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Exploring the past in writing: An interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

By Richard Chachowski
Correspondent 

When Viet Thanh Nguyen first broke onto the scene in 2015, he took the literary world by storm. 

‘Just because I’m failing, doesn’t mean I should give up. I have to persist,’ said the author (Photo courtesy of Viet Thanh Nguyen).

His debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” offered a brash and critical view of the Vietnam War, from the perspective of a North Vietnamese spy within the South Vietnamese army who relocated to the United States after the U.S. withdrew from the country. 

“The Sympathizer” won Nguyen the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Nguyen is a regular contributor to The New York Times and a Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. In 2017, he won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

The Signal interviewed Nguyen in a candid discussion of his writing process and influences.

What were some of the reactions from the first few people who read “The Sympathizer”?

NGUYEN: Well, when I wrote “The Sympathizer,” I had spent about 17 years writing “The Refugees,” and the experience was one of tremendous frustration learning how to be a writer, but also feeling that I was writing the book for other people — the Vietnamese American community, in particular, but also editors, agents, reviewers, and so on. 

With “The Sympathizer,” I decided to write that book for myself, which was a crucial psychological move. My agent read about the first fifty pages or so of the novel, and his reaction was, “Well, uh, the narrator doesn’t seem like a very likable person.” And my reaction was, “He’s likable to me. That’s what’s important.” That might have been an indicator of what would happen with the editors we sent the book to. 

We sent the book to 14 editors that we thought would be the most sympathetic readers, and it was the most miserable day of my life up until that point when we sent the book out. We had one day where people were supposed to get back to us, and it was like 13 rejections in a row. The reactions were sort of respectful, but also I think the editors were perplexed. 

There were a variety of comments about how they couldn’t get into the second half of the book. One editor said, “I couldn’t crawl into the voice.” Another editor didn’t like the language of the book. So there were all kinds of responses, and it’s hard to say what the motivation might have been — everybody has individual tastes — but I do think the book doesn’t look like anything else in the Vietnam War genre, so I think the book unsettled people.

What kept you from becoming discouraged, or even giving up, while you wrote the stories in “The Refugees”? 

NGUYEN: I think I was very stubborn about it. I had this goal of wanting to be a writer and it was sort of wrapped in the whole idea of fame, but also a deep belief in literature. The beauty of literature; the power of literature that I love as a reader, and that I wanted to experience by being on the creative side of it. And that had always been a sort of a childhood idea, to be a writer. So, it was hard to give up on that idea, combined with the stubbornness. 

And I knew that writers have to suffer, so it wasn’t as though I didn’t think that this wouldn’t happen. It’s just that to think of suffering in the abstract is very different from experiencing it in real life. So I thought it was a real test that I had to pass. I had confronted failure before in my life. I’d been rejected by almost every college I applied to, and that really motivated me to become a really good student. And I think I took that lesson and applied it to the act of writing, too, like “Just because I’m failing doesn’t mean I should give up. I have to persist.” 

And then, maybe finally, I’m a Catholic (laughter), and we’re also taught to suffer, that this our lot in life, and sacrifice is good, and I certainly saw my parents working like mad when I was growing up. I think I absorbed that, too. That dedication to work and acceptance of suffering.

How do you believe the average American should be dealing with the serious trauma and troubling nature of their past, whether it’s how we remember certain periods like the Vietnam War, or our treatment of Native Americans and Black Americans?

NGUYEN: Well, I think the first step is to acknowledge that these things exist. I think that for a lot of Americans, they exist in a state of denial about their own history. That, if they refuse to think about it, then it doesn’t exist, and that if it does appear, they’ll wrap this event — whatever it is — in a shroud of American mythology, and make excuses for that event that fit into this larger, overarching story they have about this country. 

I think a lot of Americans are sort of aware that there are Native Americans here, but if they think about that at all, about what happened, it’s all relegated to the realm of sort of this cowboys and Indians-kind of past, and they think, “Well, we regret that. It’s too bad, but what can we do? It’s not our fault.” 

And with slavery, it’s a little bit closer in our history, and certainly Black people are a much visuable presence in American life than Native Americans, so I think there the contortions are much more difficult for Americans, which is why we see so much more conflict around Black-white relationships, but also just the meaning and presence of Black people and Black culture in this country. So the denial there, again, runs very strong because for most Americans, they actually have daily contact with Black culture in the form of music or the athletes that they like to watch. Yet they sort of have to deny what has been done to Black people, not just in the form of slavery, but everything after slavery as well.

So, I think that the first step is to be curious and to acknowledge that these things happened and that what happened might be very differently construed by people other than Americans. But there’s really no excuse now not to know. You have Google. Anybody can educate themselves on these issues. 

And, I speak for myself. Like I know a lot about some things and very little about other things, including what did happen to Native peoples. I have a general sense of what happened, but right now, it’s really crucial for me to learn a lot more about the specificities of not just what happened to Native peoples back when, but what they’re confronting today. I think it’s an obligation for all of us that we have to pursue. 

Who were some of your main influences on your work; not only in informing the major themes and ideas you wanted to explore, but your overall writing style as well? 

NGUYEN: Dostoevsky and W.G. Sebald were big influences. Dostoevsky because in books like “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” he deals with very similar kinds of issues of guilt and consciousness. Dostoevsky’s constant concern with the interiority of very conflicted male narrators wrestling with the big questions of life, death, guilt, and crime were really impactful for me. 

Same with Sebald, who spent his entire life trying to figure out this big problem in German culture of the Holocaust and what the Germans did to the Jews. His books are dense in style and rumination. They sort of flow along as we follow some narrator down a path of repressed memory, which is eventually uncovered. I found Sebald’s works to be really profound about history and memory and trauma and war, and stylistically, I’m very deeply moved by him because of the way that he formally approaches this issue for me the right way, because realistic ways of approaching history and memory often fall flat for me, because they don’t capture what it’s like to be caught up in a loop of memory. I think that Sebald in his works really does that, and I really tried to capture some of that for “The Sympathizer.”

Nguyen’s new book, “The Committed,” a sequel to “The Sympathizer,” will be released March 4, 2021.

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