Viet Thanh Nguyen—my good friend—just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This is awesome news on many levels. He is the first Vietnamese American writer to achieve something so grand. He is also a friend of over twenty years. And for some reason, when friends make it, the cake tastes sweeter; the coffee, ever more rich and deep and layered.
Viet is a professor of English & American Studies at USC—a literary critic by training. But ever since I knew him, he harbored the ambition to write a novel. And I’ve watched him over the years self-consciously try to move out of the jargon-y world of literary theory and into the alternate dimension in the time-space continuum that is Creative Writing.
His debut novel, The Sympathizer, is what got him this year’s Pulitzer. It tracks the confession of a spy–half French, half Vietnamese—who follows the Vietnamese exodus after the Fall of Saigon, the exodus of Vietnamese citizens that were aligned with the USA, citizens that were fervently anti-communist. The spy is a double agent–a communist—sent by the upstart regime to keep tabs on the newly minted refugees who form the first great diaspora that would include among its numbers people like my parents, my siblings, and me. This is a diaspora that will still remain politically active, one that will still support the overthrow of the communist government, even as the war has come to a close.
The narrator of The Sympathizer is forced to give a confession from his prison cell and the opening lines capture the arresting quality of his voice: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issues from both sides.” The lines really suck you in and are involved in a game of resonances that are the mark of someone who has read widely and deeply. We can hear echoes of the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the classic of African American literature. This is no accident: Viet’s son—Ellison–is named after that towering figure of twentieth century American literature.
And this is what is so interesting about Viet’s novel—the way that it is constantly interested in fitting its voice up and against, in concert and in harmony, with other voices in the American literary canon: an awareness of himself operating within a grand tradition and taking his place within a literary conversation. Of The Sympathizer, Maxine Hong Kingston writes: “A Magnificent Feat of Storytelling, The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”
I’ve always been in awe, a supplicant at the burnished throne, of writers who win big awards—the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel. And I have been blessed to find myself within the disco strobe light of their dance floor company at certain points in my life. But it is a new sensation—one that I will cherish—to actually know a writer who has made such a big splash. It is a singular prize, a gem you can keep under your mattress, to know that a writer of this level has shared his work with you, even before it has seen print.