Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer is a story about the Vietnam War, but though the war ends in the opening section of the book, with a thrilling race as many characters try to escape Saigon as the city falls, the characters don’t stop fighting. The book’s unnamed protagonist is a South Vietnamese official, who has been reporting back to his colleagues in North Vietnam, and continues to do so in California, where he settles after the war. The main reason is his access to his former boss, “The General,” who plots to retake the country. It’s an espionage thriller, but it’s also a story that gets at the heart of so many of the Vietnam war movies made in America, and it’s also a story about ideas and the stories we create.
The protagonist is half-French and half-Vietnamese and studies in the United States. He quickly finds that he belongs nowhere and is accepted by no one. He is however a great believer, which is what motivates him, and keeps readers believing even as his crimes grow over the course of the novel. Nguyen offers a very different frame to consider the Vietnam War from the one that Americans are used to considering.
The Rumpus: Where did The Sympathizer begin for you?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It started with the idea of a spy. When I was growing up and reading books about the Vietnam War I came across the existence of these communist spies in various places in South Vietnam. I wanted to write a novel that was going to be a direct confrontation with politics, history, the war and also I wanted to write a novel that would be entertaining. I figured a spy would allow me to do all those kinds of things.
Rumpus: You’d grown up reading Graham Greene, John Le Carré, and books that incorporated ideas and were also entertainment.
Nguyen: Definitely. I didn’t get into Le Carré until college or my post-college years, but I wrote my thesis on The Quiet American. When I was growing up I read all kinds of juvenile spy novels, but also very adult fare too. I was very curious about the Vietnam war so I was reading things like Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters when I was probably 12—which you should not do! [Laughs] It’s really a book that scarred me. I remember it to this day and I wanted to write a book that could approximate the power of what Heinemann was doing in Close Quarters.
Rumpus: Was there something in particular from Heinemann that you tried to carry over into The Sympathizer?
Nguyen: Heinemann’s novel deals with a young American, a very normal guy, who goes to war and becomes a monster. It culminates in a horrific gang rape sequence near the end of the book. When I was twelve, I was unable to deal with that. It stayed in my mind for decades. Going back to Heinemann as an adult what I really admired about what he did was he did not editorialize or sentimentalize. He wanted to show this transformation in this person without commentary and that’s what made it a powerful account of dehumanization. That’s what I wanted to do in this novel. It deals with some horrible things and I wanted to show those things in as unvarnished a way as I could, without giving the reader the benefit of sentimentality or editorial comments on the immorality on what the reader has been witnessing.
Rumpus: What’s so striking about the book is that it is such a strong indictment of everything happening all sides. It shows the hypocrisy, the corruption, and as you say, it can be a powerful thing to convey that without comment and let readers experience that, but that is precisely the source of controversy for so many books.
Nguyen: Yes it is. It’s certainly a novel about the Vietnam War, but I always intended it as a novel about power, abuse, authority, and how everybody—on all sides of all factions—are capable of doing these things. We like to deny that we are capable of doing those things but that our enemies can, and so the novel takes a side. The novel takes the side of justice, but in so doing, it recognizes that everybody is committing injustice in the name of these revolutionary and democratic struggles. That’s an enduring issue. It happens whenever we have wars and revolutions and conflicts between ideologically opposed sides. I think that the novel could be controversial because people want reassurances that the side that they have chosen has done the right thing. They’re capable of criticizing the other side but they don’t want to hear it about their own side. I’ll be curious to see what the reactions of people are to what I consider to be equal opportunity criticism. Can they take the criticism directed at the side that they identify with?
Rumpus: You said that you consider the novel to be on the side of justice. Our protagonist isn’t cynical, in many ways. He’s a great believer.
Nguyen: I think he is a great believer. He’s a great idealist. He’s uncynical at that very core level and what happens to him is that he’s exposed to all these atrocities and abuses and they make him a cynical person. He’s constantly struggling between his skepticism, his cynicism, and his desire to still believe in something grand. Of course that’s what leads to his downfall at the end.
Rumpus: One thing that drives the book is his need to protect his friend, at the risk of everything.
