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Viet Thanh Nguyen

A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial

A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial

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The highly original, blistering, and unconventional memoir by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, which has now sold over one million copies worldwide

With insight, humor, formal invention, and lyricism, in A Man of Two Faces Viet Thanh Nguyen rewinds the film of his own life. He expands the genre of personal memoir by acknowledging larger stories of refugeehood, colonization, and ideas about Vietnam and America, writing with his trademark sardonic wit and incisive analysis, as well as a deep emotional openness about his life as a father and a son.

At the age of four, Nguyen and his family are forced to flee his hometown of Ban Mê Thuột and come to the USA as refugees. After being removed from his brother and parents and homed with a family on his own, Nguyen is later allowed to resettle into his own family in suburban San José. But there is violence hidden behind the sunny façade of what he calls AMERICATM. One Christmas Eve, when Nguyen is nine, while watching cartoons at home, he learns that his parents have been shot while working at their grocery store, the SàiGòn Mới, a place where he sometimes helps price tins of fruit with a sticker gun. Years later, as a teenager, the blood-stirring drama of the films of the Vietnam War such as Apocalypse Now throw Nguyen into an existential crisis: how can he be both American and Vietnamese, both the killer and the person being killed? When he learns about an adopted sister who has stayed back in Vietnam, and ultimately visits her, he grows to understand just how much his parents have left behind. And as his parents age, he worries increasingly about their comfort and care, and realizes that some of their older wounds are reopening.

Profound in its emotions and brilliant in its thinking about cultural power, A Man of Two Faces explores the necessity of both forgetting and of memory, the promises America so readily makes and breaks, and the exceptional life story of one of the most original and important writers working today.

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Editorial Reviews

Praise for A Man of Two Faces:

Named a Most Anticipated Book by the New York TimesWashington PostBoston Globe, TIMELos Angeles TimesGlobe and MailLiterary HubBookpageThe Millions, and Amazon Book


“Audacious . . . The stereoscopic structure of the personal and the cultural challenges us to reflect on how the formation of self involves stories told about us as well as those we tell ourselves. In Nguyen’s case, this requires vigorous self-interrogation and self-inventory . . . The subject matter is serious—war, colonization, Nguyen’s mother’s decades-long illness before her death in 2018 and his inability to recall particularly painful times when she was hospitalized—but there is a playfulness as well . . . His most emotionally powerful writing revolves around his parents . . . Sharp and affecting, this book is both: a weapon, a lamentation.”—Lisa Ko, Washington Post

“If the book’s fragmentary origins are conspicuous, so is the author’s prodigious gift for distilling memory, and its absence, into words that cannot be lost. Scattered throughout are the shards of an intimate personal history, leaving the reader to comb through the debris as if searching for the remains of a loved one.”—Lauren Christensen, New York Times

“Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen returns with a deeply personal and political memoir that uses the defining moments of his own life to explore his conflicted relationship with America . . . A witty and scathing look at what it means to be a refugee, an immigrant, and an American in a world that doesn’t see you as you see yourself.”—TIME

“An artfully intertwined medley of Nguyen’s essays, lectures and interviews, A Man of Two Faces is an innovative expose of the racism that shackles refugee populations of color to harmful stereotypes . . . A provocative and dynamic family portrait of America’s immigrants, shining a light on the humanity too few of us see.”—Carol Memmott, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Nguyen, one of today’s most important writers, structures his memoir around learning how to be a man through being a son and then a father. Forced to flee Vietnam with his family as a child, Nguyen grew up around violence in San Jose—his parents were shot in their grocery store when he was 9. But as he grew up and identified as American too, he wondered about this dual legacy, which so infused his Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. Here he ponders how it has shaped him.”—Bethanne Patrick, Los Angeles Times

“Collage may be an apt word to describe this genre-bending memoir from Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen. Weaving together forms that include exquisite prose, verse and photographs, this masterful memoir follows the author and his family from their home country of Vietnam as they resettle in San Jose, including explosive revelations about family, memory and loss.”—Hannah Bae, Datebook

“In this memoir, Nguyen wrestles with his own family’s experience moving from Vietnam to California, violence and racism, and the burning question that so many face: who am I? Teeming with broader stories of immigration and cultural clashes, Nguyen once again offers a thrillingly nuanced portrait of the allegiances, complexities, and aims that guide a single life.”—Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review

