Who Should Read It:
All enthusiasts of high fiction, and anyone with passing interest in the Vietnamese American diaspora.
Why Should We Read It:
This is an expertly written novel that entertains while exploring the varied and conflicting internal struggles of everyone who has claim to the Vietnamese American identity.
What Will We Learn:
There are many who have stake in what is considered "Vietnamese" and "American", and how these forces collide and interact give us a glimpse of what the Vietnamese American community has been wrestling with since 1975.
A Dramatization of the Vietnamese American identity, beginning on the day of its birth on April 30, 1975.
My parents are 1975 Vietnamese refugees to the United States, and I am a natural born American citizen. While I grew up materially comfortable, I remember my inner childhood to be marked with feelings of hesitant and apprehensive caution. At home, my parents raised me in the traditions of the Old Country. And yet, home always had one unspoken rule: We do not talk about the Old Country. It was impossible to understand my Vietnamese identity when I felt unmoored from Vietnam itself. At elementary school, I faced a more urgent crisis: I was not "Vietnamese" enough to be friends with the other Vietnamese kids, and not "American" enough to be friends with the other kids. Growing up Vietnamese American in the 1990's meant facing a daily choice: whether at home or at school, I could only be "Vietnamese" or "American"; I could not be me.
My Personal Rule #1: Do not talk about the Old Country.
I muddled through my childhood and teenage years, camouflaging my social awkwardness with academic excellence. In undergraduate college, I decided to come to terms with my heritage and inheritance. I joined Vietnamese American interest clubs, enrolled in Vietnamese language classes, and studied in Vietnam for a semester. I even picked up a Bachelors of Arts degree in Asian American Studies. Unfortunately, none of these activities helped me understand my past and present self. In fact, I felt more confused and discombobulated than I had ever been. I only found resolution in remembering and re-adopting Rule #1: Do not talk about the Old Country. It is why I usually avoid books like Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. Why read a dramatization about the Vietnamese American identity? That struggle is my everyday life, and nothing will come from exploring that facet of my life.
The unnamed protagonist's biracial and military status was a stroke of genius for the novel's plot!
As it turns out, The Sympathizer is an engaging and satisfying read, worthy of its 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story begins with the 1975 Fall of Saigon, as narrated in the first person perspective of an unnamed double agent working for the Communist Vietnamese regime. This secret agent just also happens to be half French/half Vietnamese, and fluent in both English and Vietnamese. Initially, I scoffed at the premise- this sort of person literally has never existed in history, so what can this character teach me about my own existence? At least from the perspective of the plot, this character's biracial and military status was a stroke of genius. With such a character biography, Mr. Nguyen's protagonist realistically encountered and impacted powerful personalities in the South Vietnamese Army, the CIA, the American Congress, the Viet Cong, and even Hollywood. The Sympathizer is most certainly a dramatization of life, and Mr. Nguyen clearly made the most of it.
I am Vietnamese, and I am American. I am me.
The Sympathizer ends with the protagonist experiencing a cathartic revelation about himself and his place in those historic times. His journey is worth reading, and I will not spoil it here. I will, however, acknowledge that I found my own personal catharsis through this novel. I could never clearly see where my Vietnamese American community stood in its 3x3 cacophony struggle to define what was Vietnamese versus Western, traditional versus modern, and above all, democratic versus communist. With Mr. Nguyen's The Sympathizer, I finally found my inner peace with one simple revelation: these dichotomies that my community so fiercely debates are immaterial when it comes to the only dichotomy that truly matters in the United States: are we white or nonwhite? I am Vietnamese because I understand how historic currents swept up my family in 1975 and continue to affect us today. And I am American because I know the single most important question that is asked of every American. I am, finally, me.