VIET THANH NGUYEN A Man of Two Faces: A memoir, a history, a memorial. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer reflects on his life and what it means to be a Vietnamese refugee in America.
In 2015 Viet Thanh Nguyen published The Sympathizer, a novel that explored the Viet Nam war, particularly the involvement of America, from a Vietnamese perspective. It was hailed as a masterpiece, winning many awards. Nguyen says A Man of Two Faces ‘evolved from a series of interviews and lectures that I gave from 2015 to 2022, as well as numerous essays I published during that time’. At one level, it is an attempt to come to terms with the fame accorded to him since the publication of The Sympathizer. At another, it is attempting something more profound: to understand himself, the nature of existence, and the human condition.
Nguyen employs the term ‘interstitiality’, which he defines as ‘the intersections, the junctions, the crossings. Of languages, cultures, ways of thinking and political belief.’
You are forever in between that place and this place, dis place and displaced, a site of unease that will always be home. You will never be quite comfortable anywhere, because what if homes are not only places where everything is happy and resolved, but also just as likely places of discomfort and dis ease. Welcome home. Love it or leave it.
Note his use of the words ‘discomfort’, ‘unease’ and ‘dis ease’. He is in a state of disequilibrium. This book has enabled him to find an equilibrium.
There are two major spaces that Nguyen has inhabited, in conflict with each other. The first is in a micro (family) sense, as the son of Vietnamese refugees who ended up in San Jose, California. His parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store, worked long hours seven days a week, were devout Catholics, saved and made sure both their sons had good educations (Nguyen’s older brother is a doctor) and admonished them to be good. They are classic examples of immigrants who work hard and sacrifice themselves so their children can prosper.
Nguyen, however, wanted to find his own way. On Saturday mornings his parents would drop him off at the local library, where this ‘curious young boy … scarring himself with words hot to the touch’ borrowed books and found a new home in reading. He observes of this time that his parents ‘do not realize how the library will steal you from them. By the time they do, you have been kidnapped by literature. By books. By English.’
Nguyen does not share his parents’ Catholicism, instead seeing himself as an atheist. He has a Filipina American girlfriend, but his parents demand he stops seeing her and finds a good Catholic Vietnamese girl. He says he will but continues the relationship for another five years until the Filipina girl dumps him, tired of being a secret.
The lesson you learn is the need to keep a secret life. You are already adept at secrecy and silence. In Ba Ma’s house you are an American spying on them. Outside their house, you are a Vietnamese spying on Americans and their strange ways and customs.
He doesn’t like conflict and is unprepared to take on his parents, sensing something profound about their time in Viet Nam and the sacrifices they continue to make for him and his brother.
The second space is the macro – the political, economic and sociological. It explores his place as a refugee living in America. From an early age he experiences racism and America’s racist hierarchy. While Vietnamese and other Asians have a rough time – he points to historic examples of legislative exclusions of different Asians, contemporary killings by crazed racist whites, and anti-Chinese and anti-Asian abuse following Covid – but it is nothing compared to being black or a Native American. To him, the slogan Make America Great Again is really a euphemism for Make America White Again.
Nguyen is critical of all the wars America has been involved in, especially in Asia, and the devastation they have brought. These wars are why so many Asian refugees have made their way to America. He quotes Mark Twain:
Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword:
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.
His major criticism of America is that it won’t deal with its past – its racism, its wars, its slaughter of so many people. He says America is a nation of 50 states plus ‘the invisible fifty-first, the state of Denial’. He is also critical of the way Asians are glossed over in accounts of American wars and it is always Americans who are the heroes.
The open secret of AMERICATM is that white people founded it on colonization, genocide, slavery, war, and white supremacy, all of which continue shaping the self and the Other.
The open secret of AMERICATM is that we do not call colonization by its name. Instead we give colonization another name:
The AMERICAN DREAMTM
He observes how:
AMERICATM always needs new Others to provide the cheapest labor to absorb the racism, to shame other Others for not working hard enough and not singing loud enough in the American chorus … the inherent, fundamental, obscene violence and murderousness of American life, one that has always required both the death of Others and the disremembering of those deaths.
Nguyen attended Berkeley University, and at 19 he was a member of a nonfiction writing class run by Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of two canonical works on the Chinese experience in America – The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Man (1980). Every day he attended her class, he fell asleep. At the end of the course, in December 1990, Kingston wrote him a note that said:
My observation is that you seem alienated and depressed. You said that falling asleep in class is your normal behavior; I think it is a sign of withdrawing and not functioning.
Taking joy in life and being generous in the giving of yourself (such as giving praise or criticism to other students) are healthy states that I want for you to work on and achieve.
Did you notice that I asked you to give me questions? There are no questions in your letter. Questions are creative and dangerous. To ask a question is to be open to change. For you to be a good writer, Viet, you need to be open, engaged, speaking, hearing, awake.
Nguyen rediscovered this letter 30 years later. He says Kingston later told him he was ‘the worst student in the class’. The ‘curious young boy’ never had problems asking himself questions about America and its internal and international operations. It was something he and his family experienced first hand. His difficulty was asking questions about his family and himself; of confronting the internal conflict that he had spent most of his life trying to avoid. He eventually found a good Catholic Vietnamese girl with the same background as him, a poet who he describes as also being beautiful. They have two children.
In A Man of Two Faces Nguyen takes on the task of investigating himself and his relationship with his parents. The book is partially organised chronologically, where he discusses being Vietnamese, his parents’ lives, and living in America. In the process he examines racism, colonialism, war, genocide, propaganda and the utilisation of power by elites. In virtually every chapter there is a reference to his parents and his sense of guilt at not being more understanding of them when he was younger. He provides a moving account of his mother’s 13-year illness, the devotion of his father in looking after her (and paying all the expenses himself, which he had saved for in order not to burden his sons) and her eventual death.
Ma will not count as one of war’s casualties … So many of war’s casualties are never counted. Never commemorated, never named on walls, never written about in novels and plays, never featured in movies. The refugees, the suicides, the disabled, the unsheltered, the traumatized, the ones who have departed this reality. The ones never known.
A Man of Two Faces is a celebration of and testament to his parents, and through them all refugees who have found their way to strange lands.
This is a book about someone trying to delve into himself, to understand the purpose of existence and to reconcile or make sense of the various places he inhabits, his ‘interstitality’. This is a book where you need to have a break after each chapter and absorb and reflect on what you have just read.
As he nears the end of the book, Viet Thanh Nguyen says:
I who never wanted to be a father, am now a father twice. I who always distrusted the feeling of being at home, now feel at home. With my children, with Lan, my house.
This is, perhaps, the end of me as a writer.
Or this is the beginning of me as a different kind of writer.
But does it really matter if he does or doesn’t continue writing? He has found himself. He has thought and written his way to an equilibrium. Maybe he only had one great novel in him. But he has written two masterpieces: The Sympathizer and now this, A Man of Two Faces: A memoir, a history, a memorial.
Viet Thanh Nguyen A Man of Two Faces: A memoir, a history, a memorial Little Brown 2023 PB 400pp $34.99.
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.
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