Nguyen: That was important for me to have that in there because particularly in the East, there’s a strong belief in family and friends above all else. One of the things that marked the war was that families were divided with some people fighting for one side and some people fighting for the other side. They would know about it and they would protect each other. That theme is crucial to Eastern culture. It’s crucial to Hong Kong films by John Woo—which was one source of inspiration for this trio of blood brothers who are committed to each other despite the fact that they’re committed to different political beliefs. Part of what drives the book is their idealism, their sentimental attachments to each other, their investment in a brotherly romance which provides an emotional anchor for the book, but also refers to real historical themes as well.
Rumpus: I wouldn’t have thought of John Woo, but now that you’ve said it, I definitely can see it.
Nguyen: [Laughs] There’s a movie called Bullet in the Head which not a lot of people have seen but it’s set in Vietnam and it’s like his version of The Deerhunter, about these Hong Kong guys who are tortured and put in camps and forced to survive. It brings up all the classic John Woo themes. All the John Woo movies are brotherly stories and that stuck with me. It’s a template under the surface of this relationship.
Rumpus: At what point when you were writing or thinking about the book, did you figure out the structure and decide to make it a confessional?
Nguyen: I knew the structure of the book when I began. I wrote a two-page synopsis which was fairly accurate all the way until the end. I knew they were going to end up in a camp, but I didn’t know what was going to happen to them. I had an idea, but it turned out to be something different. I didn’t know that it was going to be a confession until probably two-thirds or three-quarters of the way in. I was just trusting myself as I was writing the book that he’s talking to somebody and I don’t know who he’s talking to but we’ll get there eventually. At that moment, two-thirds or three-quarters in, I realized okay, this is it. Because I knew where he was going to end up, I knew what the ending of the book was going to be. That made it easy at that point to go back and write in the confessional parts.
Rumpus: You understood from the beginning that this is him retelling his story.
Nguyen: Whenever you’re writing a novel you have to think about who’s doing the telling and who’s the audience. There had to be some structural reason for why he was talking that would give him a reason to tell the story the way he was telling it. The confessional form is critical because in communism, if you end up in one of these camps, you have to write these confessions constantly. You don’t just write it once, but you revise and revise and revise. Generally throughout communist societies the self-criticism session is really crucial. You sit in a circle and you criticize yourself in front of your peers. I found these self-criticism and confessional forms to be really literary. Once I realized this was a confession, it was perfect.
Rumpus: In doing so, this self-criticism allows the person to reshape and reframe events.
Nguyen: Exactly. You have a particular audience in mind. Your peers and or your confessor have a lot of power over you so that’s going to shape the course of the narrative.
Rumpus: How much research was involved in writing the book?
Nguyen: I’d been thinking about the issues in this book since I was ten or twelve and started to get interested in the Vietnam War. By the time I came to write the book, much of the research had already been done and was in the back of my mind except for two things. One was the fall of Saigon, which I knew something about but I didn’t know all the details. Then there was the making of the movie. I did a lot of research on those two topics. In the case of the fall of Saigon, I wanted to make sure that I was getting this event down day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute, based on what was happening in the city. As for the making of the movie, obviously that section references a lot of Vietnam War movies but in particular Apocalypse Now. I knew something about that movie and the legend of its making, but I also wanted to make sure that I got a lot of the details right—as the Auteur would insist on doing. I found out that the making of that movie you couldn’t dream up in fiction anyway! I was able to draw on a lot of the facts and rumors that accrued around the making of the movie in the Philippines.
Rumpus: The issue at the core of the section about the movie is the notion of who gets to tell the story of the war. As you make the point, it’s usually Americans, who are generally white.
