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Author Study: Viet Thanh Nguyen Curated by David Liu : Motifs/Themes


Theme: Isolation vs. Intimacy:

“Before boarding, I paused at the gates for one last look at the villa, conjured into being for the
Corsican owners of a rubber plantation. An epic tamarind tree towered over the eaves, the
long, knuckled pods of its sour fruit dangling like fingers of a dead man. The constant staff still
stood at the proscenium atop the stairs. When I waved good-bye to them, they dutifully waved
back, holding in their other hands whose white enveloped that had become, in the moonlight,
tickets to nowhere.” (Nguyen, The Sympathizer)

Motif: loyalty. The staff members remained loyal to the General and Madam, however, Madam and the General did not stay behind with the staff members out of loyalty but fled the country with their prestige and money. To some extent, this is an example of betrayal by showing the ones who were left behind, where both isolation and intimacy are vividly displayed in the betrayal and the betrayed. 

“Marcus, however, rarely asked him anything, and during those moments when Liem ran out of
inquiries, silence ensued, and the hum of the car or the chatter of the other diners became
uncomfortably noticeable...”

“...The ticking of Parrish’s antique grandfather clock grew louder and louder with each second,
and by the time the patter of rain on the roof was distinct, Liem was fumbling awkwardly with
his underwear...”

“...Marcus pulled him closer, and, as the rain continued to fall, they held each other. Outside a car began honking repeatedly, a sound Liem knew by now to mean that someone, double-parked, was blocking the narrow street in front of the house.” (Nguyen, The Refugees – The Other Man)

Motif: auditory imagery. The story highlights many sources of sounds, focusing on the auditory senses through the employment of imagery. The reoccurring motif of sounds throughout the short story indicates the protagonist’s response to his environment, as well as his yearning for intimacy amidst the isolation he experiences in the foreign land.

“Fame would strike someone, usually the kind that healthy-minded people would not wish
upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, suffering humiliation
in a sex scandal, or surviving something typically fatal. These survivors needed someone to
help write their memoirs, and their agents might eventually come across me.”

“Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our
own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.”

“In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our
stories.” (Nguyen, The Refugees – The Black-Eyed Woman)

Motif: Ghost stories. Throughout the short story, Nguyen fabricates a narrative in which stories become a major thematical component. The protagonist, who’s unnamed throughout the entire story, was
a female writer who specializes in telling stories of the dead, otherwise known as
“ghostwriting,” in the short story. In the fictional world, the protagonist can communicate
to the dead and tell the stories by writing them down on paper, preserving them as
memories in the form of words. The aftermath of war and her identity as a refugee
reinforces the value of stories – a symbolic possession of the refugees’ identities and the
memories of the dead. In a way, the narrator is paying her tribute to the dead by writing
stories about the dead, especially after her encounter with the ghost of her own brother.
The theme of isolation and intimacy is quite literally embodied in this short story, where
the protagonist wrote about ghost stories to stay connected and preserve the intimacy
with the dead.

“Arthur interpreted the statement to mean that he was the only friend, for Louis never
mentioned anyone else. “You’re my friend too,” Arthur said, putting as much feeling as he
could into his words. For a moment, the two of them maintained eye contact and smiled at
each other. Then, before the situation became more emotionally complicated, Arthur excused
himself to go take a shower.” 

“'Don’t get me wrong, Arthur. This is business, not personal, okay? We’ve had fun, haven’t we?
We’re friends, aren’t we?'

'We are not friends,' Arthur said.

'We’re not friends?' Louis appeared genuinely hurt, his lower lip quivering. “Over something
like this? Come on, Arthur!'”(Nguyen, The Refugees – The Transplant)

Motif: Friendship. In this short story, Nguyen explores the subject of intimacy and isolation by initially
drawing a literal connection between the protagonist, Arthur, and his ability to live,
thanks to the liver transplant from another man. Thinking of Louis as the son of the
organ donor, Arthur builds a friendship with him by lending him his garage as a storage
warehouse for Louis’s counterfeit products. Before learning about Louis’s lie about the
transplant, Arthur thought of their friendship to be a manifestation of their literal flesh-
and-blood connection.

The desire to share intimacy and connection with another person is evident in Louis as
well. Despite lying to Arthur in the face about the transplant, the lie was an intentional
and strategic way of earning an intimate friendship. Meanwhile, the relationship is also
business-affiliated from Louis’s perspective, revealing their superficial friendship.

Theme: Cultural and Social Identity

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of
two minds[...]I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some
have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

“More technically, the Oxford English Dictionary I consulted at Occidental revealed that I could
be called a “natural child”, while all countries I know of hails me as its illegitimate son. My
mother called me her love child, but I do not like to dwell on that. In the end, my father had it
right. He called me nothing at all.” (Nguyen, The Sympathizer)

The book begins by underlining the overarching motif of identity duality in the first paragraph.
This text introduces the audience to the identity complexity of the protagonist that will
have led him to existential crisis due to the morphing social and political power
dynamics. The theme of twoness in the protagonist’s identity would be something that
Nguyen continues to wrestle with as he explores the social, cultural, and political
divisions of North and South Vietnam as well as the United States.

