- A Novel Intervention:Remembering the Vietnam War
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Within a week, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s darkly comic first novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and his nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, was published. Nguyen had spent nine years researching Nothing Ever Dies, and then took a break to write The Sympathizer before turning back to nonfiction. His years of scholarly work on the collective memory of war inform his biting satire as much his academic publications. He told World Policy Journal that both works are engaged in a common project to “force readers to think anew about the Vietnam War and ponder questions of memory, representation, and reconciliation.”
Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971, but fled that year with his family to the U.S. He studied English at the University of California, Berkeley and is currently an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Nguyen spoke by phone from Los Angeles about the role of Hollywood in creating global historical memory, the importance of recognizing both humanity and inhumanity in our enemies and our selves, and on the contradictions built into the American dream. [End Page 65]
When you sit down to write a scholarly or academic work, normally there’s a thesis or a series of points you’re trying to make. When you started writing The Sympathizer, was there a particular argument that you wanted to put forward or an idea you wanted to refute?
It was twofold. One, I see it as a Vietnam War novel, so it’s an intervention. Part of the point of the novel is to forcefully remind people that there are serious limitations to this American point of view, and there are other perspectives we should take into account.
On the literary level, I wanted to have a novel with a Vietnamese protagonist who was imperfect—someone capable of both great idealism and doing terrible things. This type of character was another intervention. In Western representations, there are Western protagonists in art and literature that are deeply flawed and human, but when non-Western characters appear, they are represented as stereotypes, either villains or heroes. My novel works to show that non-Western characters have the same kind of flawed subjectivities that are normally reserved in the West for the West.
In the face of U.S.-based historical narratives about the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese people, what kind of political work did you hope your book would achieve?
On one level, the political goal of the novel was to force Americans, and the rest of the world outside of Vietnam, to grapple with the complicated history and subjectivities of the Vietnamese people. The global memory of this war so often simplifies the Vietnamese perspective. The point of the novel is not to say there is a Vietnamese voice in this. It’s to say that there are many Vietnamese voices, and that the Vietnamese people bear a great deal of responsibility for what happened in Vietnam. Some people see this book as an anti-American novel, because there is so much critique of what Americans have done and how they see the world. But the novel is also very pointed in what Vietnamese of all sides have done. So even though there is a critique of the United States, it’s not there just to affirm a Vietnamese point of view.
Your nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War came out right after The Sympathizer. Do you see these two books as linked? And what could you do with nonfiction that you couldn’t do with fiction?
The research for Nothing Ever Dies happened before The Sympathizer. I spent about nine years doing the research for Nothing Ever Dies, then I wrote the novel The Sympathizer, then I went back and wrote Nothing Ever Dies. I think of the books as being in conversation with each other and engaging in a common project. That project...