the music that echoes between two bodies at a certain distance from one another
Review of Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s The Sympathizer
Author: ​Tyler Nguyễn
Published on: 9/21/2016 4:10:56 PM

On the morning of January 17th, 1999, around 200 people showed up outside a small video store in Westminster, California. They would stay there for another 53 days. On January 19th, Truong Van Tran, the store’s owner, would be hit in the back of a head by a protester as he attempted to leave. His landlord, Quách Nhứt Danh, one of the Vietnamese American community’s most successful businessmen, initially won a court order requiring Truong to vacate, only for the ACLU to successfully argue that his free speech rights were being violated and have the court order overturned. When attempting to re-enter his store on March 1, he was attacked again. He was eventually arrested on March 5th on the charge of video piracy, had his store shut down by the police and served 90 days of jail. All this over a flag, and a photograph.

Not just any flag and photograph, of course, but the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and a photograph of Ho Chi Minh. Both are still anathema in the Southern California suburb that is one of the hubs of diaspora Vietnamese life in the states. It is a testament to the lessening of this antagonism since the turn of the millennium that Viet Thanh Nguyen can release The Sympathizer, a book written from the point of view of a Vietnamese communist spy living in America. It is a masterfully refreshing and reassessment of the stable categories of Vietnamese diaspora fiction, and it has earned him the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

There have always been sympathizers, fellow travelers (an American phrase from the McCarthy era denoting anyone who held communist views while declining to officially join a party), and worse among the Vietnamese diaspora in America. Some joined the New Left protests against the (so-called) Vietnam War as it was happening, but once the refugee process got well and truly underway, they mostly kept their heads down. For good reason: to speak out against the reactionary consensus in the American diaspora was to court ostracism or worse. Dương Trọng Lâm, publisher of the small pro-Communist Vietnamese language paper Cai Dinh Lang was fatally shot outside his apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco in 1981. The group responsible, the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation (VOECRN), made up largely of former South Vietnamese army commanders, would go on to kill four other diaspora journalists over the next nine years. None of the others were communists, but all of them were critical of VOECRN, an organization whose putative aim was to overthrow the Vietnamese government via a guerilla insurgency based in Thailand. No charges were ever brought in any of the cases. An organization resembling VOECRN is the basis for the group that drives the action for much of the book, in which the nameless narrator dutifully helps to both organize and report on his role as a general’s aide. As the book takes place in the first few years after the end of the war, we see the organization just begin to take shape, gather steam and eventually lobby congress for illicit funding, which would be funneled through Thailand. The narrator’s position in the organization is broadly as a scholar of American culture, reporting on how the Americans see their new Vietnamese neighbors to his general while all the while reporting on both to the newly unified Vietnamese government.

It is important to remember that the events in The Sympathizer are all based on real events - not only the broad historical strokes, but their effects on political life in the Vietnamese diaspora in America. The extent of enforced political conformism in the community should not be overstated, even if for the most part it was done by consent rather than coercion. In this context, diaspora Vietnamese cultural production has tried to depoliticize itself as much as possible, if it is not explicitly a tale of suffering under communism. Trinh Minh-Ha’s feminist work, much of which is critical of the emphasis on the heroism of many of these narratives, is a notable exception - but even this is often folded back into a criticism of the Vietnamese state’s deployment of heroism and the national idea, rather than a criticism of the diaspora’s use of the same. The most popular format remains the story of the diaspora’s founding itself, stories of the journey and subsequent resettling in America, of which Le Thi Diem Thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For is an excellent example.

The Sympathizer is in some ways simply a reframing of the Vietnamese diasporic narrative. Much about the structure of the narrative is familiar: it begins with the fall of Saigon, leading into the alienation and sadness of life in America, a loss of cultural reference points and their slow rebuilding. Instead of the razor-sharp focus on everyday life The Gangster We Are All Looking For brings, The Sympathizer expands outward into the lives the nameless main character spies on, double crosses, sleeps with. That he is a spy means more things are visible to him, and he also finds himself at the center of a surprising number of historical events that he wouldn’t have otherwise. He sees the poverty of former soldiers who have to retask their entire lives upon immigration, the paranoia of their former generals who round on one another having nothing better to do, and above all the perpetually misunderstanding Americans with their fixed ideas of The Orient and what it represents.

