Viet Thanh Nguyen isn’t done flipping the script.
In 2016, the Vietnamese American author burst onto the literary scene with his debut, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer. The book caught worldwide attention for its blend of literary fiction with a gripping spy story set against the political intrigue of the Vietnam War. Its protagonist, who remains nameless, tells his story in the form of a forced confession of his acts as a North Vietnamese spy embedded with a South Vietnamese general.
And now, the story of the complex character trying to balance the two sides of his dual identity as a half-French, half-Vietnamese man in a divided country continues. Nguyen’s second novel, The Committed, which he will read from during his upcoming Inprint reading on April 12, finds our hero on a boat headed to France as a refugee after the fall of Saigon and contemplating a turn toward capitalism.
After Nguyen finished The Sympathizer and put it out into the world, he says the character still nagged him with lingering questions. “I wasn’t done yet with the character of the sympathizer,” he tells Houstonia in a phone interview ahead of his digital visit. “There was more to say about him."
The new book is “carefully written” so anyone can read The Committed without being familiar with its predecessor, but the themes of political satire, colonialism, and identity continue. “When we last saw him, he was a revolutionary who was disabused with the Communist party,” Nguyen says, “so I wanted to find out what a former revolutionary does that is still in search of a revolution.”
Once he arrives in Paris, the narrator leaves his spy past behind, and the story morphs into a crime novel as our protagonist delves into drug dealing and other “bad choices” while he wrestles with being a Vietnamese man in France, the colonizer of his homeland. The topics are serious, but it’s wrapped up in the entertaining trappings of genre fiction and satire as the main character pokes fun at Western power.
In crafting the two books, Nguyen has blended the thrilling action of English novelists John le Carré and Graham Greene with the tradition of exploring identity from Black American novelists Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, whose seminal work Invisible Man was a major inspiration. He also took some cues from the playfulness of the children’s fiction he’s been reading with his 7-year-old son and convention-defying poetry.
“I love literary fiction, but sometimes it can be boring,” he says. “And in genre fiction, the one thing you don’t have is stories being boring. The thing that’s interesting in spy and crime fiction is we have writers who want to spin a good yarn, but they're very aware of politics and history and that’s certainly how I saw myself operating.”
The unique mixture certainly struck a chord. The Sympathizer hit The New York Times Best Sellers list and brought home the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.
And last week, Nguyen announced the novel has been optioned for a TV series by A24.
This comes at a time when, even decades after the Vietnam War, the bulk of American writing and storytelling on the topic is told through the lens of the white soldiers who fought there and the divisive protests on the home front. Nguyen says he set out to write The Sympathizer as an “ambitious attack” against American perceptions of the conflict, which he sees as a piece in the long-running history of western countries instigating violence on the continent.
“We’re very war-like people,” he says of Americans. “In the second half of the 20th century, all of our wars were fought in Asia, and the Vietnam War was in many ways an extension of colonialism we took over from the French. Americans don’t like to think about that history because to think of Americans as being complicit in expanding colonialism runs counter to some ideas Americans have about themselves.”
As Nguyen is landing a TV deal and selling thousands of books telling stories of the Asian perspective from the Vietnamese perspective, anti-Asian American racism and violence is on the rise in the U.S. following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nguyen says the spike of Black Lives Matter activism last summer amid the rising wave of negative attention on Asian American communities shows the importance of these two groups banding together instead of turning against each other to scramble for acceptance.
“It’s necessary for Black people and for Asian Americans to recognize this and have solidarity with each other and recognize the larger system that pits them against each other is a system of colonization and white supremacy,” he says. “That is hopefully evident in both novels. I don't think they’re only about the Vietnam War or French colonialism.”
April 12. $5. Online. More info and tickets at inprinthouston.org.