A Man of Two Faces is at its core a memoir about the education of a refugee. Nguyen starts with his early days in the United States. But as Nguyen experiences the world as an Asian American, an academic, a writer, and, eventually, a father, he becomes attuned to the conditions and contradictions that make his life (im)possible—war, displacement, the American dream, and more . . . The memoir is Nguyen’s opportunity to ask: What do we remember and what do we forget? If we forget, why do we forget and for whom are we forgetting? Ourselves? Our loved ones? Our country? And what about cultural memory, which is to say history?”—Eric Nguyen, Electric Literature

A Man of Two Faces pursues in heroic fashion the redemptive power of the writing life. If you are going through hell, write your way through it, which is precisely how Nguyen’s inventive formal structure comes to life . . . We can almost smell the blood and ink blend on the page as he moves through his recollections, or recollections, and in the process, works his way through the hell of memory, back to the city of the Dionne Warwick song.”—Gary Singh, Alta

“Shattering . . . Nguyen is an intriguing, inventive, and perceptive writer and his mesmerizing memoir takes hold of us.”—Elaine Margolin, New York Journal of Books

“This bold and ambitious memoir from novelist Nguyen employs a dazzling hybrid of prose and poetry to explore the author’s life in America as a Vietnamese refugee . . . A savvy and complex account of coming-of-age in a foreign land.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Nguyen explores ‘the thin border between / history and memory’ in this many-faceted, stylistically complex, eviscerating, and tender montage of memoir, facts, dissent, and clarification . . . A uniquely intricate, clarion, and far-reaching inquiry into what we disparage and what we value, asserting the bedrock necessity of history, story, and remembrance . . . Nguyen’s unflinching blend of memoir and social critique will garner avid attention.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Nguyen blazes a nonlinear, literary way through the histories of Vietnam and the US, his parents’ arduous lives in each and his own struggles to find his voice as citizen, son and writer.”—BookPage(starred review)

“A kaleidoscopic memoir . . . Deeply personal and intensely political . . . If the author’s criticism is understandably scathing, there is also a mischievous sense of humor . . . Nguyen indisputably captures the workings of a quicksilver and penetrating mind . . . Lyrical and biting, by one of our leading writers.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Viet Thanh Nguyen’s A Man of Two Faces is a triumphant memoir that sears through the fog of American amnesia. A vulnerable and scorching mirror to self and to nation, his book explores his family’s ‘epic and quotidian’ struggles as refugees and indicts Hollywood as propaganda that has fed the American war machine and anti-Asian racism. It is a fissured lyric on memory and a clarifying meditation on empire. Every American needs to read this essential book.”—Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 

A Man of Two Faces is a searing and sensitive memoir on the long shadow that war casts on those who manage to survive it. This book is a work of love and anger and care and it will resonate with everyone who has lost a home.”—Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans and Conditional Citizens

A Man of Two Faces is an alchemical feat of memory, history, and theory that beautifully achieves a difficult balance: a bold and searing polemic, it’s at the same time a moving, personal tale. Above all, it’s the story of a son: but what lies at the heart of the son is the mystery of the mother. And what lies at the mystery of the mother is the history of nation, colonization, war. Through his family’s story, Viet Thanh Nguyen renders not only a powerful portrait of America but—perhaps more necessary in our current moment—also an uplifting act of mourning. Simultaneously raw and lucid, haunting and reasoned, A Man of Two Faces opens up groundbreaking ways to speak the nation’s story and a family’s pain.”—Gina Apostol, author of La Tercera

“None of the usual adjectives apply to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s memoir—it is beyond words like brilliant and heartbreaking, because the prose rejects that kind of easy summary. This book belongs with James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Maxine Hong Kingston, and other writers whose memoirs take apart ‘the American Dream’ with laser precision. Nguyen’s tensile anger and evanescent memory is measure of the fundamental sadness of watching his family, and himself, in their dreams, set against the violence and history of this country.”—Susan Straight, author of Mecca, finalist for the Kirkus Prize

Praise for Viet Thanh Nguyen:

“A voice that shakes the walls of the old literary comfort zone . . . May that voice keep running like a purifying venom through the mainstream of our self-regard—through the American dream of distancing ourselves from what we continue to show ourselves to be.”—Jonathan Dee, New Yorker, on The Committed

“Equal parts Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chang-rae Lee’s Henry Park, Nguyen’s nameless narrator is a singular literary creation, a complete original.”—Junot Díaz, New York Times Book Review (cover review), on The Committed

“The narrator’s voice snaps you up. It’s direct, vain, cranky, and slashing—a voice of outraged intelligence. It’s among the more memorable in recent American literature.”—Dwight Garner, New York Times, on The Committed

“Just as The Sympathizer transformed the hulk of an old spy novel, The Committed does the same with a tale of noir crime.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post

