- Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as one of the greatest Vietnamese writers of his generation with the publication of a pair of highly regarded books, one a work of fiction and the other a personal memoir. The first, his 2015 novel The Sympathizer, a darkly comic spy caper centred on a half-French, half-Vietnamese double agent who operated within the Vietnamese diaspora in California, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and host of other notable literary awards. The second, Nothing Ever Dies, is a sweeping, transnational exploration of the legacy of the war that indelibly shaped his life. The author has indicated that these works are meant to serve as companions to one another.
Nguyen currently serves as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He was a prolific writer even prior to his big 2015 breakout, mixing short stories with a host of journal articles and book chapters mostly related to Asian American literature or the Vietnam War. At the age of four in 1975, he and his family fled Vietnam in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon as part of a wave of over 800,000 Vietnamese refugees who made their way to the United States. His family first settled in small town Pennsylvania and then moved to California, home to a large diaspora population, to open a small grocery store in San Jose. Out West Nguyen won spots at elite Catholic prep schools before going on to undergraduate study at UC Berkeley. The theme of layered identities — "I was born in Vietnam but made in America," he declares (1) — has featured prominently throughout his work. [End Page 643]
Vietnam and the United States were not simply at war with each other; both were simultaneously engaged in civil wars. Communist and non-communist Vietnamese were pitted against each other on the battlefield, while pro and anti-war Americans fought at home in a battle of ideas that occasionally turned bloody. They not only did themselves great harm in the process — though Vietnam bore a grossly disproportionate share of the suffering — but also dragged Laos and Cambodia through hell in the "'sideshow' to the war" as William Shawcross described it, and pulled a host of other third parties countries into the conflict. Civilians and combatants from so many nations bear scars from the war.
Nguyen suggests that "all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory" (4). The narrative in communist Vietnam today focuses on the suffering American forces inflicted on women and children, while Americans obsess over their own wounded warriors, with "neither side showing any inclination for remembering southern Vietnamese, who stink of loss, melancholy, bitterness and rage" (9). The South Vietnamese diaspora of refugees and their descendants finds itself in the strange position of having to promote the memory of a country that no longer exists from their exile on American soil.
Nguyen's exploration takes him through cemeteries, war memorials, works of fiction, films, fine art, diaspora museums and a host of other forms of remembrance in Asia and the United States. In doing so, he highlights the "ethics of remembering one's own," a concept that suggests that each participant community presents a different focal point in its memories of the war, typically excluding the perspective of others. Just memories, those that incorporate the experiences of the weak and the enemy, are essential for genuine reconciliation, but are few and far between on all sides of the war's divide. Richer participants — the United States and to a lesser extent South Korea — have unsurprisingly had better results projecting their memory of the war than weaker local players. He writes, "while the United States lost the war in fact, it won the war in memory on most of the world's cultural fronts outside of...