By Leila Wickliffe
The Sympathizer was the 2015 debut novel from Viet Thanh Nguyen and later won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as other accolades. The premise is that a South Vietnamese army captain is leaving on the last plane out of the country with his fellow men. The captain and his compatriots start a new life as refugees in Los Angeles, California. However, they are unaware that their captain is reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a gripping spy epic of betrayal and love that examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in history, literature, and film.
Nguyen was born in 1971 in Vietnam. He later fled with his family to the United States as refugees after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Eventually, they settled in San Jose where they established the first Vietnamese grocery store in that area. Growing up as a refugee impacted Nguyen as he grew up. He read about the Vietnam War and immersed himself in the history and culture, and all of the knowledge he gained eventually led him to become an author.
“And so I think that emotional confusion, damage, it was pretty good for becoming a writer because it gave me the necessary, material that really screwed me up for a long time, but which also provided me with a lot of motivation for trying to figure out my own history, my own family, my own personality,”-Viet Thanh Nguyen
Earlier this month on Aug. 13, I had the pleasure of interviewing Viet Thanh Nguyen with other organizers from the Dear Asian Youth Book Club. In an industry saturated with American perspectives of the Vietnam War, it was refreshing to read a book about the war from the Vietnamese perspective. Nguyen’s personal experience is used in his work and inspired a large portion of The Sympathizer. “And so I think that emotional confusion, damage, it was pretty good for becoming a writer because it gave me the necessary, material that really screwed me up for a long time, but which also provided me with a lot of motivation for trying to figure out my own history, my own family, my own personality,” Nguyen said. “So without all those things, I don’t know if I could have become the writer that I am now.”
The narrator in the novel grapples with the ramifications of war as he tries to assimilate into American culture. He is called on to consult for a Hollywood movie about the war. While he sees it as an opportunity to give the Vietnamese people a voice in a historical depiction of war, he soon realizes that Hollywood is only interested in its romanticized picture of what they wanted the war to be. Similarly to the narrator, Nguyen hopes to impact American literature by creating the most authentic piece of work he can. “The Sympathizer comes from this sense that, we need to get beyond ideas of representation, voice, and humanization. Because I think part of what it means to own ourselves completely is to acknowledge that if we look at our population, whatever that is, we’re like everybody else.”
In 2021, Nguyen released The Committed, the sequel to The Sympathizer. Despite having more eyes on him than before, he was not intimidated. “The Pulitzer Prize, I felt could either walk me into fear, and the desire to repeat myself, or it could even just continue to liberate me by giving me the ability to do whatever I wanted to do,” Nguyen commented about his experience while writing The Committed. Followers of Nguyen can keep up with his work outside of academia and literature through his work as an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, critic for the Los Angeles Times, and an editor for diaCRITICS, a blog for the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. Fans can also look forward to his upcoming memoir that is almost off to his editor.
Nguyen is currently the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He wants to challenge how people think and see the world. His unique position as a writer not only connects him to art but to political and social movements. “They help to change the world materially and writers help to change the world imaginatively. And if we don’t change the world imaginatively, we can’t change the world materially and vice versa,” he elaborated on the correlation between literature and the current world.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a humble academic and writer, and he is a great role model for anyone aspiring to bring about change in whatever way they can. The Sympathizer is a thought-provoking piece of art. It provides a much-needed Vietnamese perspective and voice to the Vietnam War. The narrative is framed as a confession from the narrator, and it forces readers to reexamine what the Vietnam War meant and how it correlated to American identity through a non-American lens.