The Korea Herald


[Eye Interview] Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen on HBO's upcoming 'Sympathizer' with Park Chan-wook

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : July 22, 2023 - 15:55

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Viet Thanh Nguyen in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald) Viet Thanh Nguyen in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)

The decision to make a television adaptation of his 2016 Pulitzer-winning novel "The Sympathizer” was a double joy for Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen.

“It's a thrill for any writer to have their book adapted to the screen, and in my case, a particular thrill because I'm very excited to be working with Park Chan-wook, whose work I've greatly admired even before I wrote the novel,” Nguyen said in an interview with The Korea Herald in June.

Powered with Park’s direction and a star-studded cast that includes Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh, the series is scheduled for release next year via Warner Bros. Discovery's global streaming platform HBO.

Familiar with many of the renowned South Korean director's works, the writer recalled being struck by not only how visually powerful, but also politically powerful Park's 2003 classic "Oldboy" was. The film explored some of the themes that Nguyen was also concerned with -- violence, memory and revenge.

From left: Actor Sandra Oh, head writer Don McKellar, interpreter Jaehuen Chung, director Park Chan-wook, producer Niv Fichman and writer Viet Thanh Nguyen in March 2020. (Courtesy of Viet Thanh Nguyen) From left: Actor Sandra Oh, head writer Don McKellar, interpreter Jaehuen Chung, director Park Chan-wook, producer Niv Fichman and writer Viet Thanh Nguyen in March 2020. (Courtesy of Viet Thanh Nguyen)

In their meetings, it was apparent that Park had read the novel very closely. "He had a lot of questions and ideas both about the novel and also how to adapt it for TV,” said Nguyen, adding it was Park’s suggestion to have one actor play multiple white male roles -- which was of great interest to Robert Downey Jr.

The historical espionage thriller follows the story of an anonymous narrator, the son of a Vietnamese mother and a French Catholic priest, as he serves as both a communist mole and a double-crossing underling in a South Vietnamese community during what would become the final days of the 1954-75 Vietnam War.

The novel’s setting is in the late 1970s and its nature as a spy thriller with elements of violence and spectacle have been well adapted into the TV series by Park. Nguyen said, "The clips I’ve seen look amazing. I think those elements suit very well with Park’s style.”

"The Sympathizer" (HBO)

In addition to Robert Downey Jr., whose multiple roles are supposed to represent different aspects of the American establishment, the cast features many actors with Vietnamese descent including Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Vy Le, Alan Trong and Nguyen Cao Ky Duye -- some of whom are famous in Vietnam and some up-and-coming actors, according to the author.

Despite featuring a story of Vietnam and its people, the production team were not able to shoot in Vietnam, which was one of the biggest challenges for them. The Vietnamese government prohibited filming for the same reasons that “The Sympathizer” is banned from publication in the country.

"The Vietnamese government thinks that the novel depicts the Vietnamese revolution in a negative light, which I think is overly simplistic because (the book) depicts Vietnamese and Americans in complicated ways."

Another irony was the fact that his novel became a TV series. “It's ironic that the novel is being adapted for TV series because in the novel there is a big satire of Hollywood and movie adaptations,” he added.

Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen attends the Seoul International Book Fair on June 17. (SIBF) Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen attends the Seoul International Book Fair on June 17. (SIBF)

Upcoming memoir ‘A Man of Two Faces’

Nguyen is not afraid to say that he has two faces, because he is “split” in many ways.

In “A Man of Two Faces,” a memoir scheduled to be published in October by Grove Press, Nguyen delves into the core of his being, unraveling the intricacies of his life, while also exploring the necessity of both remembering and forgetting.

The title is drawn directly from the opening line of “The Sympathizer”: I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook and a man of two faces.

“In different moments in our lives we feel like we have two faces, or two minds -- we have an internal duality that conflicts between the self and the other within each of us,” said Nguyen. “I think that is a shared experience for many people.”

"The Sympathizer" (left) and "The Committed" by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)

When Nguyen was 4 years old, he and his family were forced to flee their hometown of Buon Me Thuot in southern Vietnam for the US, where they settled as refugees. His only childhood memory of his home country is being on a boat leaving Saigon, but he is uncertain whether it really happened or the "memory" was planted by something he read.

He said the image of being on a boat but not really being certain of what he can recall summarizes his story and relationship to the past.

“Because I was born in Vietnam and not in the US, and I grew up within a family and a refugee community that emphasized our connections to Vietnam, I've always felt this psychic and personal connection to Vietnam even though I have no memories of it,” said Nguyen.

“The contrast between having the connection and not having any memories produces this desire to remember and to investigate the past -- my own past -- but also the past of my shared countries -- Vietnam and the United States.”

When we grow up and our identity aligns with our country, the compulsion to remember may not be as strong as compared to being an exile or refugee or in a minority where our past is in question, either by ourselves, by the countries that we left, or by the countries that are hosting us, explained Nguyen. Then the compulsion to remember could be stronger.

Sometimes the compulsion to forget can be stronger still, because people want to forget where they came from or what happened to them.

“So these two impulses -- of remembering and forgetting -- are in tension for everybody. But I think that is particularly aggravating for those who have been either displaced from their country or feel that they're displaced within the country they're in right now,” he said.

Upcoming memoir Upcoming memoir "A Man of Two Faces" (left) and "Nothing Ever Dies" by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, Harvard University Press)

In addition to being split between two countries, Nguyen is a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California by day, and a writer by night.

“I became a professor … because my parents wanted a ‘real’ job, a day job, but writing has always been my fantasy.”

Nguyen finds that the two roles complement and influence each other; his academic background allows him to tackle historical and political issues in his novels while he deals with weighty issues with an entertaining approach.

In addition to “The Sympathizer,” published in 2015, and its 2021 sequel "The Committed," he also published the nonfiction work “Nothing Ever Dies” in 2017, with which he is quite pleased. The book has garnered quite a bit of nonacademic readership.

“I think (of the duality) as more of a challenge of how to write at the highest possible artistic level, and yet also be able to deal with these political and historical issues,” said Nguyen. “I think it can be done. I admire a certain number of writers who I think have done that. So, that's my personal challenge.”

Nguyen is currently writing "The Sacred" to complete "The Sympathizer" trilogy. The title alludes to an essay by contemporary novelist Salman Rushdie, "Is Nothing Sacred?"

“We can ask this question when we're offended by something … so we say, 'Is nothing sacred,' implying that some things should be sacred. The book is asking that question too.”