re extremely talented and lucky, you’ll be famous in a few years. Most of us, including me, are neither that talented nor lucky. It took me 20 years of writing before I could write The Sympathizer. I got to that point by writing a lot, reading a lot, and enduring a lot. The practice of writing is a kind of self-instruction that no number of writing workshops can teach you. You have to learn how to do it yourself. The writing makes you a writer, it builds your discipline, enhances your talent, and draws forth the reserves of your character. Reading deeply in your preferred genre or style is very important, because there you learn the tradition you want to belong to or go against. Reading deeply in one category also reveals a basic truth – most of any one thing is bad. Knowing what’s bad and what’s been done before allows you to be good and original. Read widely to learn from people far afield from you, in genre, style, concern, culture, national origin. Become tough through exposure to the opinions of others, through which you will eventually learn your own genuine opinion of your writing. Rejection is hard to deal with, but so is the persistent sense that no one cares about what you’re doing. Learning your own opinion of your writing is saying that you have to learn what you want to write and who you are as a writer. In the end, writing because you care about writing, and writing to be true to yourself, are the only things that matter. And that is how you survive the long haul to becoming a writer, not because of the lures of publication, fame, or profit.

 

Jack Smith is author of numerous articles, reviews, and interviews, three novels, and a book on writing entitled Write and Revise for Publication.

 

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