Book Review I, The Sympathizer – Viet Nguyen

I stared at the paperback and suspected immediately that the name Nguyen in Vietnam must be as common as the name Mensah in Ghana. ‘Ngu…yen’ I slowly stressed each syllable while completely throwing away any remote knowledge of the uselessness of some letters in some French words. Studying French for years had taught me better. Also how these Frenchies are able to ignore whole letters in words without pronouncing them all while still physically maintaining the letters still baffles me.

Anyway, so I finally found out later from my Vietnamese colleague (whose last name is also coincidentally Nguyen and who agreed to write a part of this post) that the name Nguyen is actually pronounced /W3n/! How interesting.

Outside the use of the Vietnamese war as the backdrop of this novel, the narrative explores topical issues such as identity in the transnational space. This post will discuss identity in the novel and will lean on the perspectives of James Baldwin and Amin Maalouf to draw contrasts or similarities to the main narratives and issues presented in The Sympathizer. I’ll also have my Vietnamese colleague Mailé share about growing up Vietnamese in America.

Through the introduction of characters such as Ms. Mori, the General and Madame and the Crapulent major who names his twin babies Spinach and Brocolli, the narrator makes riveting commentary on identity in the transnational space.

Ms. Mori is American born and of Japanese heritage. She is criticised for her inability to speak Japanese and her personal choice to visit Paris versus Tokyo for holidays for example. She believes that how she is perceived in society’s eyes is flawed because deep within her, she identifies as American, Miss Sophia, the opinionated American who isn’t to be fucked with.

On the surface, I’m just plain old Ms. Mori, poor little thing who’s lost her roots, but underneath, I’m Sofia and you better not fuck with me

The General is disillusioned at life in a foreign culture. He probably dwells on past glory to keep his already downcast disposition from taking an even steeper turn. He is forced into a life that bows down to his former prestige as General and finds himself wasting away until his wife explodes out of fatigue and anger at him for leaving all their responsibilities on her shoulders. He decides then to open a liquor store which gives him some kind of purpose in life, however in the midst of his life’s troubles, he remarks that

fair percentage collecting both welfare and dust, smoldering in the stale air of subsidized apartments as their testes shriveled day by day, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation.’

His wife madame, addition to dealing with domestic burdens has their young daughter Lana to deal with. Outside quickly realizing that in America, children talk back, Lana has acquired a taste for clothing that is distasteful to both her mother’s and culture’s expectations. Lana meanwhile has become more direct and less apologetic about the way she expresses her femininity.

The Crapulent major who names his children Spinach and Brocolli leaves room for questions surrounding the possible meaning or reason behind naming children vegetable names when he could as well have named them Vietnamese names.

Book Review, The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are,  we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them…

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a profound book that ponders race relations between black Americans and people of caucasian descent in America. James Baldwin also examines the role of the Negro in western society and touches on black identity and the importance of understanding and maintaining this ‘black identity’ in a transnational space that can be both confusing and potentially overwhelming.

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Why I Love this Book

While very direct and fast-paced, the narration feels like a conversation. He uses the first person and leaves the narration with an overabundance of commas. These commas give the impression of hurried speech that continues without the general literary pause that manifests itself in a full stop. He candidly talks about his experience and observations on life and living it ‘black’, so to speak in a particular western society which is America. He makes references to societal structures which are designed to keep one race atop the other and also critiques religion and its role in the nigger’s depraved condition.

The Nigger’s Social Condition

Through the use of double negative structures, James Baldwin reveals the hopelessness surrounding the black man’s condition. He paints a picture of his childhood where ‘you were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity’. He makes it more than clear that the societal structure built to keep niggers at the bottom was not only oppressive but restrictive. One in which mere effort could not suffice to deliver niggers…..that ‘the social treatment accorded even the most successful negroes//something more than a bank account// to be free// (because) it was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it…’  (Happens police brutality against isn’t a reality of the 60’s only…)

Religion,…the bane maybe?

One can not miss the overt presence of Biblical allusions in the book. Words like ‘Sin’,’Pharoah’, ‘Church’, dot the book which makes it hard to not conclude that the author is likely trying to explore certain issues in that respect. James became a preacher and soon grew uncomfortable with the extortive world of Christendom. Basically how money is taken from congregations in the name of God. In addition, James notes that the reality of most churches is ‘blindness, loneliness, and terror’ instead of faith, hope, and charity’. He satirizes the church saying that ‘ there is ‘no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing and all voices coming together and crying‘ yet in all this purging of emotion and the expression of genuine love for God, why did the white God ensure to let the blacks be ‘cast down so far?’ Needless to say, the Bible was written by white men. These contrasting ideas can help draw a subtle link with the manner in which colonialism was presented in Africa. Was it not with the Bible and was it not tagged mission work?

Finally, James mentions working as a preacher and compares being in the pulpit to being in the theatre. He was both behind and on the scene and knew ‘how the illusion worked’  including how to work on a congregation until ‘the last dime was surrendered‘ and knowledge of where the money for ‘the Lord’s work‘ went.

Conclusion

This book isn’t one of those books you read once. I think everyone should own a copy and refer to it as it is still very politically and socially relevant. I would say it is one of those books whose biting truth will occur and reoccur to you. Most importantly, it is okay to read a book and not fully grasp the depth of all it has to offer. Some books make sense only after years of reading them.

Withering Heights IV

I saw a Tee shirt on Instagram that said NAH. Rosa Parks – 1955. I was greatly impressed at how pieces of history were gradually and steadily being integrated into popular culture. Maybe I was going to get this Tee shirt and probably also attempt to help artists or visual experts work or draw inspiration from the long and bitter struggle for freedom over the years both in Africa and America for the negro….

perfect segue for talking about how reading James Baldwin had had so much of an effect on me. His Fire Next Time was brimming over with double negative structures. I mean, the most apparent reason for the excessive use of this structure was remotely tied to the admittance of the hopelessness of the nigger’s situation…

The word independence in Africa and the word integration (in America) are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free – James Baldwin

It was a double negative life for me the whole week. Dinner with my Botswana people was fun…but for some reason, I couldn’t shake off the analysis of the relationship dynamics between white and black people. We’d come far and I knew people were now more sensitized and maybe exonerated of all racial bias….but then, wasn’t the subtle slave master, dominant dominee (if you like ) relationship still present somewhere? even in the most subtle way?… So this happened to me.

Previous weeks ago, I had a misunderstanding with a peer over something as basic as filling a tub with water. The peer was white and I wondered if her ‘concern’ for how I filled the tub was due to anything linked to my lack of logic or simple common sense.  I was livid. I wasn’t about to allow myself be micromanaged over something as basic as filling a tub with water.  Had post-coloniality left me sensitive to the point of extreme cynicism?

The tub of water was my no…