the battle of forgetting

viet thanh nguyen rewrites the vietnam war experience

“I’m a refugee. It feels funny to say that because if you look at me, it’s obvious that I made the transition from refugee to bourgeoisie,” said Viet Thanh Nguyen as he stood in front of a packed room in Pembroke Hall on Wednesday night.

Just moments before, as Nguyen first took the podium, he whipped out his phone. “I’m going to do what I always do at lectures,” he said as he filmed the audience from left to right. “I can’t help it—I’m Asian.”

This kind of sarcastic, biting humor may seem familiar to those who know Nguyen’s writing, the most famous of which is his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer. The novel is about an undercover Vietnamese spy who is loyal to North Vietnam but is part of the U.S. military in South Vietnam. When the U.S. troops go back home, they take the nameless narrator with them, and he becomes a refugee, still undercover, in a new land.

I’ve read The Sympathizer for two of my classes, and I have to admit that it’s not an easy book to digest. Flashbacks get conflated with the present, there are no quotation marks to separate dialogue from narration, and the narrator himself remains nameless throughout the entire book, which is unsettling. But after listening to Nguyen speak during his lecture Wednesday and attending the seminar he held with undergraduates Thursday morning, I have a new appreciation for the book. Though I originally cast off the novel as confusing and opaque, hearing Nguyen speak about his writing and the purpose he undertook when writing The Sympathizer helped me understand the larger message it carries about memory.

Nguyen’s lecture discussed his ideas of memory and three different types of remembering that define war. These modes of remembering revolve around what people view as human or inhuman. The first mode is “remembering one’s own,” which entails believing that your own people are human and should never be forgotten, while the enemy is inhuman. The second mode is “remembering others”: seeing both yourself and the enemy as human. The third is what Nguyen called “the more radical version of remembering others,” which is believing that you and your own people are inhuman, while the enemy is human.

This third mode of memory can be seen in The Sympathizer. So often we encounter movies, television shows, and novels that depict the war and its fallout for the United States, yet the narratives rarely focus on the resulting destruction of Vietnam and the plight of Vietnamese refugees. When writing The Sympathizer, Nguyen said he wanted to write a novel that offends everybody (“except the Pulitzer Prize committee,” he joked), forcing people, especially U.S. readers, to see the Vietnam War in that radical third mode of memory where they see themselves as inhuman. He framed the novel as a confession of one Vietnamese to another, centering the Vietnamese perspective and directly challenging the U.S.-centric viewpoint of the Vietnam War. In the novel, Vietnamese characters are both the victims and the killers. The mixture somehow allows them to retain their humanity. 

Even though Nguyen wrote his novel with radicalism in mind, he describes himself as “more of a guy who is in the industry.” By that, he meant the “industry of memory”—essentially the system that capitalizes on nostalgia by selling memories in the forms of movies, television, books, museums, period costumes, and even certain tourist destinations. Nguyen expanded on this concept of a memory industry in his nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War in which he argues that a path to equality—to “just memory”—requires giving up the memory industry to “the poor, the marginalized, the different, and the demonized, or their advocates.” Nguyen’s novel tries to, and I would argue succeeds in taking this industry of memory and offering it to the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans whose narratives have been neglected.

Fortunately, The Sympathizer is not the only prize-winning, bestselling novel that has entered the mainstream with the purpose of changing the industry of memory. Looking back at the past couple of years, prestigious fiction prizes like the Pulitzer and Man Booker Prize have been awarded to writers of color, such as Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad), Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killing) and Paul Beatty (The Sellout), joining Nguyen in trying to make Americans recognize that there are accounts of history that drastically differ from their own.