On Not Getting Lost in Translation: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Viet Thanh Nguyen
"Art could not be separated from politics, and politics needed art in order to reach the people where they lived, through entertaining them."
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is that rare example of a book that manages to be many things at one time, and to do so almost flawlessly: it is at once a spy novel, a political satire, a gripping account of an oft-misunderstood war, and a meditation on the nature of what identity means when your identities are in conflict.
The titular sympathizer is a man without a country, made up of conflicting identities and political loyalties. Born in Vietnam but educated in America, biracial in a time and place where to be biracial meant being ostracized, and a Communist spy with Western tastes, his shifting loyalties lead him to eventually betray everyone he loves, including himself. The book traverses Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, to the Los Angeles refugee community, to even the Cambodian film set of a Hollywood movie that bears a striking resemblance to Apocalypse Now.
The Sympathizer, edited by #Muse16 presenter Peter Blackstock, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this week. We sat down with Nguyen to talk about navigating the burden of cultural representation, how he came up with his conflicted narrator, and who we tell our stories for.
What was the first seed of this book? Was it a character, a voice? And did that remain intact as you wrote, or did it change substantially?
Well, the first seed was that my agent told me I had to write a novel, and I said, “Fine. I’ll write one.” The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to write a spy novel, because I’m interested in the genre as a reader, and I knew that the novel would be historical, based on things that really happened in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I thought this genre would allow me to both tell an interesting story, and also incorporate a lot of political issues that I was concerned with, and cultural issues around what it means to be a spy and all that it symbolizes — the whole idea of a spy being someone who is under cover, has problems with identity, is torn between his allegiances — all worked great for the concerns that I had. I compounded matters by making him biracial, or Eurasian, as well, to add to the confusion, and to foreground a type of character who doesn’t get discussed very often, and is in fact really stigmatized.
The most important thing to me upon starting the novel was getting the voice of the character down. I knew that the novel would be completely driven both by plot and also by the voice of this character. I spent the summer trying out various scenarios, and opening lines. When I hit on the epigram, I realized right away that this was the key, that this was the entire voice of the character encapsulated in this one sentence, and it would allow me to write the entire novel. And that’s pretty much exactly what happened. I wrote a two-or-three page synopsis, which I was fairly pleased with…
You started with a synopsis? Wow.
Yeah. My experience was, I had spent ten years writing short stories and it was a totally miserable experience, and part of the misery was that I would jump in these stories and end up digging myself into a hole, and wouldn’t know how to get out of it these situations I’d created. It was really important to me not to have that kind of scenario happen with this novel, so I had to make sure that I knew what the plot of the novel was [before writing it].
It was also important because I was working in the genre of the spy novel. I wanted to make sure that it worked, that it was exciting, that it had the necessary turns of the plot and so on, all these things that I had learned from reading screenplays. So I did all that.
It works differently for different people obviously, and I have no idea if it would work for anyone else. And it wasn’t completely accurate; I knew that the ending was not where I wanted to go, so I just had a placeholder there, a target to shoot for. About two thirds of the way through I realized what the ending was actually going to be and I just had to trust myself that I could get to that point.
Let’s talk more about the narrator. His perspective really makes this novel, both as someone who is biracial, as someone who was born in Vietnam but educated in the States, and of course, as a spy. His status as an outsider in whatever culture he’s in allows him to reveal all those cultures in ways that would be much harder to do if he felt he belonged. How did you come to this perspective? It sounds like it was there from the beginning, but is it a perspective you always wanted to explore, as a writer?
It took me a long time to get to that perspective. When I was writing short stories for that decade, it was a learning period not only in terms of technique but also in terms of thinking about the kind of stories that I wanted to tell. I wanted to write short stories about Vietnamese Americans, to fill in this gap [in representation] that I perceived in American literature and Vietnamese literature. But by the time I finished those stories, I realized that it was a very limited position, to try to fill in that gap. Part of the problem was that what bothered me about how Vietnam and Americans have remembered this war, is that they’ve both been very insistent on telling their stories from their own point of view. And so filling in that gap for Vietnamese Americans would be important, in one way, but it wouldn’t address the core problem, which was wanting and desiring to help bridge both sides.
I learned to question that as I was writing these stories, and by the time I finished it was very clear to me that this was a problem that I wanted to address. For the novel, it was very important to have a character who didn’t fit in anywhere, whose constant questioning of belonging and of telling one’s own stories meant that he was always skeptical of that desire to speak for your own side and to forget somebody else’s. It was important to have someone who could see both sides, and be with both sides.
I’d love to talk about this concept of representation, a theme that is threaded beautifully through the book, which is very apt for a novel about Vietnam. Particularly the Vietnam War, which has so often been terribly represented in American pop culture, as displayed through this film that makes up the middle section of the book, which seems to be a pretty obvious stand-in for Apocalypse Now.
