Spoiler-free book review of The Sympathizer

Title: The Sympathizer
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Genre: Literary, political, drama, satire

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Thoughts from a second generation Vietnamese-American:

Viet Thanh Nguyen being the first Vietnamese person to win the Pulitzer Prize caused quite a stir in my local community. I could not pass up giving this book a read. O’Brien comes to mind when most people think of Vietnam War literature, and harrowing stories of American veterans abound, yet I find it so refreshing to finally have a Vietnamese voice present to the English-speaking audience. Refugees do tell their stories, but usually not in English to be heard by the rest of the world. In this regard I think The Sympathizer’s most strongest element is Nguyen’s use of language. The novel is sprinkled with bright glimmers of insight on Asian-American politics and sociology. Through his duplicitous, well-educated, unnamed biracial narrator, Nguyen spares no side with his biting satire. American society, the southern Vietnamese resistance, and even his own side the northern Communists are all probed and critiqued by this spy, whose unique position as an outsider lends him the freedom to do so. His criticism is sharpest when he gets involved in the American film industry as a cultural consultant, earnestly attempting but failing to deliver proper Vietnamese representation in media as his opinions and efforts are undermined and largely ignored by the American filmmaker. This issue is very prevalent today, which is likely why it resonates the most with me as both a consumer and a Vietnamese person. The novel is framed as a confession the spy is writing to his communist superiors, and this writing style took some getting used to. The lack of quotation marks made it hard to distinguish between dialogue and internal monologue, which the narrator often digresses into in compelling but long paragraphs. The pacing might have suffered somewhat from this and made the novel seem longer than it should be, but it’s not enough of a detriment to make me stop reading. The writing style Nguyen chose is appropriate, given the context and narrator’s situation, even if I as the reader had to plod through some of it. The narrator is not without his flaws; throughout the novel there are instances of the male gaze that I as a woman find unlikable, but I think that contributes to the complexity of the character. Like with real people, there would be things you like and don’t like about a person. What I did like about the narrator is, like I’ve said before, his insight into Vietnamese and American culture, his position as someone with mixed heritage, and an enduring love for his mother, blood brothers, and country: emotional anchors he latches onto as he is constantly deceiving people who trust him and shifting political allegiances. Born into a family of immigrants and raised by Vietnam War refugees, I did not expect to be enthralled with the perspective of a communist spy, yet Nguyen surprised me. From the start Nguyen challenged himself by writing from a point of view most would not expect to adopt. The author, a refugee himself, chose to write from the eyes of “the enemy,” which I’d imagine is not an easy thing to do. I didn’t expect to find a communist spy relatable and even likable at times. I find myself sympathizing with the sympathizer.

5/5

Spoiler-free book review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra
Genre(s): Literary, fiction, Chechnya, war, family, friendship, tragedy

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I came into this cold. One, I’m Vietnamese, and two, I’m living on the other side of the world. So I was uncomfortably unfamiliar with the history, culture, and current events of Chechnya. It’s a region in Russia rife with conflict, often forgotten and overlooked, and I was afraid I’d come into this story quite lost. Marra, however, knew how to bring me up to speed through the thoughts and actions of his characters.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place between the 90s and early 2000s, presenting a staggering amount of characters and timelines, but chiefly concerns, among others, a Chechen girl named Havaa whose father was kidnapped by the Feds. Her father’s friend Akhmed, in charge of her care and protection, approaches a Russian surgeon named Sonja for sanctuary. Fate brings these three people together as Havaa is somehow connected to Natasha, Sonja’s missing sister, and Akhmed might get to the bottom of why Havaa’s father disappeared.

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Starting on The Iron Who Cried Wolf

So I’ve taken on the challenge of tackling a new novel. Whoo! It’ll push me beyond my comfort zone, into unfamiliar territory. THE IRON WHO CRIED WOLF is contemporary survival literary fiction, set in Russia, with a female Chinese-Russian prison guard named Temur and a male Ukrainian convict named Mikhail stranded in Siberia.

No science fiction or fantasy. Just straight-up drama. A deviation from my usual interests.

What’s with the title, you ask? You might be thinking I’ve made a typo, or lost my grasp of the basics of the English language. THE IRON WHO CRIED WOLF? Shouldn’t it be THE IRON THAT CRIED WOLF? Why is the iron crying wolf? This makes no sense slkdjfdsfl. Shh, it’s ok. Let me explain you a thing. The story revolves around the belief of seeing danger that’s not there, or raising a false alarm. Or as Aesop’s fable puts it, “cry wolf.” The phrase sums up Temur’s struggle to overcome her wariness and mistrust towards Mikhail, who becomes more of her friend than an enemy despite his past crimes. Temur is a name derived from the Turkic-Mongolic word meaning “iron.” She is the iron referred to in the title, the one who cries wolf. That’s why the preposition “who” and not “that” is used. Hence, THE IRON WHO CRIED WOLF. (There’s reason to this madness, y’all.)

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Coming Close With Guardian Lion

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(Art is my own)

It’s been a year since I had started my YA Asian fantasy novel GUARDIAN LION. I started writing in June and finished it in December, roughly half a year. Still can’t believe I had finished it at 141,000 words (and later cut it down, with much effort, to 116,000 words). Naturally, after revising the manuscript to the best of my ability, I was itching to query it and hope it’d get a few grabs.

(For the sake of anonymity and avoiding any chance of identification, I will refer to the agent as “they/their/them.”)

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