The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer


Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen left Vietnam with his family in 1975. They first lived in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where there was a camp for Vietnamese refugees. The family then moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania before settling permanently in San Jose, California in 1978, where they opened a Vietnamese grocery store. Nguyen recalls that his parents often worked twelve to fourteen hour days, in what was then a rough neighborhood. On one Christmas Eve, they were both shot in an armed robbery. Their efforts, however, secured Nguyen a preparatory school education. He attended St. Patrick School, a parochial elementary school, and Bellarmine College Preparatory, both of which are in San Jose. After graduation, he enrolled in and briefly attended both the University of California, Riverside and UCLA, before settling on the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned degrees in English and Ethnic Studies in 1992. He remained at Berkeley for his doctoral studies and earned a PhD in English in 1997. He then went on to a teaching career at the University of Southern California, where he is currently the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, as well as Professor in the Departments of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature. Nguyen’s first publication was a work of scholarship. Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America examines how Asian Americans have used literature as a political tool. The study spans one hundred years, from 1896 to 1996. Other non-fiction works include Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. In 2017, Nguyen published The Refugees, a short story collection. Additionally, he has published numerous essays and reviews and has edited an anthology on the emerging field of Transpacific Studies. The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 and Nothing Ever Dies was a finalist for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction. In 2017, Nguyen became a MacArthur Fellow. Nguyen is married with a son.
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Historical Context of The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer begins during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 and follows the lives of Vietnamese refugees, dispersed throughout the United States, after they fled from the North Vietnamese Army’s takeover of South Vietnam and the subsequent reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule. The narrator returns to the United States, where he was educated, one year after Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in the aftermath of Watergate. Before the scandal, Nixon faced immense opposition from the political left for his escalation of the Vietnam War, resulting from his decision to carpet bomb Cambodia between January 1970 and August 1973. The bombings, nicknamed “Operation Menu,” were an attempt to stop the North Vietnamese from infiltrating South Vietnam via the Cambodian border. Many historians believe that the attacks did nothing but foster hostility among Cambodians, convincing them to embrace Communism and join the murderous Khmer Rouge. In April 1975, while Saigon was seized by the North Vietnamese Army, the Khmer Rouge overtook the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The regime, headed by Pol Pot, led a mass genocide of Cambodian men, women, and children, particularly those who were perceived to be from the educated middle-class. The Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1979, following two years of violent clashes with Vietnamese troops, who finally captured Phnom Penh on January 9, 1979. In the United States, the years between 1975 and 1979 were spent reflecting on the Vietnam War, particularly in cinema. The nation was reckoning with its first defeat in war. The second half of the 1970s are often described as a period of disillusionment, hedonism, and increasing lawlessness. In 1975, President Gerald Ford suffered two assassination attempts—the first, from former Charles Manson follower, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and the second, from the political radical Sara Jane Moore.

Other Books Related to The Sympathizer

Despite their marginalization in the American literary canon, there are numerous Vietnamese American writers, who have depicted their experiences of the Vietnam War and their postwar lives as refugees in multiple literary genres. Very often, these experiences are communicated through protagonists who are children. The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Thi Diem Thuy Le was published in 2004. It tells the story of a Vietnamese refugee family’s relocation to San Diego in 1978 through the eyes of a sensitive child who grows up seeking to cope with her childhood traumas. In 2011, Thanhha Lai published Inside Out and Back Again, a modern classic of children’s literature about a child’s journey from Saigon to Alabama after the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. In the same year, the cartoonist GB Tran published the graphic novel Vietnamerica about his family’s struggles over fifty years of colonial rule, war, and their difficult relocation to South Carolina, where the author was born. Quan Barry’s novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born was published nearly a year after The Sympathizer. It narrates Vietnam’s history through the eyes and ears of a little girl with the ability to channel the voices of the dead. In 2017, the cartoonist Thi Bui published The Best We Could Do, an illustrated memoir about a family’s escape after the fall of Saigon and their relocation to California.
Key Facts about The Sympathizer
  • Full Title: The Sympathizer
  • When Written: Summer 2011-2013
  • Where Written: Los Angeles, California
  • When Published: April 2015
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Fiction
  • Genre: Historical Novel / Black Comedy
  • Setting: South Vietnam; Camp Pendleton, California; Los Angeles, California
  • Climax: The narrator is re-educated and returns to a state of nothingness.
  • Antagonist: The Commandant
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for The Sympathizer

Apocalypse Now. In the book’s Acknowledgements, Nguyen writes that the 1979 film by Francis Ford Coppola serves as the inspiration for The Hamlet, the fictional film that the narrator advises on in The Sympathizer. Coppola’s film, which was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was also filmed in the Philippines. Apocalypse Now stars Marlon Brando as the rogue Colonel Kurtz and Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin Willard, the Marine officer who is dispatched to find and murder Kurtz. Sheen, who replaced Harvey Keitel as the film’s leading man, suffered a heart attack during production, due to stress and alcoholism.

My Lai Massacre. In the novel, Nguyen vaguely alludes to the massacre, which occurred in a small, “mostly abandoned village near Quang Ngai,” nicknamed “Pinkville” by a U.S. Army task force. The My Lai Massacre is the most notorious war crime committed by American troops during the Vietnam War. As many as 500 villagers, particularly women, children, and the elderly, were rounded up and shot under the command of First Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., who was later court-martialed for his crime. Some, however, believe that the junior officer was unfairly scapegoated and that true blame for the massacre rested with high-ranking officers.