There’s a quote during that section that I loved: “They owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best that we could hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.” This seems like a very relevant sentiment, especially to writers, working as we do in an incredibly white industry. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to bear that burden of representation as a Vietnamese American?
Right. I think this goes back to my previous answer about writing those short stories and hoping to fill in the gap [of representation]. Part of why I decided eventually that this was a very limiting vision is that burden of representation you just described. Because the literary industry in the United States — and maybe Europe too — is geared precisely to encourage people to fill in the gap. Let’s say your community or population isn’t represented in some way — eventually, some writer is going to come along who will write the book that can then be chosen to fill in that gap, and then that person can be elevated to become the representative of their population. So periodically we have the great, fresh new debut or voice that’s going to speak for this population. That’s great for the writer, and to a certain extent it’s good for the community too, because now people can point to some book that describes an experience that most people don’t know. But it does absolutely nothing to address the underlying inequality that makes these gaps in representation happen.
The problem with that is that people are excluded from society, not just because they don’t have their books out there, or their movies or their other art forms, but because they are systematically excluded at every level, structurally, and most definitely economically. So just having a book or an author appear is like a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound. It’s never going to be enough to have that hot new author. Speaking specifically to the problem of the literary industry, we’re going to need structural reformation throughout, to have diverse representation at all levels, behind the scenes, if we’re ever going to change at the level of representation at the surface, that readers get to see. And that is a symptom of a much larger problem, of which the literary industry is only a part. The literary industry is certainly dealing with this issue; Hollywood So White is another example of the problem. But you’re not going to have meaningful changes at the level of representation if you don’t have meaningful changes beneath that, at the level of structural inequality.
That’s why it was important to me to find a narrator who could be cognizant of these kinds of problems. Because it was obvious to me from reading so-called minority literature in this country, that part of the way it becomes domesticated is because the narrators aren’t politically conscious. So you have stories that are very good at dramatizing some kind of issue for that population, but tend to isolate that population and that story, because what’s being described seems to have no relevance outside that community. I wanted to write a novel that couldn’t be isolated in that sense, because the narrator is politically cognizant about all these things that are aimed very directly at the very conditions of inequality that have led to the situation that he finds himself in, so he can actually highlight that issue and make readers hopefully confront that, and make them uncomfortable possibly, in a way that a more innocuous narrator couldn’t do.
It seems like the conversation is starting to shift a bit, both in American society as a whole, but also in the literary industry — this awareness of structural inequality instead of the vague concept of equal opportunity, and token representatives. But there is obviously so much more work to do when it comes to going beyond awareness to address it in a meaningful way. Do you see the literary industry progressing in this way?
I certainly hope that it’s progressing. It’s definitely a little bit more of an explicit discussion. But not being an insider to the publishing industry, I don’t see below the surface. In the world of creative writing and MFA programs and so on, of course these conversations are happening, among writers of color, women writers, other writers from minority backgrounds. You have writers who are more politically cognizant and articulate about these issues. So I think there must be incremental change happening. But because the industry itself is subject to larger economic pressures and inequality that it itself is not responsible for, unless those conditions change, I really don’t see how we’re going to have long-lasting structural changes within the literary industry. So for example, people can’t break into the literary industry because they don’t have the means of sustaining themselves on no wages for the first few years — you can’t change those kinds of conditions so long as it’s also subject to a corporate model that also exploits those conditions.
Absolutely. Shifting just a little bit in this ongoing thread of representation, towards the end of the book, the narrator says, “I cannot help but wonder, writing this confession, whether I own my own representation, or whether you, my Confessor, do.” It struck me as a sentiment that’s very common to writers: this idea that once you put something out there, do you still own it, or do the people who are reading it now own it, because they can interpret it however they want. Have you felt this tension as a writer, either in general or in writing this book?
Yeah, I think that’s a good point. It’s true for me in the sense that when I was writing the novel, the best part was being alone with it. I had a great time with it, doing exactly what I wanted to do, and being able to say exactly what I wanted to say, and trying to suppress the idea that there were other people looking over my shoulder like my agent, or potential readers who might want to buy this book. Once those realities started to happen, like the conversations with my agent about whether the narrator was likable or not, and then going through the bidding process with this book, I was very aware that there were all these pressures on the manuscript to do something different from what I wanted it to do. The book was published very much in the way that I wanted it, but I still had the sense that it was subject to people and to forces outside my control, and I myself was subject to those things too: the powers that be within and the rewards that they could offer. So it’s very difficult for a work to be free from this idea that other people can influence or control or determine how the representation is publicized or interpreted or read. I don’t have an answer for that, except to point to writers who still completely refuse these terms, and do things outside of the literary industry, and outside these kinds of influences. That takes a lot of courage, or else you have no other options, but that’s a whole subgenre of publishing that isn’t limited to the pressure that we have in corporate publishing.
