The morning of April 18 found Viet Thanh Nguyen in Cambridge, Mass., on tour for his first novel, “The Sympathizer.” He was tapping out emails in the quiet of his hotel room when he heard his electronic devices beeping and pinging. Just like that, everything changed. Nguyen learned he’d become the first Vietnamese-American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Six months later, his stature rose higher when his second book, the nonfiction “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” was named a finalist for the National Book Award. He is unique for winning a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and being a nonfiction finalist for a National Book Award in the same year.
Now the author and academic is everywhere. He’s suddenly the most visible Vietnamese-American writer in the nation—maybe the most visible Vietnamese-American person, period. He’s crisscrossing the country to speak at conferences, conventions, and book events. His op-ed articles are published in The New York Times, and he’s a cultural columnist for the Los Angeles Times, having commented on everything from the psychological and emotional scars borne by refugees to what hipster pho restaurants tell us about the economics of minority-owned real estate.
He’s also seen as a representative of the Vietnamese-American community in Little Saigon, a place where he has never lived and is circumspect about visiting to talk about his book, a pitch-black satire depicting the absurdities of war.
“It’s weird because I have not gotten more outspoken. I have not changed my opinions in any way; I have not changed my personality, but people want to know what I have to say. The platform has expanded, but I’m saying the same things,” says Nguyen, who is 45 and a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at USC. The question is will Little Saigon and the rest of Orange County like what he has to say?
In the field of celebrated Vietnam War novels, “The Sympathizer”—which won a slew of other awards, from a Dayton Literary Peace Prize to an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America—stands out. Unlike Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” or Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke,” it’s told from the point of view of the Vietnamese. The main character is an unnamed Vietnamese-French man, an army captain who spies for the Viet Cong while acting as an aide to a South Vietnamese general. He’s “a man of two minds,” someone “able to see any issue from both sides,” a sympathizer.
It opens in April 1975, as Saigon is falling, and tracks the captain’s journey from the chaos of the capital to the mundane apartment buildings and strip malls of Southern California. While the general plots to assemble troops for a counter-revolutionary invasion, the captain travels to the Philippines as a technical consultant for a Holly-wood movie (read: “Apocalypse Now”), and on to Thailand and Laos. He finally ends up back in Vietnam as a prisoner in a brutal reeducation camp, forced to write and rewrite a confession.
“I wanted the narrator to stand in for all Vietnamese experience, and for the geographical scope to take him all over the place like Jason Bourne,” Nguyen says.
One place the acid-tongued narrator zips into is Orange County: “It was the birthplace of the war criminal Richard Nixon, as well as the home of John Wayne, a place so ferociously patriotic I thought Agent Orange might have been manufactured there or at least named in its honor,” the captain recollects at one point. At another, he recalls “a town I had never visited, Westminster, or, as our countrymen pronounced it, Wet-min-ter.”
Readers familiar with Orange County history and the Vietnamese-American community will recognize the prototypes for some of the people, places, and things Nguyen satirizes in the novel. A conservative Orange County congressman who courts the general as he plans his doomed campaign, for example, is modeled on longtime Republican congressman Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan, and the general is partly based on Nguyen Cao Ky, the former air force general who ruled South Vietnam for two years in the 1960s.
“(Ky’s) infamous as the general who—as this guy does—went on the radio as Saigon was falling and said, ‘Defend this country to your last breath,’ and then he took off in a helicopter. And then he went to Orange County and he opened a liquor store,” Nguyen says.
As for Dornan, “I think my (fictional) congressman is smarter than he was (as a representative). I don’t know Dornan personally or anything, but he was always a buffoon from my ideological point of view. Whereas my congressman is definitely a politician, but he’s very smart about what he’s doing,” he says.
But Nguyen’s target is not only the politicians and soldiers involved in the Vietnam War; it’s the misperceptions that cause and perpetuate all wars.
“This book is not just about the Vietnam War, it’s about war in general. The reason we keep going to war is because we make excuses for ourselves. War is bad, but it’s bad because of the other side, not because of us. That’s hypocritical,” he says.
“I try to offend everybody in the book because I think everybody should be offended. All sides did something wrong in the history of this conflict and afterward, but it’s human nature to only see the faults of our enemies and not ourselves.
“I’ve gotten letters from some American veterans saying this is an anti-American book, and I’m thinking, ‘Yes, it is, it’s very critical. But it’s also critical of these other populations, and you don’t say anything about that.’ So I anticipate that I’ll get some criticism from Vietnamese-American readers as well.”