Nguyen: That section is certainly my revenge on Hollywood for making all of these movies and me watching them as an impressionable kid in the eighties. It is also, as you say, a commentary about storytelling, about history, about who gets to be in the center and who gets to be in the margins. I was concerned not only with the power of American culture to shape its own story, but to export that story globally as well. As I say in the book, even though Americans lost the war, in fact they won the war in fiction because they keep telling their stories and putting their stories in front of the world. Vietnamese people tell their stories all the time but they don’t have the capacity to transmit those stories globally. There’s a moment in the review in the New York Times Book Review by Philip Caputo—which is a wonderful review—but the one thing I object to is that he starts off by saying this novel gives voice to the voiceless. This is a very common trope when it comes to authors like me, which I really object to because the Vietnamese have voices—it’s just that Americans are deaf or they’re monolingual. That’s part of what that section is getting at. It’s frustrating to know that you have a story, know that you’re telling that story and that you can be completely overrun by this American premise.
Rumpus: If you ask most Americans how many people died in the Vietnam War, they would say the number is fifty-eight thousand.
Nguyen: Absolutely. That’s their first response. I think the general figure is three million altogether.
Rumpus: Making that leap requires a very different perspective.
Nguyen: Yes and I think that American perspective is really deeply entrenched. It’s really hard for Americans to get out of that inclination to focus first on their own experience, their own losses, their own suffering. I totally understand it because it’s true for all cultures—including Vietnam and Vietnamese refugees. But for someone like me who sees both the American experience and the Vietnamese experience, it is disturbing to see that tendency.
Rumpus: You mentioned that you’d been accumulating so much of the background research that went into the book for much of your life. Where did main character come from, this duality in his life and identity, especially?
Nguyen: As I was trying to think about who this spy was I thought almost immediately that it would be great if he was of mixed race background, because then he would literally embody that idea that East is East and West is West and never the Twain shall meet. Having him be of mixed race descent would obviously allow me to talk about French colonialism. It would allow me to talk about the racism of both the French and the Vietnamese towards each other, but most particularly towards those people like the Eurasians who fell in between. On a personal level, he would experience all these cultural, political, and racial tensions and it would give him a reason to feel for the underdog and to see from more than one side. Feeling for the underdog is what gets him to be a revolutionary. Seeing things from both sides is his talent, but it is also his fatal flaw as well.
Rumpus: The protagonist is very much a specific character, but in a certain sense, he’s also a symbol, which is a challenging line to tread.
Nguyen: Well, I did think of him as an everyman. That’s one of the reasons he has no name in the book. Someone who could see from all sides, understand all perspectives, but comes to embody these different cultural histories. Someone who could find himself at all the interesting historical junctures that happened in Vietnam and America. Yet hopefully someone whose voice is going to be unique enough so he would not simply be a symbol but a very complicated individual. It was a challenge to think of him as someone who could be representative of these bigger issues, but also someone who could be so specific and particular that his voice could get us to accept the symbolic weight of everything that he carried.
Rumpus: The protagonist doesn’t have a name and neither do many other characters like “The General” or “The Auteur.” Was that in your original conception of the novel?
Nguyen: That was part of the original plot. In the American imagination, people who are “others” are nameless. So that’s why when he works on the movie and he sees the credits roll, no one has a name, they’re all just types. That’s one of the things the namelessness is referring to, that these people are types in the American imagination. Although they function as individuals, the types or roles that they occupy in the dimension of the novel have some kind of allegorical purpose.
Rumpus: You mentioned that in your initial outline he went to the camp and after that you were uncertain about the ending and that you came to understand the ending as you were writing it.
Nguyen: When I initially wrote the synopsis, I thought, they’ll get to the camp. I did think that Man would be there and I thought there would be some kind of triangular confrontation between our three brothers and that someone was going to die—most likely Bon—by firing squad. As I wrote the novel and as the novel gained momentum, I knew that by the time I got up to the last quarter of the novel, whatever happened had to be big. There had to be some kind of payoff for everything that was going on. I wanted it to be an ending that was not purely externalized. If all three confronted each other and one was killed by firing squad, it would have an action movie kind of climax. I felt that because the novel was so much about our narrator, and as the novel progressed he did things that got worse and worse, I thought, he can’t get away with all this. He had to understand what he had done and what he was participating in. It would just make sense if he was subjected to the very mechanisms that he had participated in. Certainly I was thinking about Kafka and “The Penal Colony” and Dostoevsky and Brothers Karamazov. It had to be an intense spiritual, intellectual, emotional torment for him by the end. That became clear to me, two-thirds, three-quarters of the way in.
