June 1 & 15, 2016 Booklist 9 www.booklistonline.com
logical and personal transformation (in
conjunction with hard labor). I detected
the literary in this political form, and saw
that it had a connection to the confession
that’s been a part of Western literature
for a long time, going back to Saint
Augustine. There was a connection, then,
between the political confession and the
religious confession, and the novel makes
that fairly explicit through the protagonist’s struggles with both Catholicism and
Marxism. Finally, the confession is from
one Vietnamese person to another. They
are very different individuals, but the fact
that they share some things in common
shapes the narrative as something that
assumes a Vietnamese context.
SEAMAN: Your narrator becomes
involved as a consultant to a director working on a film about the war in Vietnam,
a film resembling Francis Ford Coppola’s
1979 Apocalypse Now. Why did you
bring the making of this now-legendary
movie into your novel?
NGU YEN: Because everybody knows it!
And because this was a formative film for
me as a young boy watching it, and feeling
myself split in two. As a spectator, and as an
American, I identified with the American
soldiers and sailors. Until the moment they
killed Vietnamese people, who looked like
me. It was very confusing, troubling, and
traumatizing. I don’t use that word lightly.
Even years later, recounting the story of the
movie to others, I would shake with rage
and emotion. The film is not unique in this
way; it simply stands in for how all of the
Hollywood industrial-complex erases, effaces, and kills Asians in its function as the
unofficial ministry of propaganda for the
Pentagon. I wanted to have my revenge and
make it plain that what Hollywood does is
not simply to tell a good story—rather, its
high-powered technology that symbolically
kills millions is part of the same society that
literally kills millions.
SEAMAN: The Sympathizer combines
devastating insights with caustic satire. Was
dark humor part of your original concep-
tion? Or did your narrator incite it?
NGU YEN: Having read books like
Catch- 22, I had always fantasized that I
might one day write something like it.
But I thought that the sense of humor
SEAMAN: You offer many examples of
required to do so was beyond me. I didn’t
set out to write The Sympathizer with
that ambition. I thought it would be a
tragic, violent, melancholic novel, because
those shades of feeling I thought I could
pull off. But my narrator’s voice, once I
inhabited it, led me to say things that I
had always wanted to say in ways that
surprised me, which included finding the
humor in horrible circumstances.
what it means to sympathize. How did this
become a central concern?
NGU YEN: I grew up watching people
who lacked sympathy. Americans lacked
sympathy for others, as was rendered
evident in their treatment of the Vietnam War as an American War, where the
tragedy of 58,000 American deaths could
blind Americans to the fact that 3 million
Vietnamese died, that another 3 million
Cambodians and Laotians died during the
war and after. The Vietnamese refugees I
lived with were no better. They saw only
their own suffering, and this was valid
because the Americans weren’t interested,
their own children didn’t understand them,
and the Vietnamese who won had erased
them from the country. But even if they
had the right to their own suffering, their
obsession with it led to them being unable
to see outside their own views. So many
remain steeped in hate and bitterness.
I wanted to imagine both what those
emotional circumstances were like and
to imagine a way out of them. Sympathy plays a double meaning in that case.
A sympathizer sides with a cause, as so
many did during the war. But someone
who is sympathetic can also see the other
side and feel for someone different, even
an enemy. Thus, my narrator is caught—
he takes action and is committed to his
politics, but he is also committed to the
importance of feeling for others. This is
the condition for his own tragedy.
SEAMAN: What is the connection be-
tween your novel and your most recent
nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Viet-
nam and the Memory of War?
NGU YEN: I see them as bookends of
the same project that has preoccupied me
for the past thirteen years and has been
on the back of my mind most of my life.
That project is to figure out the relationship between war and memory, and to ask
difficult questions about what it means to
be a believer in a cause that leads to the
death of millions.
SEAMAN: Are you working on a second
NGU YEN: The next book, coming out
next year, is a set of short stories about
Vietnamese refugees in the United States.
It’s a quieter, more domestic book, which
can be a relief after the drama of The
Sympathizer. I’ve also written the first 50
pages of the sequel to The Sympathizer,
set in Paris. Excerpts are forthcoming in
Ploughshares and Freeman’s.
September 2016 • 752 pages
978-1-59888-858-4 • $80.00 • Paper
978-1-59888-859-1 • $79.99 • eBook
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