Asked to name the biggest persistent lie about the Vietnam War, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen didn’t hesitate. “That this was a war of symmetry,” he said. “That the United States did what it did because the other side was doing as much.”
Nguyen, whose war-based novel “The Sympathizer” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, spoke to a crowded auditorium at St. Catherine University in St. Paul Friday night. His talk was presented by Minnesota Humanities Center in a series on war and memory. He was interviewed by Hmong-American writer Kao Kalia Yang (“The Latehomecomer”) of St. Paul.
“There was inhumanity and violence on all sides” during the war, Nguyen said, but the death toll was far from balanced, with 53,000 U.S. soldiers killed compared to 3 million Vietnamese, and as many again from Cambodia and Laos. “People in America really believe that everyone suffered equally,” he said. “That’s untrue. One side bombed, one side was bombed.”
As portrayed in American culture, in such popular movies as “Rambo,” “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now,” the war has been “the American war,” a bias that Nguyen and other Asian-American writers are beginning to counter with their own books. In both fiction and nonfiction, Nguyen seeks to “acknowledge the complexities of our situation, to help make progress. We have to fight to reframe the debate,” he said. “We’re fighting for Utopia.”
Nguyen fled Vietnam at age 4 with his parents and an older brother. They eventually settled in California, where his mother and father worked long hours to build a grocery business.
Nguyen first discovered books and, later, a love of writing. “I brought home a backpack full of books from the San Jose library every week,” he said. “They were free. Like a gift, to me.”
After graduating from college and getting a Ph.D., Nguyen began to teach, and to write. He described living in sunny southern California, but barely recognizing it because he was alone in a room, working on his writing.
“The Sympathizer,” his debut novel, takes the form of a letter of confession by a South Vietnamese military aide-de-camp who is a spy for the North Vietnamese. Nguyen also wrote the nonfiction “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and “The Refugees,” a story collection.
Despite the solitary nature of the writer’s work, Nguyen said, “I wrote ‘The Sympathizer’ in connection with a movement.”
While there exists plenty of anger among Vietnamese in the U.S., it rarely is expressed to the outside world, Nguyen said, since many Vietnamese don’t wish to appear ungrateful to the country that initially hosted them as refugees.
Most war stories told by his and other refugee families remain unheard by the majority culture. “To fight invisibility and silence, Asian-Americans need to speak out and speak up,” Nguyen said. “Just because you are part of a statistical minority doesn’t mean you are without power.”