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.