Book Review - A Man of Two Faces by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam and raised in America, Viet Thanh Nguyen interrogates his dual identity and the fallibility of memory in his latest book, A Man of Two Faces. Developed from a series of essays, lectures and interviews between 2015 and 2022, the book borrows its title from the opening line of Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel The Sympathizer: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Positioned as a memoir, history and memorial, it relates Nguyen’s family’s experience of war and exile to wider themes of refugeehood, colonisation and racism. 

Nguyen was four when his family fled Vietnam in 1975. After arriving in America, they needed sponsors in order to leave the military base in Pennsylvania. Shockingly, Nguyen and his brother were separated from their parents (who he refers to as “Ba Má” — Vietnamese for “mother and father”). It clearly scarred him. “Being taken away from your parents is burned in between your shoulder blades,” he writes, “a brand you do not usually see until you examine yourself with the mirrors of your own writing.” While Nguyen was apart for a few months, his 10-year-old brother did not return for two years. 

Ba Má moved to San Jose in 1978 with their sons and opened a Vietnamese grocery store they named Sài Gòn Mới. They survived a shooting on Christmas Eve and an attempted armed robbery in their home. Although they made a success of the store, the threat of racism was never far away. Nguyen recalls seeing this verbalised in a sign: “ANOTHER AMERICAN DRIVEN OUT OF BUSINESS BY THE VIETNAMESE.” Undeterred, his parents decided to “meet AMERICA™ half-way”, changing their first names to Joseph and Linda. 

Highlighting Nguyen’s divided identity, paragraphs are aligned left and right, suggesting a dialogue with himself, with “you and I”. He uses the second-person as a distancing device throughout. Certain passages resemble lines of poetry, while elsewhere words are magnified in a large font to underscore a theme. Nguyen writes poignantly about his boyhood watching films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and wondering . . . “Are you the Americans killing? Or the Vietnamese being killed?” Gradually he recognises that Hollywood war films and Westerns are works of propaganda: “Until this point, stories saved you. Now you encounter the power of stories to dismember you.” 

Some may find Nguyen’s unabashedly political stance overly didactic. He reminds us frequently that A Man of Two Faces is a “war story”. However, his empathy is persuasive and the inclusion of a list of one-star reviews for The Sympathizer — “putrid”, “pure garbage” — reveals a sly humour. Nguyen’s tone softens when confronting the three times his late mother was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. As a child he was unaware of the reason for her absence; as an adult, seeing her sedated is unbearable. For Nguyen, writing is “a way of re membering”. His repeated splitting of the word accentuates how memory and trauma can maim a person. 

Nguyen admits he can “only write about Má’s voyage into surreality now that she has died”. When he was a student at Berkeley, his tutor Maxine Hong Kingston told him: “I believe you are trying again and again to approach the heart of your story (mother lands in the hospital). But you have not gotten to the center of things.

The personal is irretrievably entwined with the political and Nguyen acknowledges that his family’s story is representative of the collective refugee experience. He ends with a rallying call: “Rather than despising the refugees who come with nothing and are nothing, we could identify with them and their nothingness, a blankness from which we can imagine a world free from the forces that negate all of us — exploitation and violence, fear and terror, greed and selfishness.”  

Originally published by The Financial Times