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Writing Is a Process of ‘Emotional Osmosis’

Friday 10 July 2015

The author Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses how his novel The Sympathizer is the product of decades of enjoying other works.

Joe Fassler

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

In 2011—long before his debut, The Sympathizer, was published—Viet Thanh Nguyen was struggling with his book. It wasn’t until he stumbled across The Land at the End of the World, a 1971 novel by Antonio Lobo Antunes, that the tide started to turn. For reasons he didn’t fully understand, daily engagement with the novel helped Nguyen solve his most vexing literary dilemmas: Slow, consistent reading helped him find his narrator’s voice, his descriptive mode, and the perfect first sentence he’d long sought. In our conversation for this series, we discussed the way reading provides creative fuel, and the mysterious, indirect ways one book can help another find its shape.

The Sympathizer is the coerced confession of a political prisoner, writing from the confines of a 3x5 solitary cell. The unnamed narrator looks back on his life as a double agent, betraying his post with the South Vietnamese Army as a spy for the Viet Cong. As the story moves from the Fall of Saigon to the movie sets of Southern California, the novel explores the cultural legacy of a brutal war—and the psychology of a character who will betray someone or something he cares for, no matter where he turns. A front-page review in the The New York Times Book Review said The Sympathizer “fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in California. The author of the academic book Race and Resistance, he teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, and spoke to me by phone.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It was the late spring or summer of 2011, and I was having trouble with my novel. For months, I struggled to write the section that would begin the book. I felt I really needed to grab the reader from the beginning. I was thinking of certain books—like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—that immediately established both the narrator’s voice and the narrator’s dilemma. I was looking for a sentence that, once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely. But as I worked through various first lines and opening scenarios, nothing seemed quite right.

Then I came across this book review of António Lobo Antunes’ Land at the End of the World. The novel was originally published in the 1970s—this was a new version by Margaret Jull Costa, one of my favorite translators of Spanish and Portuguese literature. The excerpts I read in the review had an incredible effect on me. I have to go out, I thought, and read this entire book.

I bought a copy, and kept it on my desk the entire time that I wrote my novel. For two years, every morning, I’d read a few pages of the book until my own urge to write became so uncontrollable that I finally had to put the book down and start writing myself. Two or three pages at random every morning before writing, until I felt my own creative urge take over.

My interest was partially due to the content of the book: Lobo Antunes was writing semi-autobiographically about his experiences as a medic in the Portuguese army, fighting brutal colonial warfare in Angola. That was happening roughly around the same time as the war with which I was concerned, the Vietnam War. The perspective of his narrator—someone who was bitter and disillusioned with his country and the conflict—was something that led to the direct development of my narrator.

I was looking for a sentence that, once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely.

But the language of the book was the most important thing to me. It was so dense, so rhythmic and beautiful. The sentences just go on and on in unpredictable ways, often leading from the present into the past all within one sentence. This effect really served the purposes of my book, because the novel takes the form of a written confession. The narrator’s concerns at the time of writing always bring him back into the past—his own personal past, but also the history of his nation, the history of colonization, the history of war, all of which are unescapable to him. There was something incredible about the ways these sentences were constructed, in terms of the languidness of their rhythm, that would engulf me and pull me back into the past of my narrator’s own time.

And then, the images—throughout, the novel is filled with great, indelible pictures. Take this short passage, for instance, from the opening of the book: I know it may sound idiotic, but, on Sunday mornings, when we used to visit the zoo with my father, the animals seemed more real somehow, the lofty, long-drawn-out solitude of the giraffe resembled that of a glum Gulliver, and from the headstones in the dog cemetery there arose, from time to time, the mournful howls of poodles. The zoo had a whiff about it like the open-air passageways in the Coliseu concert hall, a place full of strange invented birds in cages, ostriches that looked just like spinster gym teachers, waddling penguins like messenger boys with bunions, and cockatoos with their heads on one side like connoisseurs of paintings; the hippopotamus pool exuded the languid sloth of the obese, cobras lay coiled in soft dungy spirals, and the crocodiles seemed reconciled to their Tertiary-age fate as mere lizards on death row. I love how precise, and how unexpected, these images are. And the way that Lobo Antunes doesn’t just give us one image in these sentences—he gives us several in a row. That’s excessive, I think, for a lot of people. Having one great image in a sentence is often times more than enough. But here he’s giving us a whole sequence: the ostriches look “like spinster gym teachers,” the penguins look “like messenger boys with bunions,” the list goes on and on. There is something in this method about not wanting the reader to move on, wanting the reader to stop, look, and luxuriate in these kinds of images that I personally found seductive.

