Viet Thanh Nguyen - 'A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir. A History. A Memorial'

Viet Thanh Nguyen - 'A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir. A History. A Memorial'


The cover for 'A Man of Two Faces'.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is an author who was catapulted into fame with The Sympathizer, a hyperkinetic yet fully coherent book that bridges many genres. Since then, the author has pieced together A Man of Two Faces, subtitled A Memoir. A History. A Memorial, which says much about its contents.

Nguyen has used different sources and interviews to form his remembrance of growing up, his parents, his upbringing, the American (in Nguyen’s words, ‘America’ is a word that nearly always suffixed by the trademark character) way of life, the American Dream, and much, much more.

In Vietnamese, your name is more distinctive, Nguy ễn Thanh Việt, with Thanh, your father’s first name, grafted onto yours, distinguishing you from all the many others, including quite a few criminals, named Nguyễn [fill in the blank] Việt. Reborn on paper in AMERICAtm you become Viet Thanh Nguyen. The diacritical marks, part of a Romance language alphabet created by Portuguese missionaries and promoted by French rulers, are somehow too foreign for Westerners when attached to Vietnamese names and words. But accent marks on French words? Bien sûr.

Not only does Nguyen lay out the complexities that come with being born and raised in a different country than the one from which one’s parents originate, but he deftly lays out a landscape of racism, prejudice, adolescence, adulthood, piecing together parts of dead family members, and, all the while, doing this beautifully by constantly weaving in and out of different themes of life.

And so what if San José has a song and you don’t, Harrisburg? No one needs directions to San Francisco. Dionne Warwick herself admitted, It’s a dumb song and I didn’t want to sing it. Still, her song won a Grammy, sold millions, was a global top ten hit in 1968. While people sang along to their home hi-fis or in the comfort of wood-paneled station wagons, American soldiers commanded by a Mexican American captain murdered 504 Vietnamese civilians in Mỹ Lai, three years before my birth. My country continues killing innocents. On the day I first revise these words, the “Pentagon Admits to Civilian Casualties in Somalia for Third Time.” The victim is Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, dead five months earlier in the town of Jilib, in a strike targeting members of the Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, eighteen-year-old girl, initially reported as a terrorist by AFRICOM, killed by a GBU-69/B small glide munition manufactured by Dynetics, which provides responsive, cost-effective engineering, scientific and IT solutions to the national security, cybersecurity, space, and critical infrastructure security sectors. My brother says he knew one of the children, a former classmate. Years later I visit Sơn My, as the Vietnamese call the village of the massacre. Cement pathways wind through the village, marked with trails of footprints symbolizing the absent dead, the living ghosts. I am careful not to walk in their footprints.

Impossible odds! Heartwarming stories of reunion and success! (Ignore the ones not reunited, the ones not successful). BUT— and this is a big BUT —you refugees lack one crucial element Hollywood needs: You. Are. Not. White.

This is not a book that deceptively revels in self-loathing. It’s a clear view into the muddled world of trying to form life as an intelligent person who is typecast and stereotyped even as people read your surname. Subject to scrutiny in ways that white people will never understand.

There’s a lot of wondrous and required anger in some of the pages.

It’s a terrifying device. The thermobaric bomb crushes caves with a super-hot blast that can destroy internal organs as far as a quarter-mile away. Its explosion is designed to tunnel through convoluted caves and pulverize anyone hiding as deep as 1,100 feet inside, and then incinerate whatever remains. From being bombed to inventing bombs—the AMERICAN DREAMtm! And don’t forget when Tippi Hedren visits fellow actor and friend Ki ều Chinh (who could also play your mother in the movie of her life) at Camp Pendleton and takes such pity on the refugees that she asks her manicurist to train some of these women. And this is how, nearly fifty years later, you Vietnamese make up 58 percent of the nail salon industry in this country.

Most Vietnamese people can’t tell the difference between Latino populations, but then again, many Latinos use “Chino” to describe any Asian who looks like they might be Chinese. You are not so offended. The Latinos who call you Chino have never physically or verbally assaulted you or made racist movies about you.

Nguyen balances stories of John Wayne America pastiche with more modern versions of racism.

When the usefulness of Chinese workers is finished with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, politicians, journalists, and business leaders demonize them to appease white workers who feel threatened by Chinese competition. In Torreón, Mexico, in 1911, a local mob murders more than three hundred Mexicans of mostly Chinese and some Japanese descent. White mobs in AMERICAtm also lynch Chinese migrants and drive them out of many towns. In downtown Los Angeles in 1871, not far from where you live now, a mob of several hundred murder eighteen Chinese men and boys. In 1875, Congress passes the Page Act, aimed at keeping Chinese women out. Anti-Chinese feeling climaxes with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the country’s first racially discriminatory immigration law. The Chinese become the nation’s first illegal and undocumented immigrants. What does it mean to be illegal when the law is unjust?

Nguyen’ sentences are often short, effective, provocative. Stirring. Even his words on his life pack information.

After my mother’s death, Lan thinks we should have another child. Má, whom Lan has come to think of as her mother, would want that. As for Ba Má, they long ago ceased calling Lan their daughter-in-law, telling Lan that they love her as a daughter. Three hundred fifty days after Má’s death, Simone is born. If Ellison was named after one great writer, Simone is named after Simone de Beauvoir and Nina Simone strong, heroic women who faced a violent world with philosophy, politics, writing, music, and song.

There’s a lot of dark comic relief in this book. Gallows humour in heaps. I appreciate this as laughter gets stuck in one’s throat, but it’s truly effective.

Where Nguyen’s writing really shines is where he deftly returns to some passages in later stages and manages to weave together a feeling of life, the everyday experience of being an outsider, without showing off. It’s an effective trait that writers like David Foster Wallace likely dreamed they could ever harness, and here it is, embalming the pages.

In all, Nguyen’s memoir, rebel yell, history class, killing of America, and love, is very worth reading. It’s a Venn diagram of love, hatred, history, and family; when do those areas cease to intersect? Nguyen dove in; here are the results.