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'A Man of Two Faces' is a riveting, one-stop primer on Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press

In the early days, one of Viet Thanh Nguyen's mentors at Berkeley, Maxine Hong Kingston, did not think he knew how to "[get] to the center of things" in his writing, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author notes in his new memoir A Man of Two Faces.

But years before he came into his own, Nguyen had already intuited he would not want to tell a classically American, individualistic story where his ethnic heritage is simply a backdrop for his personal struggle. He instead hoped to tell one that would juxtapose his trajectory with other lives affected by unruly forces.

The author of The Sympathizer and The Refugees has now written a memoir that, like his other writings, takes its time to "get to the center of things" by staying on the peripheries and gathering energies from the outer rings. A Man of Two Faces is cocky and riveting — self-consciously constructed as if written for a standup audience. It also serves as a generous, one-stop primer for both his fiction and scholarly work on wars and the ethics of remembrance.

Barely four when he left Vietnam with his parents and older brother shortly before the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, Nguyen retains no memory of his harrowing, transoceanic crossing. But he clearly remembers the trauma of being separated from his parents during their early resettlement period in the U.S. — the family had to split up among several households as there seemed to be no sponsor that could take them in as a single unit. This first, psychic awareness of the Fall of Eden, engineered "by a force greater than his parents," would foretell other schisms, separating Nguyen from his parents' seemingly heroic resilience and their unwavering Catholic faith.

As owners of SàiGòn Mới, a Vietnamese market in pre-gentrified downtown San Jose, Calif., his parents would inevitably face the job-related casualties of racism and violence, while leaving their pre-teen son presumably safe at home among his English-language books and TV dinners. Unbeknown to them, mostly due to the language barrier, Nguyen was exposed to questionable cultural knowledge: the dehumanizing violence depicted in American war movies against Vietnamese, and abject sexual conduct in Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth's raucous novel about an alienated, lust-ridden Jewish bachelor. His parents thought they were protecting their son from "the dangers he [could] not see; while the son wanted to "protect them from the knowledge they [did] not need." As an adolescent, Nguyen's sense of alienation formed a double consciousness that would later resurface in Vo Danh, the double-agent in his book The Sympathizer: "When does duality become duplicitousness? When does having two selves lead not to double vision but to self-deception?"

This constant vigilance helps Nguyen develop a critical distance when assessing his refugee history against a multivalent context. His tenuous hold on his Vietnamese past found purchase in the notion of "post-memory" — unwitnessed trauma that nevertheless gets reproduced as accepted reality through repeated if fractured storytelling from survivors to third parties. This can happen through photography, film, and literature — driven intentionally or subconsciously by ethnocentrism and nationalism — as illustrated by American fiction and Hollywood films on the Vietnam War.

Due to the dominant culture's distorted and biased view on history, inheritors of secondhand memory — those who were not witnesses to the original event but learn about the past through literature or visual media — may uncritically absorb the dominant view of history and then become unwittingly complicit in furthering the original unaddressed trauma or injustice. So someone striving for ethical remembrance should exhaustively question the intent in every narrative, as well as any system or mindset that does not acknowledge disputed or opposite viewpoints, Nguyen posits.

Using Nguyen's egalitarian approach that applies to all groups, a Vietnamese refugee community — while seen as a marginalized sector by mainstream America — can still oppress by censoring compatriots considered to be pro-Communists, for example. Similarly, both the Marxist appeal and repressive practice of the Vietnamese Communist Government should be acknowledged, as all parties impacted by the Vietnam War need to be reminded of both their humanity and inhumanity.

Even his parents, who lost both home and land by leaving, are not exempt from Nguyen's penetrating gaze. For one, the land where their home stood formerly belonged to various indigenous groups who had lived in the Vietnamese Central Highlands for centuries. He also touches upon the fact that in fleeing Vietnam, his parents left behind Nguyen's adopted teenage sister, creating an enduring void that he identifies as an absent presence.

Nguyen's view on personal agency naturally leads to his caution against facile representation of the other. Skeptical of any American writing that romanticizes an individual's struggle from hardship to success, he observes that there is a still a gap between empathy and experience: "Empathy cannot turn a son into his father and mother, even if the son is also a father."

Nevertheless, when his mother suffered a mental breakdown during his sophomore year at Berkeley, Nguyen experienced a seeming loss of memory as if he was inextricably linked to her consciousness, thus her temporary departure from reality also exiled him into an abyss.

Taken together, Nguyen's novels, critical essays, and short fiction paint a dynamic, multifaceted portrait of the author. Besides the obstreperous, combative voice of his novels, and the hypnotic, propulsive range of his scholarly criticism, the subtler register of Nguyen's stories in The Refugees offers an immersive release; it gives his insistent politics some breathing room, and provides an intimacy essential to storytelling. Nguyen acknowledges in A Man of Two Faces that the short story War Years is an homage to his parents and their refugee history. The mother in this story is an indelible force of nature: She achieves a reconciliation with memory and history by acknowledging the pain of others and affirming her unvanquished will for survival.

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.

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Thúy Đinh