I love the idea of being alone with your book and valuing that time before everybody else gets their hands on it. We talk a lot at the Grub office about the idea that every book has a narrator, but every book also has a narratee — so in other words, the person to whom your narrator is telling the story. Before you were thinking about that audience or outside influences, did you have someone in mind to whom you wanted your narrator talk?
I very deliberately structured the book so that the explicit narratee in the book is the Commandant of the camp. The book is structured as a confession that is written by our narrator to a particular person, the person who has total control over his life at the point at which he’s writing this book. It was important to me to do that, because it was clear to me that in the field in which I was working — minority literature, Asian American literature, Vietnamese American literature — oftentimes the implicit narratee is not someone inside the book, but someone outside the book: people in the publishing industry. People who are white, basically. The implicit audience is toward someone who doesn’t know the context of the story. And that turns the narrator sometimes into an implicit or explicit translator. So you’re reading the book and the narrator will explain things that the narrator would never have to explain to someone from that same background. To me, that’s a telltale sign of minority literature in the bad sense, because it posits the minority writer as being a translator of him or herself, whereas the majority of writers never have to deal with that situation unless they want to. The definition of majority writer is someone who doesn’t have to translate, because he or she can assume that their narratee comes from the same background. That’s a privilege minority writers often don’t have.
I wanted to create a world in a book where the narrator did not have to translate in that way. The only translation that happens in this book is the translation between Vietnamese people. So the narrator and the narratee are both Vietnamese, both have been acculturated in South Vietnamese culture, and the other, the narratee, the Commandant, is a total Communist who knows nothing about the United States and is not sympathetic to the South Vietnamese, and that’s where the translation happens, and that’s where the satirical part of the novel can happen because the narrator has to explain all these aspects of American culture to the Commandant, and it looks ridiculous in the eyes of someone who is not an American. That was really important to me, because it allowed me to reverse the gaze at the level of the text.
It’s funny: when I turned in this book, my wife would ask me, “Who are you writing this for?” And I would say, honestly, I’m writing it for myself. And that is not a good answer! Because your editor and agent want you to write this book for thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, and in the end I thought I want to write a book that makes me happy, and I hope that there is some minor contingent of people who would have a similar perspective as myself.
In some ways I feel like that’s the only way to write a book, because you can always tell when a writer is trying to write for a lot of people, as opposed to just one, and those books to me are never successful.
Last question: writing a novel is such a brutal process; writing novels about war can be particularly brutal. Did you find this to be the case? And if so, how did you recover from it?
You know, it wasn’t that brutal of a process for me. The grueling part of the process was the ten years I spent writing a short story collection. That was awful. So when I started writing the novel, the pleasant surprise was after the first few months of trying to find the character, it went almost completely smoothly for the duration of the novel — I worked on it for over two years, and I loved it. There were even moments of ecstasy involved in writing the book. I know that that’s not typically the case for a lot of people, but I can say that honestly it was such a wonderful writing experience only because of the previous decade that preceded it, which as awful as it was, was the decade that taught me a number of crucial writing skills, including things like discipline, and delayed gratification, that made writing a novel possible.
Is it safe to say that you’re committed to being a novelist now instead of a short story writer?
I don’t think I ever want to write a short story again. But I did write that collection and send it to my publisher. I’m supposed to deliver the thing by the end of the summer. I said to my editor that it was such an awful experience that I don’t want to spend much time with it anymore, and luckily he was sympathetic to that. So I’m not sure I can see any more short story writing in my future.
I’m with you. I can’t write a short story to save my life. So the last question I always like to ask: I’m sure you’ve done a ton of these interviews over the last few months. Is there a question you’re always hoping someone will ask, and if so what is it?
[Laughs]. I’ve done so many of these I can’t even think! I will say that — I don’t know how to phrase this — but so many of the questions I get are about my hometown, because I come from a very small town in Vietnam. So I guess the question would be, do you think you can ever go home again? [Laughs].
That’s a great answer.
As Director of Online and Special Programs at GrubStreet, Alison Murphy works on developing new and innovative models for our online and intensive programs, as well as overseeing our consulting program. When not at Grub, Alison can usually be found at her laptop with her faithful basset hound Murray at her feet, writing about war and pop culture, or teaching creative writing to inmates in the prison system. A 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellow and graduate of the 2014-2015 Novel Incubator, Alison is hard at work revising her first novel. Her nonfiction can be found in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, PsychologyToday.com, and elsewhere.See other articles by Alison Murphy