'The Sympathizer:' A very different look at the Vietnam War

'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen
'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

Whenever Viet Thanh Nguyen introduces his debut novel, he says it "begins with the fall — or the liberation — of Saigon, depending on your point of view."

April 30 marked the 40th anniversary of the North Vietnamese forces taking control of Saigon, and Nguyen's novel spins off from the historical moment to devastating and darkly humorous effect.

In "The Sympathizer," an undercover spy follows a South Vietnamese general as he is evacuated to America. An irresistible, captivating narrator, the spy recounts the new life awaiting the refugees in Los Angeles.

Nguyen drew on his own family history to craft the tale — his family arrived in the U.S. as refugees when Nguyen was 4. The myth of the American dream weighed heavy on his childhood, and he skewers it in his novel.

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"The Sympathizer" has garnered rave reviews for offering a new perspective not only of the Vietnam War but of the immigrant experience. The New York Times praised it, saying the "book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light."

Nguyen joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss the book and his experience growing up in the shadow of the war.

He traveled back to Vietnam and its neighboring countries while researching the book. "Americans call this the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call it the American War," said Nguyen. "But both of these forget than an enormous portion of the war was waged in Cambodia and Laos."

On one of his trips to Vietnam, he reunited with his adopted sister who was left behind in the conflict. He hadn't seen her in 30 years, and had just one black and white photograph of her.

"I grew up with a sense of haunting, of absence," Nguyen said of the separation from his sister. "In this way, the war affected me, even if I have no memory of it."

Modern Vietnam is dramatically different than the one in which Nguyen was born, he said. It's a young country: Two-thirds of the country was born after the war.

"If they hear anything about the war, it's boring," Nguyen said of the country's youth. "You can't blame the younger generation because they have a right to forget, they have a right to move on with their lives. But this should be balanced with a sense of historical memory."