“We will live!”—the last line, italics and all, of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer—is a full-throated cry for the world’s 100 million Vietnamese people, who are still largely unheard more than forty years after the end of their catastrophic war. With his new non-fiction essay collection, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Nguyen expands and elevates the Vietnamese experience to challenge the economic and political order of the world (yes, the world) and the U.S. “war machine” that he believes maintains it.
That machine encompasses not only American government and weapons makers but also their “ministry of misinformation,” Hollywood. Racist, mostly white-controlled American corporations and the people who work for them also benefit and thus perpetuate the structure. “We are all implicated, not just soldiers but a lot of people in suits and dresses,” Nguyen says in an interview.
Fortunately for his readers—especially jingoistic white Americans who could find themselves offended by some of his attitudes—Nguyen is also an engaging storyteller, piquantly observant, even larger than life. Nothing Ever Dies both engrosses and entertains, albeit in a different way than The Sympathizer. With the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award nomination, and many other literary accolades, Nguyen achieves exactly what he asks his fellow Vietnamese and the world to do: demand an audience on the global stage to tell your own story, and listen for a change, you might learn something.
The 45-year-old author and University of Southern California associate professor grew up in San Jose, Cal., after fleeing Vietnam as a child with his parents and older brother. He does not recall fondly the eight years his family lived on San Jose’s South 10th Street in a house near downtown next to a freeway overpass. When he was a teenager, a robber held him and his parents at gunpoint in the home, a story he recounts in the 2009 short story “The War Years,” published in TriQuarterly magazine. His parents worked day and night, nearly 365 days a year, to establish a Vietnamese grocery store, only to see the city condemn their property (and dozens of other mostly Vietnamese-American-owned properties nearby) to make way for the new Civic Center in the early 2000s. Their store’s former location is now a vacant lot across from City Hall.
Nguyen is most persuasive in the early chapters of Nothing Ever Dies, when he writes about the formation of national and collective memory—not only via war memorials and Hollywood movies but also via literature, newspapers, television, radio, and magazines, “the industries of memory.” The U.S., with its massive economy and global dominance of film production and distribution, also dominates collective world memory. Nguyen writes, “Recognizing… the memory industry… enables us to see that memories are not simply images we experience as individuals, but are mass-produced fantasies we share with one another.”
In the narrow perspective of the manufacturers of war memories, soldiers (mostly men) personify combat. Yet war kills and damages women, children, the elderly, and societies at large just as often and as much. San Jose is home to the only museum in the world dedicated to remembering the former Republic of South Vietnam, its citizens and soldiers, Nguyen notes. His mother “will not be counted as one of war’s casualties but what else do you call someone who lost her country, her wealth, her family, her parents, her daughter, and her peace of mind?” The selective (or manipulated) memory symbolized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., allows Americans to operate under the illusion that they had the greatest losses. In fact, more than 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives, but three million Vietnamese, two million Cambodians and one million Laotians died in combat and in the years immediately after the Vietnam War. “It is ethical and just to confront those numbers, and the following realities: no massacres committed on American soil, no bombs dropped on American cities, no Americans forced to become sex workers, no Americans turned into refugees,” Nguyen argues.
Both Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer (and other of Nguyen’s writings) turn on the deep dualities that characterize all human existence—the humanity and inhumanity, selfishness and selflessness that every person embodies. The narrator-spy in The Sympathizer is the bastard son of a Vietnamese peasant girl and a French monk who never acknowledges his patrimony. His ever-shifting perspective (one might even say allegiance) shapes his existence and, in the end, nearly causes his insanity and demise. Only by having empathy for other people, by adopting even for a moment an enemy’s point of view, can we stop war and the death of innocents, Nguyen argues.
Nguyen has refined his observations over nearly a lifetime. The voice of the narrator of “The War Years” presages the narrator’s sarcastic humor in The Sympathizer and the cutting wit of Nothing Ever Dies, where, at one point, Nguyen simply lists 13 American-English slurs for Asians, including “Gook,” “goo-goo,” “Chink” and “slant-eyes,” in order to prove that Asians are a racial “other” within the larger culture. “I wondered if a Communist child was sleeping in my bed [in the former South Vietnam], and if so, what kind of books a Red read, and what kind of movies he saw,” muses the child in “The War Years.” “Captain America was out of the question.”
The short, semi-autobiographical story—which makes reference to San Jose’s Story and King roads, major cross-streets in its Little Saigon neighborhood—also depicts the complicated politics of the Vietnamese refugees and foreshadows the real-life political brouhaha at San Jose City Hall in 2007 over the naming of a Vietnamese district on the city’s east side. With more than 100,000 people, San Jose has the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. When the character Mrs. Hoa, who we later learn lost a husband and two sons to battle, comes to the narrator’s mother’s grocery store to ask her for a donation to support South Vietnamese soldiers training in Thailand to try to retake their country, his mother refuses. “You’re nothing but a thief and an extortionist, making people think they can still fight this war,” she tells Mrs. Hoa.
Mrs. Hoa turns to the other shoppers, launching the worst allegation conceivable within the refugee community: “She doesn’t support the cause. If she’s not a Communist, she’s just as good as a Communist. If you shop here, you’re helping Communists.” (The mother later donates $200 to Mrs. Hoa’s fund. Mrs. Hoa had asked for $500.) The story ends with the image of his mother, frantic after the aborted robbery in her San Jose home, “barefoot on the sidewalk… hands raised high in the air… shouting something I could not hear, demanding to be heard.”
Ironically, for many people in Vietnam and Vietnamese-Americans in America, Nothing Ever Dies and Nguyen’s other works are inaccessible; sixty percent of San Jose’s Vietnamese residents, for instance, say they don’t really speak English, according to the census. A Vietnamese translation of The Sympathizer is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, Nguyen says; the Vietnamese government must approve any publication within Vietnam. “I only want [The Sympathizer] to be published in Vietnamese in Vietnam if it is uncensored,” the author says. If the federal government prohibits that, he would consider publishing it in full in Vietnamese online, even though he wouldn’t make any money. “I want the Vietnamese people to be able to read an accurate version.”
Two thirds of the way through The Sympathizer, the narrator, a Vietnamese refugee to America who is never named, discovers that a “famed Hollywood Hills Auteur,” also never named, has left the narrator’s name off the movie’s final credits. The narrator had been hired as an “authenticity” consultant to make the movie, which is set in Vietnam (though not filmed there). The same filmmaker, the narrator believes, earlier tried to kill him during filming. “Failing to do away with me in real life, he had succeeded in murdering me in fiction, obliterating me utterly in a way that I was becoming more and more acquainted with,” the narrator fumes. As he watches the credits slip by with no mention of him, he is filled with a “boiling murderous rage.”
The author admits his own real-life anger—about his lost country and heritage, about his parents’ soul-sapping struggles, about American lies to the Vietnamese—but describes it as “a pilot light” that illuminates deeper insight and enhances his writing: “When I look around the United States, there are so many injustices that it’s difficult not to be angry.” Citizens who aren’t maddened by the contradictions between the nation’s claims of equality amid the rampant inequalities are “unaware, or refuse to be aware.”
Sharon Simonson is a Silicon Valley journalist and writer. She is earning her masters of fine arts degree in nonfiction creative writing at San Jose State University, where she is managing editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary journal in California and the West.