Empathy, Pain, and Power in Literature: A Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this interview conducted by Emily Cordo, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses how literature can be used to historicize trauma and challenge power. He explores the complicated and sometimes sadistic dynamic of relationships between writer, character, and reader. When writers have genuine empathy for their own characters, they allow their readers to appreciate the experience of encountering an unfamiliar consciousness and encourage them to extend empathy to characters they would otherwise judge. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of The Sympathizer, a New York Times Best Seller and Pulitzer Prize winner, as well as The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Nguyen is the winner of numerous awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, The Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, and the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.

Emily Cordo: How did you navigate the attraction/repulsion dynamic between the reader and the unnamed protagonist of The Sympathizer? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: When my agent read the first fifty pages or so of The Sympathizer, he said, Our spy is not very likable, is he? and my response was, I like him just fine. I think thats crucial. I think that the author has to have deep empathy for his own characters and has to understand his characters, even when they are doing things that—by some normative standard of ethical or moral or political judgment—some people might find objectionable in various ways. I think its perfectly possible for that to happen. We can look at it in reverse, that there are many likable people out therepolite, well-groomed, wealthy people we want to have dinner withwhose behavior, while not obnoxious, is actually responsible for a lot of terrible things, but theyre considered socially acceptable. We understand that these people are actually nicepeople, but their niceness is completely integrated with a worldview in which they perpetuate structures of oppression. So I think that has to be qualified in that way. The moral objections that readers have sometimes, to certain types of characters, is based on a visceral individual judgment of these peoples individualities (which is fine, we do that in normal human behavior too), but ideologically people dont make that same judgment of people who seem nice. So it works in reverse as well. That was my attitude toward this narrator. 

Cordo: A character who is challenging to empathize withfor me, that might be a niceheroic type who engages in persistent casual misogynycan become intolerable when the narrative normalizes the behavior. In contrast, in The Sympathizer the protagonist is tortured by his choices. 

Nguyen: I deliberately wanted to have a narrator that people might find objectionable, but he would have a kind of consciousness of his own behavior, and he would have a consciousness of the larger framework by which to understand his behavior and questions of good or bad, and he would at least provide some readers the possibilities of identification or empathy. I had to assume that my own liking for my narrator was not purely an individual thing, but that other people would find himsome readers, not all of themwould find him charismatic in some way.

Cordo: He is in some ways a representation of an unhealed historical trauma. How would you describe your experience, either as a writer or in editing The Displaced, finding space in the publishing world for stories about historical traumas?  

Nguyen: The publishing industry has no problem making room for trauma. Thats part of the material of selling things for publishing houses—that trauma is quite marketable. For me, the larger issue around that is how do we approach these issues of trauma? There are ways in which trauma can be situated not just at an individual level but at a historical or political level at the same time. Thats always been important to me. The writing obviously draws power from the personal emotional trauma of an author or a character, but what Im interested in, equally, is being able to historicize that trauma. 

Cordo: What is your goal in historicizing trauma?

Nguyen: To the extent that readers or writers can learn from dealing with trauma, its not only through personal catharsis, but its also through locating trauma historically. If trauma is only experienced individually, theres a certain kind of inescapability to it. If the person or individual might get out of their traumatic situation, but the trauma is induced by a larger historical situation, and we dont confront it, the trauma is going to repeat itself over and over again. For example, at the end of The Sympathizer we have revelation of sexual trauma that takes place; it is obviously deeply impactful for the people involved, but sexual trauma, even though its obviously individual, repeats itself historically because of patriarchy and heteronormativity and all these other things. Literature needs to be able to respond at that level as well. That has driven a large part of my work, both in terms of what I do with my characters and also looking at myself personally. Its a dialectic to go back and forth between the individual and the collective experiences of trauma. In my life as a scholar, I was interested in the collective parts, the historical parts, the political parts. As a writer, I had to go interior, into myself and my characters, but then I had to go right back out again to the historical and the political as well.

Cordo: You have said previously both that you are empathetic and that you enjoyed writing the torture scenes in The Sympathizer. How did you prepare yourself to write those scenes and what did you learn from the experience?

Nguyen: I think I recognize that there is an element in me as a reader and as a human being that is probably a little bit sadistic. You [mentioned] casual misogyny, for example. That is a problem for you, and for a lot of other people, but it is also something that elicits a lot of pleasure from a lot of readers as well. When I was writing The Sympathizer I enjoyed myself greatly, and then at a certain point I realized, Ooh, hes probably a misogynist. Therefore maybe I am too, or some part of me is, for taking pleasure in things he was doing or saying, like his objectification of women, for example. So that got me ready for the extended moment of the torturethinking that, number one, this was partly his just punishment, but that, number two, the enjoyment that he and I experienced from his own behavior could also be found in other peoples enjoyment of whatever would happen to him. That kind of sadism you find in the torturer, of course, but you probably find it in some writers too. 

Cordo: What is the source of sadistic satisfaction in writing?

Nguyen: Maybe some of us find some kind of sadistic pleasure in putting our characters through certain kinds of experiences, and that is wrapped up (from a writers perspective, or at least from my perspective as a writer) with the artistic challenge of how to depict certain things. The more difficult it might be to depict something, the more pleasure there might be for the writer in being able to pull it off. My issue was: I was going to put him through seventy or eighty pages of torture. Many readers would not want to read this. How do I do this in such a way that readers will want to read this? So thats where the contradiction between thinking about what the torture actually entails (which did cause me some sleepless nights) versus the pleasure of writing the scenes came into contradiction. And there is no problem with that contradiction for me. That is just part and parcel of what we have to do sometimes as writers. 

Cordo: You have said that in contemporary American literature we privilege writing that is internally directed (the writer confronts themselves emotionally) over writing that is political (the writer confronts power). How would you like to see the way we discus literature and power change? 

Nguyen: In the United States we dont, on the average, read a lot of international authors. Our translation rate is about three percent in terms of what gets published inside this country and a lot of the conversations in American literature seem to revolve around who is the hot American author at the moment. Thats fine, but were not spending enough time talking about writers outside of this country. And then inside of this country, the domain of politics in literature seems to also be aligned with so-called “marginalized” or “minority” experiences or histories or identities. We expect so-called “minorities” or “marginalized” peoples of whatever background to do the political work, but that leaves the “majority”however you choose to define it, the normative population around whatever issuefree to not talk about these political types of issues. And, of course, that itself is a political choice thats simply masked as common sense

Cordo: How should contemporary American writers, especially those writing from positions of privilege, use their writing to challenge power? 

Nguyen: I think the obligation is on authors and readers to educate themselves about these two dimensions, and to both be interested in politics but also be committed to the possibility of politics and literature mutually coexisting. The dominant normative tendency is to say literature is unmarked by many things, including politics, and that is the power of ideology in American society, and in American literature, and in American MFA programs, as far as I can tell. And it leaves, in the United States, those marked as international or minority writers in the position of constantly harping on the political. Its a mutually reinforcing cycle; were going to keep on talking about it because were in that contradiction. Writers of the dominant populationhowever that needs to be definedthey do have an obligation to recognize their political privileges, to make them visible, and to confront that in the literature, and not simply demand that other writers outside this country or from marginalized populations inside this country take up the political burden.