By KRIZETTE CHU
Portrait NOEL PABALATE
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner of debut novel The Sympathizer, is one of the literary world’s unicorns—a brilliant, once unheardof writer who broke out into the publishing scene spectacularly, a success story many struggling writers can only dream about .
His novel The Sympathizer was picked up on the same day he tried to sell it, and it immediately won him the Holy Grail of literary awards—the Pulitzer. But in this conversation with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle during his recent trip to Manila for the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, which he co-headlined, this Literature professor gets honest about how he slogged through 14 years of “misery,” and how he couldn’t get a break.
This Vietnamese-American refugee shares his long road to success, and what writers must be willing to do to reach success.
The opening line of your book, I think, will go down as one of the most iconic opening first lines of a book. How did you arrive at that line because it’s really set the tone?
Well, I knew that the opening line was going to be very important because it would set the tone for the entire novel. So I spent a whole summer trying to figure out what the opening scene was, and experimenting with various lines. And when I finally got to that line, I knew that I had I found it, and that it would be the style for the entire book. I immediately emailed a friend of mine who I’ve been talking to about the novel and said, I found the line, here it is. This is it.
The rhythm of the sentence is the rhythm of the entire book, and so I couldn’t move past the first line.
This is your debut novel, and it immediately won awards and recognition and even the Pulitzer Prize. Some would call you an overnight success. But a lot of writers who’ve experienced writing for years know that there’s no such thing as an overnight success for writer. How did you get from point A to point B?
The Sympathizer only took a couple of years. I was writing for two years in my apartment, with the exception of three months in Vietnam, where I was also working on it too.
The book was well received when it came out. But the book that I wrote before that was a short story collection called The Refugees and I’ve already been working on that book for 14 years, before I got to The Sympathizer. And you know, that was 14 years of misery and struggle and pain and all these terrible things. I couldn’t sell The Refugees .
I started off writing short stories, because I thought, oh, it’d be simple, or it’s easier. They’re short, they must be easier than writing a novel. But in fact, short stories are very hard to do. I also taught myself how to write through writing these short stories. So that’s partly why it took so long. And you talked about the whole issue of overnight success and everything—well, it took 14 years of misery of pounding my head against the wall with The Refugees in order to get to the point where I could write The Sympathizer in two years. So If I hadn’t had that struggle first, I wouldn’t have had that easy overnight success later.
How did The Sympathizer get sold?
We sold it on the on the day that we put it out there. But we were rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers. The 14th publisher didn’t make an offer until the end of the day. So I spent most of the day thinking this is one of the worst days of my life, because no one wanted my book. I think that the reason why that happened is because this is a novel whose hook is that it’s about the Vietnam War. The problem is that 13 out of 14 editors who rejected this novel were Americans. Americans have a lot of hangups about the Vietnam War. This novel is explicitly designed to go against all of those American misconceptions. And so the 14th person who bought the book was not American. He was English. That to me, in retrospect, made complete sense. He was the one person who understood what this book was trying to do.
How has winning the Pulitzer change your life?
After winning the Pulitzer, it was easier to sell The Refugees, and then the nonfiction book. Winning the Pulitzer has been tremendous, it means a lot to me, professionally, financially, all that kind of stuff. It’s brought me here to the Philippines. The negatives about winning the Pulitzer are probably that people expect more from me. And also, it disrupted my life for a few years. So writing has been a lot harder for me.
I’m writing the sequel to The Sympathizer, and I’m already 3/4th into the process. It’s been harder to just find time to focus and concentrate, but also just trying to do things that are different in the book, I don’t want to exactly repeat what happened in The Sympathizer, so that means coming up with some new devices, new tricks, which to me, as a writer are fun to do.
How hard is it to balance your career as a professor, and as writer?
I’ve been a professor since I was 26, and that meant I had to do the full time job of being a professor, and yet also try to find time to write, which is also a full time job. I’m used to that, I have no life outside of work and my family; I have no hobbies. I have very few friends. I don’t believe in hobbies. I believe in doing things that I’m passionate about. If I wasn’t a writer, I would be passionate about something else.
You moved to the US as a refugee when you were just four. How did you define your Vietnamese identity?
My parents would say to me, when I was growing up in the United States, that I was 100 percent Vietnamese, they wanted to make sure I remained Vietnamese in this American world, and the result of that was that when I was in my parents’ Vietnamese household, I felt like I was an American spying on them because I wasn’t American. But when I was outside of my parents house, in the rest of the United States, I felt like I was the Vietnamese spying on the Americans. So I took that experience, and I expanded it, and it became the basis for the personality of the spy.
The funny thing is that my parents were not able to return to Vietnam for about 20 years. My parents went back to Vietnam. So they went back twice. And after the second time, they came back to United States and over Thanksgiving dinner, my dad said to me, ‘We’re Americans now.’ So even they have changed. The point of this is, is to say that, yes, I’m Vietnamese, but I’m also American. A lot of people want to tell us who we are. But we tell ourselves who we are.
That’s the attitude I felt that everyone has to have. Because there’s no way you can be away from the country, like my parents for 20 years, and or me 27 years, and not be changed by where we went to. All of these things are part of the emotional complications that define Vietnamese lives, whether they were the ones who left, or the ones left behind.
So it’s very difficult journey back for any of us, for most Vietnamese people who returned to the country.
Where did you get your love of reading and your brilliant writing skills?
I don’t know where I got any of those things from except for the fact that my parents were hardworking refugees who were never home, so I had to take care of myself emotionally. And how I did that was to go to the library and read a lot of books. And that’s where I developed a love of literature and the love of stories. And so that was the one of the ironic benefits of having a lonely refugee childhood .
What moved you to write The Sympathizer?
In college, I became much more deliberate as a writer and as a reader, where I would start to think about what I should be talking about, who would be my influences. How would I want to shape the world through writing? The very idea of wanting to shape the world through writing, that came about in college, you know, reading a lot of African American literature, Asian American literature. It was the voice of an identity that you knew.
You teach Literature. What can you say about writing workshops?
Writers are formed in many different ways. So I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. It’s simply that if we talk about formal training as a writer in the writing workshop model, it’s going to influence the way the writer comes out and how he or she writes, I didn’t do that method. The Sympathizer is an outcome of the fact that I had to teach myself how to write and that I’m also a scholar, and there’s a lot of scholarly knowledge in the book. In the United States, formal training in writing is apolitical. It’s a historical. That’s why writers like Jessica Hagedorn and Carlos Bulusan are fairly unique. There aren’t very many Marxist writers in the United States. And the writing programs do not encourage that. So If you come along and you try to write a Marxist novel, in an American writing program, you’re going to meet a lot of resistance and confusion. So maybe it was only possible for me to write this book because I was not in the writing programs.
How did you do research for The Sympathizers?
I was also researching a book called Nothing Ever Dies, which is the companion volume for the book. I think of these two books as the fictional and non fictional book ends of one project. I did not know I was going to write The Sympathizer. When I was doing most of this research, I was thinking about Nothing Ever Dies. I would travel around the country, I would visit museums and memorials, and battlefields, and it would be very depressing work, because mostly I would be in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Seeing how people killed each other, in the name of belief and ideology, and how they did terrible things. Thinking about that ultimately helped me to understand this novel, thinking about these questions of why would people kill each other? Why would people torture each other? Why? How do we make sense out of the history where both sides believe they were doing the right thing? In the case of the Vietnam War, as in the case of many wars, both sides believe that they were right.
What are your tips on writing?
Read a lot, write a lot, and suffer a lot. Those are the three things that will make you into a writer. If you don’t want to do any of those three things, you can’t be a writer.