By Sharon Simonson
When seven-year-old Viet Thanh Nguyen arrived in San José with his parents and older brother in 1978 as a Vietnam War refugee, little did he know that his life’s next decade would form the basis of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel nearly forty years later. It was in the tiny downtown San José house at 759 S. 10th Street in the shadow of a freeway overpass that a robber would hold him and his parents at gunpoint when he was sixteen-years-old. It was in his parents’ New Saigon Mini Market on downtown San José’s East Santa Clara Street where his parents were shot one Christmas Eve. Thankfully, neither was injured seriously. “That ten-year period was marked by witnessing the intense sacrifice that my parents gave working as hard as they did in that store and experiencing a great degree of loneliness and isolation,” the author said. “The Sympathizer doesn’t deal with that place, but it does deal with that time period. Being able to delve into those emotions was crucial for me.”
The Vietnam War—a conflict the Vietnamese call the American War—had ended in 1975. His family journeyed to San José at the urging of a Vietnamese woman from home, a friend who’d accompanied the Nguyen family, walking one hundred and fifty miles to Saigon with Viet and his mother and brother when they escaped the advancing North Vietnamese army. His parents, devout Catholics, had already fled the North Vietnam Communists once, moving to the south when the country was partitioned in 1954. But the south’s Republic of Vietnam lasted less than twenty years.
Now the family was part of a new and fast-growing refugee community drawn to San José by mild weather and manufacturing and assembly jobs. Fewer than twelve thousand Vietnamese people, less than one percent of the population, lived in the county when Nguyen and his family arrived. A decade later, more than four times that many did, mostly in downtown and East San José where housing and rents were cheapest. Nguyen’s parents soon established the New Saigon Mini Market to sell rice and fish sauce to the burgeoning community. He doesn’t know much about the Christmas Eve robbery at the store; he was young when it happened, and his parents never discuss it.
But the attempted robbery in the Nguyen family home appears in the author’s semi-autobiographical short story “The War Years,” published in TriQuarterly magazine in 2009. Narrated by a precocious thirteen-year-old Vietnamese boy, the story reveals the social and political undercurrents of the San José refugee community and the trauma beneath the veneer of normalcy. The mother, as his real mother did, rushes the would-be robber and pushes her way into the street for help. The story’s narrative voice and theme of empathetic transformation presages The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s first novel and the Pulitzer Prize winner.
Memories of his parents’ suffering and a hardscrabble childhood amidst a vanquished people imbue Nguyen’s writing with quiet rage, which the author, a University of Southern California professor, mediates with humor. To weave his fantastic yet believable stories, he uses the war’s amazing history and repercussions, including assassinations, rampant espionage, shadow governments, and exile militias, knowledge of which continues to surface more than forty years after Saigon fell.
Nguyen lived nearly a year in Vietnam as part of a decade of research for The Sympathizer and its nonfiction companion book, Nothing Ever Dies, a National Book Award nominee. Like the Vietnamese mother at the end of “The War Years,” he “demands to be heard.” He challenges America’s nationalistic memory of the Vietnam War and takes on the U.S. government, insensate electorate, and global “industries of memory.” In Nothing Ever Dies, he writes that he especially hates the fake world of Hollywood, movies that “strip-mine history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead.” With The Sympathizer, the author had a mission: “The task that I set for myself was to make a difference in the way the war has been remembered by many different sides.”
Besides the Pulitzer, The Sympathizer earned the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, The Center for Fiction 2015 First Novel Prize, and the Asian/ Pacific American Award for Literature. In the book, Nguyen models the nameless North Vietnamese Communist spy narrator on real-life Communist spy Pham Xuan An, who fooled not only the country’s French occupiers but the American C.I.A. and multiple reputable news organizations including Time magazine.
But there is a not-so-faint echo of autobiography in the character, too. Nguyen was born in Buôn Ma Thuôt, Vietnam; that is also the spy’s hometown. Both Nguyen and the spy completed master’s theses at American universities on British author Graham Greene, who wrote The Quiet American about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Like the San José boy, the spy feels utterly alone in the world, both in Saigon, where the novel starts, and then in San Diego and Los Angeles, where it is set after 1975. The spy is never fully honest with anyone but himself (and the reader) about who he is—not even with his Communist handlers or best friend; he never has the peace of being completely himself, except when he’s alone.
While Nguyen is not a secret agent (at least as far as we know), as a refugee pushed from his homeland to the nation that did the pushing, he is a man reluctantly of two countries, inherently divided. As a kid watching Apocalypse Now and other American movies about the war, he couldn’t grasp if he was supposed to root for the American soldiers or the Vietnamese they were killing. He understood for the first time that America considered the Vietnamese interlocutors when, shortly after arriving as a kid, he saw a sign in the window of a shuttered San José shop: “Another American business driven out by the Vietnamese.”
