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.

books, People of Color, Reading, Short Stories, Women Writers

“what is not yours is not yours” by helen oyeyemi

“Consent is a downward motion, I think – a leap or a fall – and whether they’ll admit it or not, even the most decisive people can find themselves unable to tell whether or not their consent was freely given. That inability to discover whether you jumped or were pushed brings about a deadened gaze and a downfall all its own.”

Helen Oyeyemi’s “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” is a stunning collection of subtly 51VlEaAQjTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_-2interwoven short stories, tales of locks and keys both literal and figurative. Oyeyemi’s stories tell of secrets and secretive natures, of guards and guardedness. Many of her characters are profoundly awkward, uneasy in their own skins and in a world that seems wholly other to them. Some use puppets to connect with the world, while others channel stories and books.

Though characters may appear across stories, the ties that bind this collection are the focus on “unlocking” life and on personalities who feel themselves apart from the world around them.

“City people only talk to people they’re already acquainted with, so as to avoid strangers speaking to them with annoying over-familiarity or in words that aren’t immediately comprehensible. And everybody in the city is just so terribly bored. Show a city dweller wonders and they’ll yawn or take a photo and send it to somebody else with a message that says ‘Wow.'”

“What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” has an air of the confessional. The reader is often spoken to directly, the protagonists’ deepest inner thoughts unwittingly exposed.

“When you took the glove puppet he alternated between flirtatious and suicidal, hell-bent on flinging himself from great heights and out of windows. I noticed that you didn’t make a voice or a history for the puppet, but you became its voice and history. I’d have liked to admire that but felt I was watching a distressing form of theft, since the puppet could do nothing but suffer being forced open like an oyster.”

The tone of direct address and confession is emotionally effective. As a reader you can’t help but feel drawn to the characters, in on their secrets.

Not only are Oyeyemi’s characters confessional; they are also irresistibly wry and witty. Her words, and their thoughts, are cleverly cutting.

“Myrna had assumed command over two boys who lived in the flat above her own: Jindrich and Kirill, the Topol brothers. Myrna was both boys’ grand passion … they called her ‘London’ and longed for a chance to rescue her from some danger or other. Sometimes one brother would menace her so that the other could defend her, even though she’d emphasized from the beginning that all she required of them was that they both die for her if and when such endeavor became necessary.”

“‘Where do you see yourself in ten year’s time’ she asked.
          My answer: ‘Not sure, but maybe on a beach reading a really good mystery. Not a murder mystery, but the kind where the narrator has to find out what year it is and why he was even born…'”

I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time, and my anticipation was warranted. I loved Oyeyemi’s voice and was thrilled both by her creativity and charm. I was also struck by some of the unexpected elements of her work, such as how many of the stories had a very Eastern European fairy tale tone to them, especially surprising given Oyeyemi’s heritage as a Nigerian-born British woman. Many of the stories seemed like Slavic lore, with horrors and magic in spades. Another unexpected element of Oyeyemi’s stories that I absolutely loved was the subtle omnipresence of homosexuality. Without making it overt or special, gay characters quietly populate every story the way they populate our world; sexuality was fluid and incidental, not a central personality trait or explicit plot point. Oyeyemi’s writing may be the most seamless and natural handling of sexuality that I have ever come across in literature.

The verdict is clear: “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” is made to be yours. Read it!