The speaker also alludes to the mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, potentially
referring to the American pop culture comics or Hollywood movies. In doing so, the
speaker infers his identity as something that’s often misunderstood and thus mistreated
because of it. The speaker also mentions “seeing things from both sides”, setting a path for
the theme of identity duality and moral dilemmas in the future.

Born as a product of a thirteen-year-old Vietnamese maid and a French priest, the
biracial identity of the protagonist is a physical embodiment of South Vietnam under the
context of decolonization. The speaker embodies the cultural and social divisions of
Vietnam and various western countries as he explains himself as a supposedly “natural
child” of his parents, but a rather deemed as an unrecognized product of an illegal
interracial marriage by his mother countries. This once again emphasizes the biculturalism
within the protagonist’s identity and the struggles of embracing it due to his father’s, his
countrymen, Vietnam’s, and France’s disapproval of his existence.

“Can’t we just sell TV dinners?” “And what about bologna?” [...] “If I can’t pronounce it, my
customers won’t buy it [...] She was paying me for every strand I found and I was intent on my
search, each gray hair bringing me one nickel closer to the next issue of Captain America[...]”

“My mother stopped under the bright lights at the door of the 7-Eleven pulled a crisp five-
dollar bill out of her purse and handed it to me. 'Go buy', she said in English, motioning me
inside. Whenever she spoke in English, her voice took on a higher pitch, as if instead of coming
from inside her, the language was outside, squeezing her by the throat. 'Anything you want.'” (Nguyen, The Refugees – War Years)


A reoccurring motif for both stories is the cultural identity of Americanism. Both except highlighting the central motif of the story: Allusion to the famous American figure Captain American and references to classic Hollywood films like Star Wars implies how deeply Americanized the protagonist has become. The protagonist represents the new generation following the collective refugee experience. From the perspective of the unnamed boy, the story encompasses the enormous scope of how the aftermath of war has influenced the cultural development in this American town. With the protagonist’s culture differing greatly from his mother’s, we can also see a cultural divinity amongst the refugees as part of first-generation immigrants and Vietnamese Americans.

As a cultural symbolism, the reoccurring motif in the short story marks the character development and change in the household’s cultural view as part of a larger refugee community. The mother is characterized as a round character who underwent changes in cultural viewpoints regarding financial expenditure. Similarly, his mother speaking in English is also symbolic rhetoric that emphasizes her willingness to adjust and compromise to the new culture of America, and her desire not to be alienated from her son. 


Post-war refugee experience:

“'Are you going to be the kind of person who always pays the asking price?” my mother demanded. 'Or the kind who fights to find out what something’s really worth?' [...] I calculated the cans of soup, the pounds of rice, and the hours of standing on her feet that made those two hundred dollars possible, and I was astonished that my mother had surrendered the money. The next night he handed me birth, feeding, education, and clothing, the sum total being $24376. 'This doesn’t include emotional aggravation, compound interest, and future expenses,' my father said. 'Now when can you start paying me an allowance?'" (Nguyen, War Years)

The family's struggles as refugees and immigrants are manifested in the motif of money. Money is depicted as a quintessential cultural element within this household, and the financial difficulties are vividly represented by the family’s carefully calculated expenditure and spending.

“For all the ghost stories she possessed, there was one story she did not want to tell, one type of company she did not want to keep. They were there in the kitchen with us, the ghosts of the refugees and the ghosts of the pirates, the ghosts of the boat watching us with those eyes that never closed, even the ghost of the girl I once was, the only ghosts my mother feared.” (Nguyen, The Black Eyed Woman)

In this story, Nguyen tells a story in which the characters are quite literally haunted by the memories and traumas they had experienced from the war. The ghosts play the role of connecting the present to memories, regrets, and stories. While the woman in this story was primarily haunted by her brother’s ghost and by the experiences and traumas she endured over the years, she was also haunted by her own ghost – the shadow of who she might have been. 

“As he lay on his cot and listened to children playing hide-and-seek in the alleys and between the tents, he tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.” (Nguyen, The Other Man)

In this scene, the narrator employs flashbacks from the protagonist to highlight the motif of traumas. Given the cruelty of war, the powerful imagery paints a horrifying picture of humanity’s corruption in war. As seen from the brutal quarrels and relentless violence in war, at best, people could only care about themselves when their lives are at stake. The dramatic contrast between the innocence of children and the brutality of the refugee diaspora depicts the contradictory nature of war – an intangible burden carried by the refugee population.