115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Remember, you're not half of anything, you're twice of everything”: Shifting Perspectives in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

Iris-Aya Laemmerhirt, American Studies Department TU Dortmund

The paper discusses Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer (2015), which has led to a paradigm shift in the way the Vietnam War is represented in American literature. The focus will be on the transnational perspective that is opened by the text, hence questioning dominant narrative structures and ways of representation.


As one of America’s longest and most contested foreign conflict, the Vietnam War continues to haunt the United States. Indeed, the war is often reduced to the conflict that raged from 1954-1975, ignoring the fact that Vietnam was fighting a much longer period of time to expel foreigners from their country. Yet, as the American involvement has become the defining marker of this war, it is not surprising that most accounts of this war – fictional and non-fictional – focus on an American perspective. The overwhelming majority of books about the Vietnam War including Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977), and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) were written by Americans for an American audience. However, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer (2015), which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has led to a paradigm shift by introducing a narrator who speaks up for both the North as well as the South Vietnamese side.


This paper will argue that The Sympathizer offers a new perspective on the Vietnam War – not only because it is written from a Vietnamese perspective, but because the novel reveals the highly complex nature of the conflict. Revolving around the story of an unnamed half-Vietnamese half-French undercover Communist agent who is relocated to Lost Angeles, the novel offers a literary response to a dominant American-centric worldview – not only on the Vietnam War but also on immigrant experiences. Moreover, by being confronted with a perception of the world that includes South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, French, and American ideas, the reader learns that there exists always more than just one perspective.