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Tackling French culture in “The Committed:” an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

By Richard Chachowski 
Staff Writer

Viet Thanh Nguyen has certainly not gained a reputation for pulling any punches when it comes to social commentary.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” Nguyen explored American culture and the country’s impact on Vietnam, as well depicting how refugees and immigrants are treated as they adjust to their new lives and new surroundings in the U.S.

(Photo courtesy of Viet Thanh Nguyen)

In his follow-up novel, “The Committed,” Nguyen turns his attention to France, with the titular character relocating to 1980s Paris, uncovering a world of bureaucratic authority and left-wing radicalism while confronting the past atrocities of French colonization in Vietnam.

The Signal spoke with Nguyen in a discussion about French colonialism and “The Committed.” 

How do you believe France remembers their impact on Vietnam, compared to how America remembers their impact on the country?

NGUYEN: Well, I remember as a college student — this was ‘92 — two movies came out from France — “Indochine” and “The Lover.” These were very popular movies at the time, and they both dealt with the French period of colonization in the 1920’s to the 1950’s. And they dealt with various aspects of this history, but they were both sort of beautiful, lush movies about romance, and it was an interesting contrast to the movies that Americans were making about the war in Vietnam, which were not lush and beautiful. They were brutal, about terrible atrocities and all this kind of stuff. And I felt that this was probably a good indicator of how the French got a lucky break with this history, because what the French did in Vietnam, if you read the historical accounts, was really pretty terrible. The Vietnamese revolutionaries who rebelled against the French called themselves “slaves of the French.” That’s how the anti-French Vietnamese thought of themselves. 

And that is not romantic or beautiful or anything like that. There were plantations, forced labor, all this kind of stuff going on. So, in contrast, Americans fought a war and were in Vietnam at a time when we had immediate access to all kinds of technology… Americans were sort of responsible themselves both for initially reporting this conflict very vividly and then making movies about this war very vividly and in full color to permanently sort of impress the image of the American war in Vietnam as a horrible, dirty war in the minds of both the American people but also audiences all over the world.

And the French, again, did not have that record. What we have essentially from the French period are a lot of black and white photographs for the most part, which don’t typically record the worst things that were done. And so we have this huge removal visually from the French period and instead we have this rise of nostalgia and colonial exocitism about that period, both in these movies but also in things like themed restaurants… So, the whole idea of French colonialism became one of romance, of the luxurious past, and it allowed the French and everybody who loves French culture to sort of just take a pass on the actual history. And so the French could go to Vietnam now, and a lot of the French still go to Vietnam, and do things like help Vietnam in various kinds of projects and stuff and get away with thinking, “We weren’t that bad. It was the Americans who really did the bad things here.”

Was it from a story-driven perspective that you decided to write a sequel to “The Sympathizer,” or a desire to explore how France deals with its complicated past in the country?

NGUYEN: When I set off to write “The Sympathizer,” it was supposed to be a one-off novel. I was not thinking about a trilogy, which is what it is now, but when I finished writing “The Sympathizer,” I thought that I was not done with this character. The ambition of writing “The Sympathizer,” besides making an entertaining story and a historical novel, was that it was also supposed to be a political novel in which you look at politics that are happening in terms of revolutions. It’s supposed to look at the revolutionary process within an individual and the changes he undergoes. And typically in this genre of dealing with communist allusions and revolutions written from the West in anti-communist countries, the resolution of that story is that the disillusioned communist foreswears revolution, foreswears communism, and then embraces Western democracy and liberal individualism, and I did not want to end on that note. 

I think this was one of the reasons why, perhaps, the editors in New York did not know what to do with the novel because the genre expectation is: “You gotta embrace the West,” and that’s not the ending of the novel. And so, that was the conclusion I wanted to get to in the book, but I felt that there was still more dialectical movement that needed to take place, like “What comes after a failed revolution?” That often is a question that is not addressed in this type of political novel, so I thought, “I need to continue looking at this. What happens to the failed revolutionary who still believes in revolution, just not this particular revolution that he’s engaged in?” 

