The conflict in Vietnam has given rise to countless books and movies dealing with American experiences of the war. But “it was a topic that I felt hadn’t been covered adequately,” says Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American English professor at USC. “[I wanted] to make the case for how the end of that war extended well after the cease-fires.”
The Sympathizer centers on a captain in the South Vietnamese army who relocates to Los Angeles with several of his comrades in 1975. Unbeknownst to his comrades, the captain is reporting on the group’s activities to a superior in the Communist-allied Vietcong. Nguyen weaves details about what it was like to be Vietnamese in America after the war, and the role of Hollywood in shaping national attitudes about conflict, into this spy novel–esque setup.
Nguyen was born in a small town in South Vietnam in 1971. His family fled with him to America when he was four. They settled in San Jose, Calif., which is home to one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country. “I grew up in this Vietnamese ethnic enclave, where I was surrounded by stories of what these people went through during the war,” Nguyen says. “I was deeply affected by that.”
Peter Blackstock, Nguyen’s editor at Grove Atlantic, says, “The first thing that struck me about the book was the voice, so assured and unusual—garrulous, persuasive, somewhat supercilious, very subversive, but totally winning.” Blackstock adds that Nguyen was “interested in why a 26-year-old British guy would want to acquire a novel about the Vietnam War. I didn’t really have an answer for that, except that, as a young non-American, maybe I didn’t have any baggage relating to the war and its position in American culture.” He adds that the book shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a war novel: “At its heart, it’s a piece of literary fiction with a beautiful voice and a gripping plot that takes you inside another person’s brain. To my mind that’s perhaps the best thing that fiction can be.”