When Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer was named winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction earlier this month, the honor was but the latest addition to the accolades the book has been collecting since its April publication, including the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and inclusion on over 30 best of the year lists. The book—historical fiction, literary thriller, coming-of-age tale, and black comedy in one—begins in April 1975, the last days before the fall of Saigon, when its nameless narrator is sent to California to spy on South Vietnamese exiles whom the Communists suspect of plotting to take back their country.
At one point in The Sympathizer, the narrator, now engulfed by an American society bent on reshaping the story of American defeat, explains that “this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors.” Just because America so dominates the telling, of course, doesn’t mean that the Vietnamese don’t have their own stories, and with The Sympathizer Nguyen succeeds in forcing recognition of that fact.
While The Sympathizer approached through fiction what Americans call the Vietnam War and what Vietnamese call the American War, Nguyen now does the same through criticism in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which we’ll publish this spring. We asked Nguyen, who teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, what the differences between fiction and nonfiction offer him as a writer. His response:
Writing fiction saved me as a scholar and critic. Thirteen years ago, when I received tenure, I was exhausted as an academic. I did not enjoy the academic life and the thought of writing another academic book like my first one filled me with dread. I left the academy for two years and wrote fiction full-time in the hopes that it would save my soul and my profession. It did, although it was only the beginning of a long, arduous path towards becoming the kind of writer that I envisioned myself to be. One aspiration I had was that writing fiction would make me a better scholar and critic. By paying attention to things like rhythm, form, narrative, and character, perhaps I could revivify my dead academic prose. And it worked. But it wasn’t only the case that my scholarly writing became more lively, and hopefully more compelling. As with fiction, form cannot be separated from content. My critical prose was transformed but my critical insights also achieved more force, carried along by the flow of prose and narrative. I wanted to convince the reader not only through what I had to say, but how I said it. I wanted the reader to be moved, and the only way to do that was to move myself, through the force of both ideas and language. The result is Nothing Ever Dies, a book that is informed by the lessons of fiction about the power of emotion, passion, and intuition.
With Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen offers an ethics of memory and forgetting, demanding recognition of the full humanity of all touched by war. In insisting on the complexity of the people involved, he also forces us to reject the neat lines history draws, conflicts “clearly demarcated in time and space by declarations of war and ceasefires, by the inscription of dates in history books, news articles, and memorial placards.”
And in both books Nguyen deals with questions central to the identity of a nation: How do we remember the living and what they did during times of war? How do we remember the nation and the people for whom the dead supposedly died? And how do we remember war itself, both war in general and the particular war that has shaped us?