Viet Thanh insists in recent interviews that The Sympathizer is not written for white people. The issue of whom a work of art is for finds expression within the book itself, when the narrator is called upon to advise on a movie about the Vietnam War. An analog for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the main character is called in to advise the director to make the movie as “authentic” as possible. He fails to change the course of the movie to show his countrymen in a better light, but that failure is interesting, in that it permits everyone non-white in the novel to be equally frustrated with the representation. The director, in his bad representation, flattens out the differences between the Viet Cong and the anti-communist refugees that play them, both of whom go on to complain about the movie. Is there an inflection point at which this consensus breaks?

This is not a theoretical question: this very breakdown occurred recently over the band Preoccupations, previously named Viet Cong. The band claimed to have given themselves that name after watching Vietnam War films (Apocalypse Now likely among them) and deciding that the Viet Cong, so portrayed, were “badass”. They started getting show bookings canceled in 2015: first at a festival in Melbourne, then for a show at Oberlin, where the campus promoter cited Oberlin’s history of resistance to the Vietnam War as the reason to cancel the show. The band’s cluelessness to these matters is clear, and yet even in their being called to task on this, elements of Orientalism persisted. The saga mostly ended with an official interview in Pitchfork announcing their name change: in it the Viet Cong are called a “notoriously brutal insurgent group that terrorized Vietnamese citizens” and goes on to congratulate everyone involved for taking into account many more perspectives on the matter than had been in the past. No one from the Viet Cong was called upon to defend themselves, of course, and the many failings of the former South Vietnamese government get a pass, but the diaspora can walk away pleased knowing that their perspective on history continues to define American understandings, and the two white North Americans between whom the interview is conducted can leave feeling enriched by the experience. In The Sympathizer, when Vietnamese refugees are called upon to play Viet Cong soldiers, they hesitate until promised extra money. Then, when asked to torture one of the film’s stars, they hesitate again at the instruction until they hold a conference with each other: “Look, who cares what he says. He wants us to act natural but we got to act unnatural. We are motherfuckin’ VC. Got it?”

The Sympathizer is a significant work in Vietnamese diasporic literature, but it remains fundamentally a story bound by this diasporic position. That the main character is Viet Cong feels at times like a conceit which allows him the distance to see the diasporic experience as a whole and not in the blinding pain of poverty and alienation that were its defining features for most of the refugees. He becomes a cypher, like the copy of the book of Orientalist theory he carries around everywhere to read the coded messages he sends, through which the diaspora can see itself from the outside. His communism remains a literary device: everyday life in the new Vietnamese government he serves is the only thing invisible to his otherwise comprehensive eye. He remains a sympathizer and not a participant. This is understandable: but as a consequence the history brought back in the book remains incomplete.

Viet Thanh begins from the assumption that the Vietnamese must accept their having become as bad as the American and French revolutionaries eventually became. At the end the reader is expected to come away with a sense of general tragedy, sympathy for all driving disappointment from both sides. We will not really get to hear both sides, however, until such a time when the sympathizers out there can speak and be heard in their own voices, in English. Even better - it might help along the recent translation efforts by Viet Thanh himself, Linh Dinh and others (including AJAR) to bring to a close the cultural gulf forced on the country after the American war and still separating Vietnamese authors in Vietnam from the rest of the world.

In 2004, Nguyễn Cao Kỳ became the first of the former South Vietnamese military establishment to visit Vietnam. He had been spending his days running a liquor store in Westminster, working in the fishing industry in New Orleans, writing his memoir, and generally being feted by the diaspora who had, until that point, held him in high regard. Condemnation from Little Saigon was swift. Leaders in the community even called for his daughter, a popular television presented, to be fired. He called for reconciliation with the country that he stopped being at war with 29 years previously. At the time of his visit, an office worker in Ho Chi Minh city named Bui Duy Bao told the BBC that Ky was “no different from other Vietnamese overseas who return at Tet (the Lunar New Year)” and that “He'd better give away some of his money to the people who need it”. The anti-communist elements in the American Vietnamese diaspora are losing some coherence as their children leave Little Saigons: paradoxically, their investment in becoming as American as possible has opened up opportunities for people to slip out of the strictly-defined community and openly hold diverging views. Some are heeding Ky’s call to reach out to their erstwhile homeland. Even as this happens, diaspora Vietnamese are still coming to terms with their wealth relative to their cousins, especially as Vietnamese in the United States consistently rank among the poorest of the large Asian demographic groups. This, combined with their control over the English-language Vietnamese perspectives, exacerbates the already-existing detachment and resentment between Vietnamese in and out of the diaspora. It is the responsibility of those in the diaspora, given our position, to translate and reach out to Vietnamese in Vietnam - they cannot do it alone.


- Tyler Nguyen
- photo by Nguyễn Quốc Thành