And then the other reason I wanted to continue is because as a writer, you don’t have total control over your material oftentimes. And I created a character in “The Sympathizer” that I really liked, but was also a very complicated person who is not perfect and he’s contradictory. 

On one hand, he’s really self-aware about his politics, about revolution, and anti-colonialism. On the other hand, he’s completely unself-aware about his masculinity and his heterosexuality. 

He’s meant to be like a secret agent kind of figure, and he likes women and there’s a lot of talk about that, and that’s typical in spy novels, but then at a certain point, I thought, “He’s kind of a sexist here,” and it led to the terrible culmination in the re-education camp where he’s forced to confront this horrible atrocity committed against a woman. That is a very disturbing scene for a lot of readers, especially female readers, and I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism from women and feminist readers, which I totally think is valid. And I thought, “This is also part of revolution,” in that a lot of revolutions are driven by heterosexual, heteronormative, masculinist kinds of politics. So, dialectically speaking, in order to reconsider revolution, it’s important not just to think about the shape and goal of the revolution, but also about the sexual politics of revolutions as well. 

Then, that sequel had to be set in France, I thought, because that’s the land of the narrator’s father, and although I dealt with French colonialism a little bit in “The Sympathizer,” I did not give the French the full treatment that the Americans got in “The Sympathizer.” So, I wanted to make sure that I was able to really deal with French colonialism in “The Committed.”

How did you carry over this idea of confronting one’s past to French culture in “The Committed,” a culture you don’t have as much personal experience with as you do Vietnamese and American culture?

NGUYEN: Yeah, that was a big question for me. I think the way I solved that was to make my character in “The Sympathizer” who goes to Paris be basically an immigrant, or a refugee, in Paris. And if he is in that situation, and we see the whole world through his eyes, then he’s not going to get everything right. So, this is my way out. If French people challenge me on some details, I’ll be like, “Wait, it’s told from the perspective of a guy who just got to Paris. What do you expect?” So, “The Committed” is not meant to be written in the voice of someone who is sort of an authoritative guide to French culture and history. It’s meant to be written by someone who has been colonized by the French, who has had a French education in Vietnam, certainly is not perfect in French culture, but is aware enough to be able to see some of the interesting and also contradictory and terrible things in French culture as an outsider.

You mentioned reading a few pages of Antonio Lobo Antunes most mornings while you were writing “The Sympathizer” to influence the way you wrote the book. With “The Committed,” did you end up repeating that process at all?

NGUYEN: I tried. I really, really love Antonio Lobo Antunes’ “The Land at the End of the World” and I read a few pages of that every day I wrote “The Sympathizer” just to get my motor running. I tried it again with “The Committed,” but it didn’t work, and I think the reason why is because I think the style of “The Committed” is a little bit different from “The Sympathizer.” I tried to replicate the style of “The Sympathizer” in “The Committed” and I just couldn’t quite pull it off, and I think it’s because the narrator himself has changed very drastically from the first book to the second book, and the style is really crucial to the expression of who he is. 

The style of “The Sympathizer” is highly particularized, image dense, and so on, and that is ultimately an indication of something going on in the psyche of the sympathizer. In “The Committed,” he’s a different person, and I think because I was inhabiting his mindset, I just could no longer get back into the same rhythm and density of images perhaps as “The Sympathizer.” I just felt like I couldn’t quite pull that off, and there was no book I could turn to that had the same effect. There was not even a musical soundtrack that had the same effect, because in “The Sympathizer,” the two albums I listened to the most were Philip Glass’s “The Hours” and Richard Hawley’s “Lady’s Bridge.” I tried listening to those again when writing “The Committed,” but it didn’t work. There was just nothing. No individual text or album that I could really gage with everyday. As most writers will say, every book is different, and that was the case with “The Committed.”

Nguyen’s new novel, “The Committed,” a sequel to “The Sympathizer,” is now available.

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