The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A red cover with a yellow border features an illustration of a Vietnamese man's face. Includes award stickers for the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Literature

by Eric L.

I may have opened another post like this, but if you’ve not read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, do yourself a favor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and awards aside, it’s a great book.  

The Sympathizer is an “epistolary-like” novel, as the entire thing is written as a confession of a spy from the north who has deeply infiltrated the south, and the American support apparatus. He is an aide to a general, and really has a good feel for the elite as well as those of lower social stature. 

Superficially, it is the story of the child of a Vietnamese teenager and a French priest, who does not fit in because of his parentage and is teased and taunted. In turn, this creates a protagonist of conflicted mind and spirit who artfully chronicles his experiences in Vietnam and America. He makes the profound comment that it is really the immigrants who should be the anthropologists of American society, as well as many other insightful observations throughout the book. 

He chronicles the chaotic escape from Vietnam (you’ve probably seen the footage) when the United States withdrew in 1975. When one views this sort of thing, they’re horrified by the carnage and desperation, but I’d not considered the bureaucratic tasks such as making lists of who evacuates and the intermediary steps. Spoiler alert: the Vietnamese don’t just land in their suburban American homes on a direct flight from Saigon. Sadly, these events seem apropos right now irrespective of your feelings about American wars and intervention globally. I could not even imagine trying to escape my country for fear of political reprisal. 

As someone of a certain generation, I grew up watching the fictional films about the Vietnam War and worried about the specter of the reinstatement of the draft. Perhaps, more broadly, the Vietnam War was the degradation of the cultural capital and hubris that the United States, as a country, carried until this loss. I always felt for the boys who were involuntarily ripped from their lives and sent across the world as soldiers in an ideological battle they likely only rudimentarily understood. It’s a logical reaction, since they were the protagonists of these films, if not the heroes at least sympathetic anti-heroes, and they were like me. 

A Vietnamese character comments that this cold war has always felt hot to them. That said, it’s enlightening for me to read a work of art by a Vietnamese expatriate like Nguyen (by the way, it’s set to be an HBO miniseries). The details concerning the quotidian lives that many of his compatriots lead in the US (California to be specific), and how it’s difficult for former men of power to become relatively powerless in their new country, are very well done. One portion of the book even chronicles the protagonist’s experience working as consultant for a movie about Vietnam, loosely based on Apocalypse Now (if you not seen this film, borrow it and watch it).  

The Sympathizer (also available as an eBook) is a page turner, a spy novel, a thriller, and oddly humorous; however, I would not describe it as straight satire. In my opinion, what makes this debut novel great is that it is the work of a free thinker and an excellent writer. It may seem banal to say that there is a lot going on in this novel (it may even be worth a second read), but I’m not sure how else to phrase this. Nguyen’s writing is dense, but not difficult to read, and the story just flows. I intend to read his collection of short stories, The Refugeesand eventually the sequel, The Committed, which was published in 2021. Try them, you may like them. 

The Library is for Everyone, Part 2

The picture depicts bunting in an alley festooned with flags from different countries, with a light fixture overhead.

By Piyali C.

Many fascinating works of immigrant literature highlight various aspects of the immigrant experience, including the anonymity and loneliness that I reflected on in Monday’s post about my own experience as an immigrant who eventually discovered a welcoming community at my local library. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: (Available in print, ebook, eaudio) – New arrivals from Kolkata, India, the Ganguli family tries to create their lives in America while they miss their home. The book explores the complicated relationship first-generation immigrants have with their birth country and the country of their ancestors.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames: (Available in print) – Beautiful yet odd, Stella Fortuna has been pursued by death her entire life. But Stella is resilient and tough. Above all things, Stella desires freedom. However, when Stella’s family emigrates to America from their village in Italy on the cusp of WWII, Stella realizes her family will deny her what she desires most at any cost, her freedom.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok: (Available in print and ebook) – A beautiful story of Kimberly Chang, an immigrant from Hong Kong, who has to straddle two worlds, succeeding in America through hard work and fulfilling her duty to her family.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande (also available in ebook and eaudiobook): Reyna Grande’s powerful memoir tells us about her childhood in a remote village in Mexico where her parents left her to make a living in United States, and her illegal trek across the two countries to be reunited with her parents at age 8.

When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago: In this memoir, the author describes her childhood days in Puerto Rico, which were filled with chaos, but also love and tenderness. From a very different environment in Puerto Rico, Santiago is brought to the bewildering and confusing world of New York. In her memoir, the author chronicles her journey of overcoming adversity in a new country and finding acceptance and success.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Library is for Everyone

The picture depicts a group of customers seated in a reading area in the library, studying materials from the collection.

By Piyali C.

The residents of Howard County are blessed to enjoy the diverse cultures and practices that people from countries around the world bring to our community. I was one such immigrant who moved to Howard County from India in 2004 with a 5 year old and a newborn. Every immigrant’s experience is different and unique, but I believe there is one common thread that binds us when we move to a different country: anonymity. Often, this includes loneliness. Leaving behind everything that is familiar, we transplant our lives to a new country for various reasons: job, a better (different) standard of living, education, and/or marriage. As we rebuild our lives in a new land, we embrace new cultures and traditions of our adopted country. Slowly, we build new relationships. Yet at the beginning, we are new, unknown.

My refuge in those uncertain days of transition was the Howard County Library. I was at the library so often and so regularly that the librarians knew me; they knew my name. It may not seem that special to many, yet to me, a new immigrant to the country, just that recognition was huge. As I stood in line to pick up my holds, the Customer Service Specialist brought my held materials without scanning my card. They greeted me by my name and asked me how I was. When I called to sign up my daughter for a class (yes, we had to call in those days), the Children’s Instructors started writing down my daughter’s name before I had to give it to them.

Within the library, I lost my anonymity. It meant a lot. I wonder today if the library worker who helped me, greeted me, took a few minutes to exchange pleasantries with me knew what a difference he or she was making to a newcomer in this country?

I work at the library now. I try my best to remember my feeling of loneliness when I first arrived. And I try to pass the kindness that I received from the librarians forward. I try to be present in the moment, I try to remember the customer’s name and even if I don’t, I always smile and say hello. I know, in my own little way, I am acknowledging a fellow human and who knows, maybe making a little difference in his/her day?

I have many stories to tell about my interactions with new immigrants at the library, but one stands out especially in my mind. A gentleman started frequenting the library a while back. He was from a different country and spoke almost no English. Language, however, did not deter us from having conversations. He managed to convey his needs through smiles, gestures, and pointing, and somehow I understood what he needed that I was able to provide – scissors, directions, printing. One day, he came to the desk, pointed to me, and said “friend.” Then he took a picture of a child from his wallet and showed it to me with a big smile. It was a photo of his child. I cherish that interaction.

Public library workers are not limited to providing information for research; they are also cornerstones of the community. They provide a safe place and create a meaningful impact, sometimes even without realizing it.

This blog post is my ode to librarians and every library worker. Since I am a lover of books as well as libraries, Part Two of my post will be published on Wednesday with a few of my favorite immigrant fiction and nonfiction books that you can borrow from Howard County Library System. Look for it then!

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.