Rumpus: I don’t want to ruin the novel, but I was struck by the ending where he does have this sense of having gone through hell, but of having been reborn and having a new chance.
Nguyen: I didn’t want to end the novel on a hokey sentimental note, but I also didn’t want to end the novel with him being tortured. The very final chapter is my attempt to at least have him begin to understand what he’s experienced and to return to that revolutionary idealism—whether it’s a justified idealism or not. The book doesn’t answer that question, but that’s the thing he’s hanging onto by the end. It gives me the opening to continue his story later.
Rumpus: You want to continue the story of this character?
Nguyen: I hope so. I have some serious ideas about where he goes to next and what’s going to happen to him. As I was writing the novel it became very clear to me that this novel be read as a Vietnam War novel, which is both an opportunity and a constraint. It’s getting a lot of press partly because of the history that it’s dealing with and partly because Americans know the name the Vietnam War. I’m allowed to say something to Americans because they know something about this topic, but the danger is that the novel and his story will be constrained under that rubric of the Vietnam War. For me, that’s not all that the novel or his story or the story of the Vietnamese or the Americans who went to Vietnam is really about. The Vietnam War was the historical manifestation of something much deeper in American society, Vietnamese society, French society. By that I mean a manifestation of this desire for power, this turn to violence as a way to address things. The end of the Vietnam War didn’t end those issues. In the sequel, it’s not going to be set in Vietnam and it’s not going to be set in the United States, his story is going to continue in France because I want to connect what happened in the first novel to this larger history that really begins well before the Americans ever got to Vietnam.
Rumpus: It is a story of the war but it’s also an immigrant novel and it also fights against some of those traditions. There is this sense that they’re familiar with America because America came to their homeland long before they ever emigrated
Nguyen: That was one of the reasons to really make this novel an international novel. It takes place in several countries. There’s a line about how the Americanization of the Philippines began in the Philippines, not in the United States. It is an immigrant novel, it is a refugee novel, but I wanted to do a couple of things that would be different than what typically takes place in these kinds of immigrant and refugee novels. The novel does not end in the United States. Typically in the immigrant or refugee novel, people come to the United States fleeing from something terrible, they face all kinds of obstacles, but in the end, they become Americans. That really affirms the American dream for American readers and allows American readers to overlook all the structural problems that led the United States to go fight these wars overseas that brought these people here—and all the various structural problems that create difficult experiences for immigrants and refugees in the US. It was important to me that he go back to Southeast Asia and that the novel ends there because that’s one way to place the American dream and the immigrant story in a much larger context.
The other thing that’s important to me in writing this novel so that the immigrant or refugee story takes place within the context of the Vietnam War is that hopefully people understand that the immigrant story or the refugee story is also a war story. In America we think of war stories as stories that happen somewhere else over there fought by men with guns, but for most of the world that’s not what a war story means. Wars happen in people’s countries, destroys their homes, makes them homeless, involves civilians killed in addition to soldiers. Many of the immigrants or refugees who come to America came here because of American wars. They survived wars. The immigrant and refugee story as Americans understand it is only the end point of a war story that took place somewhere else that Americans were often involved in.
Rumpus: There is a complete disconnect not just in the minds of average Americans, but even at a government and policy level. The fact that the invasion of Iraq caused a refugee crisis is something that no one planned for and just never occurred to the people in charge.
Nguyen: Absolutely. That’s why I think the novel does say more than simply talking about the Vietnam War. Anybody who’s reading this will hopefully be thinking that there are parallels between what happened then and what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to make sense of these wars, Americans turn to reliable narratives about why it is that the United States goes to fight wars overseas and how it is that the United States welcomes refugees and immigrants. For Americans these two things are magically separated. All of a sudden there are Iraqis and Afghans and Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians because—we rescued them and brought them to a better life. That’s how Americans make sense of these two narratives of war and immigration and keep them apart.