books, Debut Novel, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Short Stories

The Works of Viet Thanh Nguyen – “The Sympathizer” and “The Refugees”

“As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite. Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere. The General was deeply familiar with the nature, nuances and internal differences of white people, as was every nonwhite person who had lived here a good number of years. We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist’s office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. We were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe. Although the Congressman was joking,we probably did know white people better than they knew themselves, and we certainly knew white people better than they ever knew us.”

In honor of last week’s Pulitzer Prize announcements, I read both works of fiction by previous winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Sympathizer”, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2017 collection of short stories, “The Refugees” were both truly brilliant.

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“The Sympathizer” begins with a dramatic monologue which hooks the reader and soon makes one feel, if not complicit, certainly sympathetic to the protagonist’s struggles.

“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 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 natures, 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 a 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 virtues than a danger.”

The story is framed as a confession – the sympathizer, a half-French, half-Vietnamese man who was a captain in the South Vietnamese army and a communist sleeper agent, is currently imprisoned and is crafting his lengthy confession for his captors. Through his carefully curated words, we learn that the “captain” escaped Vietnam just as Saigon was falling, seeking refuge in the United States, where he continued both his role as a trusted advisor to a South Vietnamese general and also as communist sympathizer eager to further the movement.

From birth, the sympathizer has felt himself divided, a man of two minds and two identities.

“Although a misnomer when applied to me, I could hardly blame Americans for mistaking me for one of their own, since a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI. This stood for Government Issue, which is also what the Amerasians are. Our countrymen preferred euphemisms to acronyms, calling people like me the dust of life. More technically, the Oxford English Dictionary I consulted at Occidental revealed that I could be called a ‘natural child,’ while the law in all countries I know of hails me as its illegitimate as its illegitimate son. My mother called me her love child, but I do not like to dwell on that. In the end, my father had it right. He called me nothing at all.”

As a young adult, he translates his ability to blend and fade, to act many parts, into his work as a sympathizer. The dichotomy of the outward character he plays, however, and his inner allegiances provokes a great deal of stress and creates an insurmountable sense of isolation from nearly everyone with whom he interacts.

“[M]ost actors spent more time with their masks off than on, whereas in my case it was the reverse. No surprise, then, that sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face, only to realize that the mask was my face.”

As an immigrant to America himself, Nguyen has insights into the so-called immigrant experience that are, if not scathing, justifiably barbed.

“Perhaps unknown censors were reading refugee mail, looking for dejected, angry refugees who could not or would not dream the American Dream. I was careful, then, to present myself as just another immigrant, glad to be in the land where the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed in writing, which when one comes to think about it, is not such a great deal. Now a guarantee of happiness – that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.”

How brilliantly astute! We, as a ‘host’ nation, expect immigrants to assimilate thoroughly, to be grateful and happy, and to not interfere with our ‘native’ rights. As a culture, we tend to dismiss immigrants’ struggles to balance two cultures and two allegiances, and we have little tolerance for critiques or complaints, no matter how justified.

“Refugee, exile, immigrant – whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. …The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.”

As for this year’s book, “The Refugees”, Nguyen continues to flex his artistic muscles and exercise his remarkable voice with short stories that are simultaneously politically important and searingly funny. Again, his milieu is immigration and his characters are flawed, flailing, and fierce. The stories have a different emotional weight to them than does his novel, somehow being equally impactful while less exhausting. Perhaps this difference is a natural product of the length of the stories versus the entirety of a novel, though I have read many a short story collection that weighs quite heavily on the psyche. I think, too, that the lighter feel of the stories may be their historical remove from the war in Vietnam. Though many of his characters are refugees from war time, most of their stories are told in the present. This distance was particularly poignant because it   allowed Nguyen to expose generational differences and to peer into the long-term effects of being a refugee and a ‘foreigner’. Nguyen was also able to step into the minds of multiple characters through his stories, showing a remarkable range, from refugees who suffer survivor’s guilt and seek escape from their everyday world:

“Writing was entering into fog, feeling my way for a route from this world to the unearthly world of words, a route easier to find on some days than others.”

to those who chose to close off their memories and forget the past:

“His habit of forgetting was too deeply ingrained, as if he passed his life perpetually walking backward through a desert, sweeping away his footprints, leaving him with only scattered recollections…”

Nguyen, whose comedic handle on American culture and stereotypes is an absolute joy (even if one is the butt of his jokes), even inhabits the mind of non-Asian Americans in his stories, as with Arthur, a prejudiced man who has been the recipient of a Vietnamese man’s liver:

“He had trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another. He was also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same. On first meeting the Parks, he had not thought that they were Korean, or even Japanese. Instead, he had fallen back on his default choice when confronted with a perplexing problem of identification regarding an Asian. ‘There are a lot of Chinese around here,’ Arthur said.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a gifted storyteller. His insight, his wit, and his winsome way with words combine to make his works brilliant, refreshing, and important.

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