He adopted a spy as narrator to open a three hundred and sixty degree view, Nguyen said: “I wanted to write a novel that had political implications, from the Vietnam War to racial and cultural differences, and I had to find a way to do that organically, to find a character for whom all of these issues could naturally arise. I didn’t want the novel to be didactic. It’s the protagonist of the novel, not the author, speaking. I wanted to elevate the novel beyond entertainment.”
But the spy does entertain with his penetrating observations. The spy also kills and works for what becomes a murderous regime. Yet he is not despicable; in fact, he is likable, even charming. He (and Nguyen) delight in underlining hypocrisy in word and deed. The spy narrator observes of Los Angeles’ Occidental College when he returns to America as a refugee: “[T]he students were of a new breed…Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible given that they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it.”
Nguyen accuses establishment America of profiting from war. Hollywood is the national de facto propaganda machine, justifying armament and deployment, peddled across the United States and around the world, drowning other voices with pseudo memories of what didn’t happen. He describes Americans’ shock when they visit modern Vietnam and its war museums to see central exhibits featuring America’s most shameful acts, including the My Lai Massacre, with the United States portrayed as the enemy. At the end of Nothing Ever Dies, he provides a manifesto to end war based on a Marxist overhaul of the world’s social and political order.
After the war’s end, the narrator spy of The Sympathizer goes to America to continue to gather information on the exile community. It is not a far-fetched narrative turn: The new and real-life government for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam feared, rightly, that their foes would seek to reconstitute their overthrow effort in exile. In late 1987, as author Nguyen finished high school at San José’s Bellarmine College Preparatory, the Communist government of Vietnam accused eighteen of its citizens of treason. The defendants, all men, had ties to the San José-based refugee organization National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, or so the government alleged. The group was funneling money from the U.S. and Thai governments and exile community in America to militias in neighboring Laos. The defendants faced sentences of death.
By 1987, San José’s Vietnamese owned a quarter of the businesses in downtown and nearly half of those along East Santa Clara Street. Nguyen attended St. Patrick Catholic elementary school at 51 N. Ninth Street, blocks from his house; the affiliated church is now a Vietnamese Catholic parish. The school, housed in a former nunnery in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, would educate waves of immigrants over the decades.
From there, Nguyen went to Bellarmine, a Jesuit school founded in 1851, situated in the city’s tony Rose Garden neighborhood. He left San José for college in the late 1980s, eventually earning his doctorate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. He began publishing poetry while in graduate school in the early 1990s and then published his first short story in the late 1990s.
In the early 2000s, to make way for the city’s proposed Civic Center and Symphony Hall, San José’s Redevelopment Agency condemned Nguyen’s parents’ market along with a cluster of mostly Vietnamese American-owned businesses on Santa Clara Street. His parents fought the condemnation in court. The Richard Meier-designed City Hall and Rotunda were built, but not the music hall; the site of his parents’ store remains a parking lot. For the past twenty years, Nguyen has lived in Los Angeles, his longest tenure anywhere. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC.
His work raises to greater prominence an evolving corpus of literature from this profoundly relevant community: sixty-five million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes, a record, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Like the Vietnamese, millions of them have been dislocated by war.
The author associates with a growing node of serious Vietnamese American writers, academics, and artists in San José, San Francisco, and the East Bay, including Andrew Lam, Julie Thi Underhill, Andrew X. Pham, and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud. Besides his scholarship and writing, Nguyen edits diaCRITICS, a high-level blog that reports on the arts, culture, and politics of the Vietnamese worldwide, including the approximately four million Vietnamese people living outside of Vietnam, nearly half of whom reside in the United States—and most of those in California. “diaCRITICS also write about the ways that other people write about the Vietnamese. Watch out. We reserve the right to be angry,” Nguyen says on the site.
Nguyen expects far more than beauty from art. In Nothing Ever Dies, he places responsibility on artists to check authority in whatever form. “Art is crucial,” he writes. “The writing, photography, film, memorials, and monuments that I include in this book are all forms of memory and of witnessing…I turn to these works of art because after the official memos and speeches are forgotten, the history books ignored, and the powerful are dust, art remains.” The author awaits word now from the Vietnamese government on whether he can publish The Sympathizer in Vietnam without censorship.
Nguyen drew the title Nothing Ever Dies from Toni Morrison’s book Beloved. He named his son Ellison in honor of Ralph Ellison and Ellison’s Invisible Man. As African-Americans, both Morrison and Ellison have lived as outsiders in America; they also could be said to descend from very reluctant migrants to the United States. “Most people do not get the allusion, never having read Ellison’s book,” Nguyen wrote in mid-2015 about his son’s name and Ellison’s influence on his work. “For those that do get it, the name functions as a password. You and I, we believe in the power of the word, of the book, of literature.”