This Korean Woman Reads: Review Of “The Sympathizer”

Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song

“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.

Headlines: A must read for anyone living with more than one identity or allegiance (and made to feel guilty about it); anyone who believes humanity can rise above the divisions created by ideology and war; and everyone who can sympathise in the face of difference.

Mood: Eager to start on the sequel ‘The Committed’! 

Pair with: Time and largeness of the mind. This page turner is best read with an investment of time and an open mind; embrace each of the masterfully executed chapters and let Nguyen’s plot twists, wry humour and historical research to sink in. 

For the month of April I wanted to read a war-time story from a BIPOC writer. With the 25th day always marked in red, I feel trapped in the ‘ANZAC legend’ as the singular prism through which war stories are born and venerated in Australia. It was when this thought was circling my head that I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen on the ABC Book show talking about his new book, The Committed, as a long awaited sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel The Sympathizer. Catching a glimpse of the author’s personality on the radio as well as his forthright views on anti-Asian hate in America, I decided to do the only right thing: buy both of his books and read the first one, well, first. 

“I’m a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” That was the opening sentence. Upon reading it I thought I had almost heard a metaphorical ‘pop’: an inaudible yet piercing sensation of a wall coming down between the storyteller and the audience. There is a magnetic pull of intimacy that a confession can create and Nguyen used it here to open his epic novel. By the bottom of the first page where he wrote April as ‘the cruelest month (referencing the Fall [Liberation] of Saigon), I knew I had found what I’d been looking for: a story about the Vietnam War with a Vietnamese perspective in English literature. 

Image via YouTube

As Nguyen’s protagonist re-lived those days in April, my deeply buried memories about being ‘educated’ on Vietnam and her civil war resurfaced…

The very notion of ‘Vietnam’ was introduced – unintendedly – to me as a child by a film titled Indochine (1992) starring Catherine Deneuve as a French plantation owner raising her adopted Vietnamese daughter, set during the Vietnamese nationalist uprisings in the 1930s to 1950s. The film was my Mum’s choice (a trained French teacher and a Deneuve fan, naturally) and I took some cues from her on how I should have felt about Vietnam as depicted in Indochine: that this country is so exotic, that it is a shame that the white lady’s farm got burned down, and that the Vietnamese adopted daughter’s life could have been nicer without the Vietnamese nationalists, who seemingly created lots of tragedy in her life. 

Later in my teenage years, I ‘saw’ the Vietnam War for the first time in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) as a consequence of another family movie night; this time chosen by my funny brother (a Robin Williams fan, again, naturally). The Vietnam in this movie was hot, humid and sticky and the Americans were schizophrenic, confused and at times resentful towards the Vietnamese for this war. 

Making a film about the Vietnam War features as one of the key elements in The Sympathizer but thankfully (and not surprisingly) Nguyen portrays the good, bad and the ugly in this process; including the justification we make about how films about us made by others are ‘still a good opportunity’ for our people to be seen and understood.

For me, I felt another kind of justification while reading about the politics of representation in film as illuminated in The Sympathizer: that I wasn’t crazy for not enjoying M.A.S.H – the beloved American TV series with the Korean War as its backdrop. In fact, it was okay that I had always felt a little sick in the guts whenever I had to sit through it or talk about it, just because it was one of the most popular (or just available) shows “about Korea” in English. In reading Nguyen, I found evidence in literature that my feelings against the grain were legitimate. 

And Viet Thanh Nguyen has written this book which goes against the genre grain. This is a spy novel, a historical fiction, a critique on the Hollywood film industry, an ode to the author’s (lost) homeland, and an unapologetic essay on the ugly intolerance and cruel violence that human nature can reveal about us. It is a story set in Vietnam just as it is rooted in America. Nguyen brings all this complexity and richness in The Sympathizer without even revealing the name of his protagonist, an illegitimate son born of a French priest and a Vietnamese girl. 

Buy this book as a gift to: a) all BIPOC writers and readers who wish to read and to be read as if we are not the minority; b) any film buff who contemplates the politics of representation on screen; and c) the next generation of the Vietnamese diaspora in our lives: this story is the backdrop to  their lives – let them claim it, and let them tell us how it should be read. 

Here’s to happy reading, 

This Korean woman reads

You can follow Anna Song on Instagram by clicking on “This Korean Woman Reads”

Cover image via Viet Nguyen website

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