Seven days without electricity last August delivered me shaking and stimulus-starved on the steps of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer.” Hurricane Isaias had taken out most of Connecticut’s electrical infrastructure, along with all contact with the outside world. Only when removed from 21st century comforts could I approach Nguyen’s award-encrusted novel.
Nguyen combines historical fiction with spy thriller, following a nameless man with divided allegiances. Initially, his dense pages repelled me. However, Nguyen’s cutting social commentary drew me deeper.
After being educated in the United States, the book’s protagonist returns to Vietnam to fight in the Vietnam War. He works as a communist sleeper agent in the office of the American-backed South Vietnamese. As his moniker suggests, the man’s identity and allegiances are not clear cut. He muddles through life and war, sympathetic to all sides yet indecisive when it counts. His uncertainty makes him a questioning yet pliant cog in a larger, destructive war machine. While traveling between California college campuses, warscapes and movie sets, the man makes cutting observations about war, military, America, academia and, perhaps most significantly, his own confused identity. The man is both Vietnamese and American. He is innocent yet a killer, unwilling yet complicit. He is born of a poor Asian mother and a proselytizing European father. He fights for the South and North simultaneously, for both Capitalism and Communism.
In many ways, his circumstances dramatize the hyphenated experiences of A/PIA (Asian-Pacific Islander American) individuals. A/PIA individuals are routinely asked by society or conscience to assert an allegiance, to define themselves and their ethnic identity within pre-scripted denominations of social acceptability. However, as the protagonist finds, the narrow range of Asian-American expressions is stifling. In “The Sympathizer,” pre-scripted roles of spy, communist and killer hamstring the unnamed protagonist. His mind ultimately fractures under his two-minded multinational duality.
Yet, what I gleaned from “The Sympathizer” is that self-destruction is not the only resolution to the hyphenated A/PIA question.
Within the novel, another character faces the allegiance question. It is through the protagonist’s co-worker and brief lover, Ms. Sofia Mori, that we are pampered with a fully realized thesis of the Asian-American experience. Reclining at the bar, smoking a cig, Mori takes the position that A/PIA individuals do not need to defend themselves or hold their identity accountable to anyone but themselves. Her theory of A/PIA identity requires steadfast stubbornness and self-reliance, existing beyond governmental policy or national status. Despite others’ opinions, only oneself can arbitrate self-worth and identity. As Mori’s American experience implies, neither state nor society can resolve the allegiance question.
Relatedly, Mori’s boss, the Department Chair of Oriental Studies, often laments her inability to speak Japanese. He wishes she would “honor her culture” and Mori responds by venting after work hours, questioning the double standard applied to non-white Americans. Why should Mori safeguard her Japanese-ness if President John F. Kennedy does not need to hone his Gaelic? While lacking the modern terminology, Mori is alluding to the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype.
During World War II, Japanese-Americans were forced out of their homes and into temporary concentration camps. As a survivor of Executive Order 9066, Mori is intimately familiar with the Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype. The U.S. 1942 policy was underpinned by the idea that Asian-American individuals are incapable of successful assimilation into mainstream American society; the styeroptye posits that regardless of circumstance, any non-white individual will be regarded as a dangerous, subversive “other.”
Some may take issue with Mori’s “disregard for heritage” in the novel, but her frustration with her homeland resonates. Despite America’s sins against her family, she cannot relinquish or erase her American birth and upbringing. She has known nothing other than her American culture. And five years after publication, the animosity and identity-policing Mori describes in “The Sympathizer” still rings true. In 2020, Mori’s identity war of attrition is still ongoing.
More than anything, “The Sympathizer” provides a very smart, very human treatise on the Asian-American experience and the ramifications of America’s militarism. Chapter by chapter, Nguyen juxtaposes the horrors of war with American promises and homely realities. Privy to capitalist boons, propaganda and the American Industrial Complex, the characters make unrelenting, uncomfortable and contradictory social commentaries.
Through absurd circumstances and vivid supporting characters, Nguyen does the hard work of articulating the strangled song of displacement and Asian-American identity, scattered in the meandering cavities interconnecting our brains, lungs and tongues. And somehow, even when the world feels careless and chaotic, Nguyen provides a timely insight into the American past and present.
A recommended dish to devour alongside Nguyen’s novel is a classic bowl of pho, tripe optional.
And if you’re still hungering for more, you can also view the guest lecture Nguyen gave at U-M in 2018 and his 2018 interview with The Michigan Daily’s Michigan in Color.
Daily Arts Columnist Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.