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Think Forum: Viet Thanh Nguyen (2019)

Presented as the 2019 F. Joseph Callahan Distinguished Lecture

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Discussion Questions

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s powerful novel dramatizes the double-mindedness of a sleeper agent navigating both a divided, war-torn Vietnam and a polarized America.

1. What is the significance of the title, The Sympathizer?

2. How does the protagonist’s mixed parentage, his “outsiderness,” anticipate his dual nature and divided loyalties?

3. The novel takes the form of a long confession written by the narrator in prison. How effective is this approach? What quandaries does it raise regarding truth and coercion?

4. In what way, or how accurately, do the scenes about the production of a film about the Vietnam War, a take-off on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, reflect how Vietnam was actually depicted in American media and culture?”

5. Would you describe The Sympathizer as satire? Perhaps in the vein of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22?

6. The narrator is a spy, a secret agent. Is The Sympathizer an espionage thriller? Or is Nguyen playing with the conventions of a thriller?

7. What impact did American culture have on the Vietnamese refugees as they sought to assimilate in their adopted homeland?

8. When Vietnamese refugees returned home, how do think they were viewed by those who never left?

9. Do you think that younger readers will experience a different impact from this novel than readers who grew up in the Vietnam era?

10. Has The Sympathizer altered your perception of the Vietnam War? If so, how?


1. What does the narrator mean when he tells us, "I am a man of two minds"? How does this statement reverberate throughout the book?

2. Comparisons of this work have been made to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, an absurdist take on World War II. Nguyen includes similar satire in The Sympathizer. One such example is this statement:

It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died. Imagine how many would have died without a truce!

Can you find other examples where the author employs similar satiric wit? What affect does such a stylistic device have on your reading? Does the black humor lessen the horror of the war, or draw more attention to it?

3. Talk about the conclusion of the book, which many describe as shattering. Was it so for you? How has the narrator been changed by his experiences? What has he come to learn about himself, his culpability, his identify, the war, America and Vietnam?

4. The narrator says that the war in Vietnam "was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors." What does he mean by that? What do you know (or remember) about the war—and how did you come to know it? How does point of view, who does the telling, alter one's understanding of history?

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