This memoir of fleeing Vietnam is unfair to Americans

The Fall of Saigon in Vietnam on April 30, 1975
The Fall of Saigon in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 - Herve GLOAGUEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

As the scream of artillery shells gets ever louder, a mother makes a decision. She grasps her two biological sons by the hand, turns to look at her adopted daughter Tuyet, and flees home. Tuyet is 16, left behind “to guard the family property” as the Communist army of North Vietnam marches on the South. The family think they will return soon. It is 1975, and Viet Thanh Nyugen – one of those fleeing sons – is just four. It will be almost 30 years until he sees his sister again.

Such moments run like scars across A Man of Two Faces, Nguyen’s moving, polemical and ultimately uneven memoir about his family’s journey to and through America, and Nguyen’s own to being a writer. At its best, the book traces how the wounds of the past – and in particular, the Vietnam War – can be felt in the present. At its worst, it dresses up flabby thought as nuance.

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Nguyen’s family (sans sister) cross the Pacific Ocean, and end up in the dehumanising refugee camps of Pennsylvania. After initial separation and heartache, the quartet eventually settle in San Jose, California, where Nguyen’s parents establish a Vietnamese grocery store. Working all hours, they’re able to provide financial security for the family, and to send Nguyen and his brother to American private schools.

Much, however, is lost along the way, as Nguyen writes to his younger self (and refugees more generally): “History performs your caesarean… delivering you as that mythological subject, the amnesiac, rootless, synthetic New American.” He’s acutely aware, however, that “forgetting can also be a blessing”, as he maps (and imagines) his parents’ interior lives in the face of armed robberies, anti-Asian racism and mental breakdown.

Coming of age in 1980s and 1990s America, Nguyen himself grapples with being neither one thing nor the other, a man of two faces. He’s increasingly divorced from his Vietnamese parents, “kidnapped by literature… by English”, and writes of not being accepted as an American. Except in many ways, over time, he clearly is, for Nguyen has every stamp of the American cultural elite you could imagine: professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; author of bestselling books such as The Committed, The Refugees and The Sympathiser (soon to be an HBO series); winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of A Man of Two Faces
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of A Man of Two Faces

In A Man of Two Faces, Nguyen writes beautifully about his parents, the debt he owes them, and the guilt he feels at the gap between the hardness of their lives and the comfort of his own. Writing largely in the second person, as if one face were addressing the other, he flicks between full paragraphs and text bunched to one side of the page then the other, with short line-breaks giving the impression you’re reading dialogue or verse. This can work well to register irony or grief, but the tone can sometimes trip into that of a radical student poet: “because Bombing Makes America™ Great, / but Drone Strikes Make America™ Even Greater”.

Moreover, being embedded in the academic-industrial complex, Nguyen is prone to the clichés of campus thought when it comes to the sections on race and imperialism in America today. For example, he subscribes to a theory of racialised false-consciousness, suggesting that ethnic minorities who support Donald Trump are simply “aligning themselves with whiteness”. Far easier, this, than believing they truly agree with Trump, and setting out to change their minds. (Luckily, Trump’s name is redacted throughout, because the man is apparently too scary to see in print.)

“Colonisation” and its cognates appear 122 times, about once every three pages, used in a form so capaciously vague that it’s allowed to mean everything from the brutal invasion of a country by a foreign power, to a film such as The Green Berets, which he brands “propaganda so spectacular and atrocious only the Third Reich or Hollywood could have produced it”. Some equivalence, that.

What Nguyen would specifically change is unclear. But if you’re not sure what to throw at a problem, there’s always the kitchen sink: America’s “beauty and hope” can be realised, he says, “only if we de-militarise, de-capitalise, de-imperialise, de-colonise, de-carbonise”. Quite what it would mean for “imperialism” across the globe if America were to unilaterally “de-militarise” – and Nato therefore collapse – Nguyen doesn’t explain. Perhaps China, Iran and Russia would reveal themselves as great exporters of peace. Such passages undermine both the punch of the polemic and the tenderness of the familial memoir. It just goes to show that, even with two faces, we all still have our blind spots.

A Man of Two Faces is published by Corsair at £22. To order your copy for £18.99, call 0844 871 1514 or call Telegraph Books