Radio discussion with Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer
May 7, 2016 12:18 AM   Subscribe

Nguyen's book was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Literature and is about a Vietnamese spy who flees wartime Saigon Drawing upon his own experience as a refugee of that war who later settled in the United States, Nguyen tells the program host Michael Krasny: "I knew that in writing a novel about a communist spy that the easiest way for me to write this book would be for the spy to renounce communism and embrace American individualism. This is how one gets published in the American literary industry, and I refused to do that."

Excerpt from the novel's opening:

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear."
posted by wallawallasweet (6 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
One of the better books I read last year. The Captain, the main character, has conflicted loyalties about every single facet of his very complicated life and yet Nguyen is able to make his choices into a compelling narrative that paints a very different picture of a very familiar (to those of us who grew up in the 60's and 70's) landscape.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:58 AM on May 7, 2016

The Sympathizer was definitely one of the best and most memorable debut novels by an American writer that I've ever read. I'm so glad he won the Pulitzer, and I cannot wait to read more of his books.
posted by peripathetic at 1:56 AM on May 7, 2016

This has been on my to-read list since I read a set of glowing reviews of it some months ago.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:12 AM on May 7, 2016

A few weeks ago, MonkeyToes sent on this interview with Nguyen to me. (That same day, I happened to be having lunch in Sandusky, Ohio at a pho restaurant/beer bar called Mekong, owned by a man, b. 1967, who fled Vietnam as one of the ‘boat people.’) I’m looking forward to reading the novel.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:30 AM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

The refuge community who settled in NC were (are) supported somewhat by Lutheran Family Services and Vietnam vetrans.

My architectural masters thesis was an attempt to help them in their quest to build a cultural resources center. The refugees in NC are not "a" people but are instead, many peoples made up of different groups or tribes that have come together to try and capture the ways that have been lost in the upheaval of relocation. Their children know and sometimes care so little for the former lives that their elders miss so greatly.

When I interviewed elders from each group, I needed to put aside my biases and understand why it was important to respect their formal path of disseminating and funneling information to everyone. Plus, many folks did not speak english and each group had different dialects. To gain understanding of their desires for a center, I had to trust in the translation provided by the leaders. Interestingly, I was best able to gather information through my and their common language: drawing. I asked them to draw a picture of their longhouse. Unlike a typical "western" 2-D drawing, all of their drawings were in 3-D. I can only explain that with my totally made-up logic of their having intimate knowledge of the buildings because they built them by hand themselves.

Part of what developed as I explored was the need for each group to have a representation of their own form of longhouse. In the end, a plan was developed to have a longhouse representing the different styles for each tribe grouped together around a central space. Thus, allowing group cohesion while respecting the individual tribal identity.

Funding for the center dried up sometime after my project was completed and given to them as an aid towards fundraising. But I learned way more than ever imagined; and my experiences with such strong folks are some of my most treasured.
posted by mightshould at 3:43 PM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Awesome, I don't keep up with literature and hang heard about this, now I'm have another book to add to my short queue.

I always mean to interview my relatives about their life during and after the war beyond what my mom told me. This might give me the motivation to finally do it.
posted by numaner at 8:05 PM on May 9, 2016

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