I think some readers don’t want to be stopped in their tracks—they want to be carried along by the language to whatever destination it wants to take them. But because my book was deeply concerned with how you can’t get away from the past, I wanted that reflected in the way you couldn’t get away from beautiful or dramatic images, either. The way that Lobo Antunes was able to extract these incredible pictures was something I wanted to emulate—something I feel I actually failed at, in writing the book. I couldn’t do what he did. Still, it served as a high marker for me to aim at.

When I say I’m attracted to this passage because of its rhythm and its images, there’s still a logic to these things that is separate from the more rational process of saying, I need to construct my story or my characters in such and such a fashion. The language itself had some kind of impact on me that was more emotional than intellectual. The book acted as a condensed, compact, extremely powerful substance that woke me up to what I needed to do, each day, as a writer. I thought of it as espresso. It wasn’t coffee—I couldn’t drink it all day long. I could only take small doses, and that was enough. With caffeine, how do you quantify what’s happening with that? You just know you need it. The process was mysterious, and it worked.

One day, a line came to me after reading The Land at the End of the World: I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. It just came to me. And I thought, that’s it. All I have to do is follow this voice for the rest of the novel, however long it takes.

Immediately, that day, I wrote to one of my friends who was going to read the manuscript and said: I found the opening line to the novel! That was true. It enabled me to start writing without hesitation, after that.

One of the challenges of the novel’s prose was: I created a character who is going to be a spy, and a double agent, and was inevitably going to do bad things. I knew in advance what some of those things were, although not all of them. My protagonist does kill people and betray people. These are not things I’ve done—things the majority of people haven’t done—and yet you have to get readers to follow this person, for a very long time. So I felt that the whole book would be dependent on the seductiveness of our narrator’s voice and character.

One of the reasons why I paid so much attention to the narrator’s voice was that he needed an ability to persuade or seduce simply through the way he spoke. I needed him to be able to draw the reader in, and accept that they were going to follow him, regardless of his actions—which might be objectionable in many different ways. His seductiveness—if that’s what it is for some readers—is partly due to his beliefs, his politics, his character, but also a lot to do with how he uses the language.

Another part of the seduction was an effect I wanted: a sense of high dramatic and emotional stakes from the very first page. In an interview, Tim O’Brien said his fiction always begins with a big moral question he wants to answer. It also happens in Invisible Man: We’re told first paragraph, the first page, what the major theme of the book is going to be. This is a tricky thing to do—you don’t want your fiction to come off as didactic, or polemical, right from the very beginning. And yet I wanted my novel’s first paragraph to announce to the reader that this is a narrator who is very intent on meditating on certain important issues. It was difficult to know how to do that in a way that was dramatically interesting as well.

The question he arrives at, I think on the second page, is: What is to be done? That was always a question I encountered in college reading Lenin and other Marxist variants, and it’s something I was never able to adequately answer—it was the question I wanted to wrestle with through the writing of the novel. The book itself, writing the story about this person, and what he encounters, and what he does, was a way of forcing myself to answer that question.

At the same time there’s a big, existential, political/moral question, I also wanted to present the reader with a difficult problem of plot: Put a character in a situation he can’t get out of, and watch what he does. I wanted the book to be entertaining, given its literary constraints, despite the very serious questions and issues the narrator confronts.

Through it all, I had The Land at the End of the World. There’s something very mysterious about my attraction to the book—and that is one of the powerful things about writing. As someone who’s a scholar, I try to rationalize and think about why I make certain kinds of artistic choices. But there’s also the part that’s intuitive and emotional. Whatever happened with this book, it was a decades-long process of osmosis: the product of reading hundreds and hundreds of books and authors, absorbing all their styles on conscious and unconscious levels. Some of them mean more to me than others. There was a short shelf of books that I kept near me of writers whose styles and stories I felt I wanted to try to emulate or take something away from. Then I came across this book—somehow, it seemed to be the work that spoke most intimately to how I saw myself as a writer, and how I saw my narrator as a character. It seemed to be the culmination of all these years of influence and inspiration.

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