At the lectern at a book event in Glendale and in conversation at his home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Nguyen comes across as equal parts erudite author and precise academic; the author is passionate about and inspired by European writers like W.G. Sebald and Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Americans such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, while the academic is data-ready to defend his theses. This duality is not surprising given that he has spent decades trying to make it in both worlds. No kid dreams of becoming an academic, he jokes, but Nguyen has harbored literary ambitions since he was young.
Born in Vietnam, he seems to have possessed an artist’s sensitivity from an early age. He recalled in a radio interview that one of his earliest memories was of having to be separated from his parents and brother for several months after they arrived at a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. Then 4 years old, he was sent to live with a sponsor family. They tried to make him feel comfortable by giving him chopsticks but didn’t realize he didn’t know how to use them. “And I felt very badly about that. And that was, I think, my first initiation into the sense of being culturally and racially different than other Americans.”
After his family was reunited, they settled in San Jose. His parents worked 12 to 14 hours a day as shopkeepers, and he fell in love with books. By college, he’d decided to become a novelist. “I never told my parents I was writing fiction. I told them I was an English major, and that was bad enough.”
So he followed the advice of his older brother, Tung Thanh—who was a philosophy major as an undergrad and became a doctor and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “My brother was the precedent. He said, ‘Just tell them you’re going to be an English major and you’re going to become a lawyer,’ and that’s what I did.” Eventually, he told his parents that he wasn’t going to law school but would pursue a doctorate degree instead. “My parents were relatively liberal. They said, ‘Well, at least you’ll become a professor, right?’”
He got his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and joined the faculty at USC in 1997. But he never gave up writing fiction and struggled for years writing short stories. He finally hit his stride when he started “The Sympathizer” during a 2011 teaching sabbatical. He tried to please only himself and composed it in a joyous, dreamlike state. He’d write for four hours in the morning, eat lunch, and go to the gym and run for an hour on the treadmill.
“After about 15 minutes I’d get that runner’s high, and for the next 45 minutes I’d think about the novel. When I began writing the novel, I had a two-page outline, which was fairly accurate until the last quarter of the book. But obviously, a lot of detail was missing. That’s what the running was for. I’d run and I’d be able to see exactly what was going to happen the next day. It was really a wonderful experience.”
When the novel was released in April 2015, the reviews were wondrous, too. The Washington Post dubbed it “a cerebral thriller,” “a new classic of war fiction,” and The Guardian called it “a bold, artful, and globally minded reimagining of the Vietnam War.” Critics praised it as a correction to the “Americentric” version of the war seen in Hollywood movies such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”
“His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless,” author Philip Caputo wrote in The New York Times.
It is at least partly because he sees his life in the pages of Nguyen’s novel that Long Dinh, a former officer in the South Vietnamese air force, is one of its biggest fans. After the war, Dinh was sent to a reeducation camp in North Vietnam for seven years. It took him another eight years to be reunited with his family in this country.
He praises the novel as “a real portrayal of what happened before and after the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective—how people lived and adapted through the many changes and adversities as Vietnamese, Vietnamese refugees, and Vietnamese-Americans.
“I think most, if not all, Vietnamese would be proud that this is the first time a Vietnamese-American has won a Pulitzer Prize,” says Dinh, who lives with his wife in Huntington Beach.
Despite similar proclamations of pride Nguyen has heard, the author is cautious about taking the book into Little Saigon, which through the years has been a hotbed of numerous anti-communist demonstrations. That fervor has led to massive rallies that required hundreds of police to contain. Protests have caused upheavals at businesses, colleges, and cultural venues, with arrests, job losses, and even death threats.
Nguyen had firsthand experience with anti-communist protesters when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. The Vietnamese-American arts organization he belonged to presented a play, “Story of Tony D,” across the Bay at San Francisco State. The work was adapted from a short story by Le Minh Khue, a noted author and North Vietnamese army veteran, and dealt with reconciliation between Americans and Vietnamese. Even though the play was not pro-communist, protesters tried to shut it down, and campus police were called in to keep the peace.
“So I’m very wary,” Nguyen says. “I go to (Little Saigon) to eat, but I’m very wary to go there to read (my books). I have not even given any readings in Orange County yet.”
That’s about to change. He has two local readings coming up this month—at UC Irvine and the Newport Beach Public Library.
Dinh, the former Vietnamese air force officer, says Nguyen’s concerns are understandable. “There is a very small number of extremists who only want to hear people agree with their anti-communist view and would loudly protest against any slight hint at criticism of the old South Vietnamese government or military.”
But he believes the novel might resonate even with the hard-liners. “If they have read the book, they would know that at the end, the protagonist escapes Vietnam by boat, risking his life just like millions of other Vietnamese boat people, to run away from Communist control. In essence, he has also become one of them.”