I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
I attended a panel last year where Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Shilpi Somaya Gowda were discussing the theme of home in their writing. For immigrants home can be a touchy subject but clearly it can produce great literature.
And this one example: only a person who is from the culture, or who has a connection to the culture, could write something like this with such nuance and insight. I find it intriguing how satire and humour is used to tell tough stories and I am impressed by how well Nguyen does that in this book.We all know about the Vietnam war and have probably seen some horrific images from there, but Nguyen uses satire to tell us the story and it works really well in a way I can’t quite put into words right now. I laugh at Nguyen calling 1975 Vietnam a “jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States”, though I can see how awful that reality must have been.
Nguyen’s protagonist was interesting too, as a half-French half-Vietnamese communist agent, who was both an insider and an outsider. I appreciated the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite belong anywhere, who, because of his peripheral position in society, gives such insight to both Vietnamese and American culture. It brought to mind the unique perspectives minority writers bring to their writing, the nuances they can pick up that others might not be able to:
“Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs! Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience, feeling the constant tug-of-war inside you and over you, between Orient and Occident. ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, as Kipling so accurately diagnosed”.
Nguyen picks out racial microaggressions and western hypocrisy without naming them as such, and then proceeds to show us how ridiculous they are. He makes observations that are incisive and hilarious:
When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job.
It’s really a fascinating novel that deserves all its accolades.
Something I remember from the panel is that Nguyen was discussing censorship in Vietnam and how a publisher in Vietnam wanted to translate the book into Vietnamese. As Nguyen said, “I’d be surprised to learn that I’d published a novella!” His great sense of humour was what led me to read this book and I’m so glad I did.