It was in 2017 that I read The Sympathizer, the Pulitzer-winning debut novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen. It was quite a different experience for me because, though I've read and watched a lot about the Vietnam War, it was the first time I could read about it from a Vietnamese perspective. Even the movies that portray antiwar sentiments do so from an American viewpoint and certainly feel inadequate. We are also never told about the situation in Vietnam after the War, at least in the fictional depictions. The Sympathiser gave a lot of information through its protagonist, who is a Southern Vietnamese soldier who fought with Americans, though he is also a Communist spy. The story is about the duality that he experiences.
So when I found out that the upcoming memoir of Viet Thanh Nguyen is titled A Man of Two Faces, I knew that it would definitely connect me to his novel. I received an advance reading copy of the book through Netgalley from the publisher, Grove Atlantic. The writer's parents fled South Vietnam along with the two kids, leaving behind an adopted daughter. They settled in the US, trying to live the American Dream while suffering to ensure that their kids prosper. America, in turn, ensured that the refugees stayed as refugees and the immigrants stayed as immigrants, especially when they were nonwhite, never allowing assimilation into the mainstream.
'History performs your caesarean, as it does for all refugees to America™, delivering you as that mythological subject, the amnesiac, rootless, synthetic New American.'
A Man of Two Faces is a very different kind of memoir. It is not just about the life of the author and what he remembers of it. It is more about what he never knew and what he forgot on his journey. It is not just rememberance; it is about memories that are altered or obliterated. Due to this, we are not provided with a chronology of events in his life as he remembers them. We get a scattered bunch of remembered and forgotten happenings. Or, as the author likes to call the rewinding of these fragments, 're membering'. We get insights on how a refugee lives, behaves, sustains, loves, and eventually dies. We see desperate attempts to get out of being refugees and immigrants, but the whirlpool pushes them all back in. We see how the ever-elusive American Dream works as that whirlpool.
One important technique that Nguyen effectively uses in The Sympathizer is his playing around with the narrative voice. Initially, the narrator uses the first-person singular to tell his tale, but by the end, the narration is done in the first-person plural. I become We. In this memoir, he uses a similar device when the first two parts of the book are narrated in second person and the final part in first person. As the title suggests, the author finds it easy to bifurcate himself to tell his story. He writes whatever he finds difficult to express in the second person. The reader also finds this distance from the narrator to the narrated easy to deal with, with the narration being a sharp criticism of history, society, and a nation.
You. And me. Such an odd couple.
The only way I have been able to write about myself is through writing about you. You are me, but seen from a slight distance, or the greatest distance, which is the space between one and one’s self.
The format of the book is also innovative. The writer plays around with spacing, margins, and alignment to give a lyrical look to the text. The quotes (and there are a lot of them) are aligned towards the right side of the page. Sometimes we find geometric shapes on pages made using words. We find some words blacked out, and in time, we find out which word they are meant to be. All these are not just aesthetic additions. It influences our inferences about the content of the book.
The writer documents his incisive take on the refugee experience and how the attitude towards refugees creates a duality inside them. They become good refugees or bad refugees as and when the host nation needs them to be. We find out how the writer encounters disdain for his culture and lifestyle through movies, literature, and even academia. We observe the subtlety with which they are made to subjugate to an idea of collectivity that forces them to surrender their culture and identity for the sake of the American Dream and then be denied the opportunity to achieve it.
More than the events in his life, Nguyen elaborates on the experiences of his parents as refugees, especially his mother's. May be because they tried to pave the path of their children's lives to success, and they never wanted their children to suffer as they did. We especially find a great character study of his mother, who, according to him, is a unique specimen of the refugee experience but at the same time a very common one when seen from another perspective.
The book elucidates how the influx of refugees fleeing from war, which the colonialist nations have themselves taken part in and, in most cases, begun, is used by the colonisers to celebrate their vain self-importance. These refugees and immigrants are used for cheap labour and are demonised when they claim their share in the power structure. But Nguyen also exposes the difference in treatment given to white and nonwhite refugees by giving examples of the Irish and the Germans. They were able to join the mainstream and find acceptance, while nonwhite races are still finding themselves victims of racial bias.
A Man of Two Faces is a stinging criticism of the colonial style of functioning in the USA. Its deep analysis of racial hierarchy, its moving depiction of being a refugee, its sharp wit and sarcasm, and its high literary value make it a must-read.