The Sympathizer and The Committed are, to borrow James Wood’s phrase for such novels, perpetual-motion machines, their exuberance perhaps a suitable method given how vast a subject he aims to tackle. The breathless voice and sprawling plots of these novels made me think of Midnight’s Children: manic language and impossible story suit the strange truth of colonialism. Nguyen does Salman Rushdie one better by deploying the conventions of genre fiction; he gently seduces the reader into two rambling, discursive works passionately interested in war and violence, race and identity, colonialism and history.”—Rumaan Alam, New York Review of Books

“These two novels constitute a powerful challenge to an enduring narrative of colonialism and neo-colonialism. One waits to see what Nguyen, and the man of two faces, will do next.”—Aminatta Forna, Guardian, on The Committed and The Sympathizer

“One of our great chroniclers of displacement . . . All Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes.”—Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker

“A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.”—Pulitzer Prize Citation for The Sympathizer

“Remarkable . . . His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless . . . Compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré . . . An absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.”—Philip Caputo, New York Times Book Review (cover review), on The Sympathizer

“Intelligent, relentlessly paced and savagely funny . . . The voice of the double-agent narrator, caustic yet disarmingly honest, etches itself on the memory.”—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal, “Best Books of the Year,” on The Sympathizer

“A fast-paced, entertaining read . . . A much-needed Vietnamese perspective on the war.”—Bill Gates, Gates Notes, on The Sympathizer

“Extraordinary . . . Surely a new classic of war fiction . . . I haven’t read anything since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that illustrates so palpably how a patient tyrant, unmoored from all humane constraint, can reduce a man’s mind to liquid.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post, on The Sympathizer

“We’ve never had a story quite like this one before . . . Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities.”—Sarah Lyall, New York Times, on The Sympathizer

“Beautifully written and meaty . . . I had that kid-like feeling of being inside the book.”—Claire Messud, Boston Globe, on The Sympathizer

“Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre . . . The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground.”—Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker, on The Sympathizer

“Gleaming and uproarious, a dark comedy of confession filled with charlatans, delusionists and shameless opportunists . . . The Sympathizer, like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, examines American intentions, often mixed with hubris, benevolence and ineptitude, that lead the country into conflict.”—Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, on The Sympathizer

“Dazzling . . . A fascinating exploration of personal identity, cultural identity, and what it means to sympathize with two sides at once.”—John Powers, Fresh Air, NPR, “Books I Wish I’d Reviewed,” on The Sympathizer

“As a writer, [Nguyen] brings every conceivable gift―wisdom, wit, compassion, curiosity―to the impossible yet crucial work of arriving at what he calls ‘a just memory’ of this war.”―Kate Tuttle, Los Angeles Times, on Nothing Ever Dies

“Nguyen’s lucid, arresting, and richly sourced inquiry, in the mode of Susan Sontag and W. G. Sebald, is a call for true and just stories of war and its perpetual legacy.”―Donna Seaman, Booklist, on Nothing Ever Dies (starred review)

“A beautiful collection that deftly illustrates the experiences of the kinds of people our country has, until recently, welcomed with open arms . . . An urgent, wonderful collection that proves that fiction can be more than mere storytelling—it can bear witness to the lives of people who we can’t afford to forget.”—Michael Schaub, NPR Books, on The Refugees

“This is an important and incisive book written by a major writer with firsthand knowledge of the human rights drama exploding on the international stage–and the talent to give us inroads toward understanding it . . . It is refreshing and essential to have this work from a writer who knows and feels the terrain on an intellectual, emotional and cellular level–it shows . . . An exquisite book.”—Megan Mayhew Bergman, Washington Post, on The Refugees

“Confirms Nguyen as an agile, trenchant writer, able to inhabit a number of contrary points of view. And it whets your appetite for his next novel.”—Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times, on The Refugees

“A short-story collection mostly plumbing the experience of boat-bound Vietnamese who escaped to California . . . Ultimately, Nguyen enlarges empathy, the high ideal of literature and the enemy of hate and fear.”—Boris Kachka, New York, on The Refugees

“The book we need now . . . The most timely short story collection in recent memory . . . Throughout, Nguyen demonstrates the richness of the refugee experience, while also foregrounding the very real trauma that lies at its core.”—Doree Shafrir, BuzzFeed, on The Refugees

About the Author

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He is the author of The Committed, which continues the story of The Sympathizer, awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, alongside seven other prizes. He is also the author of the short story collection The Refugees; the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; the children's book Chicken of the Sea, with his son Ellison and with Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford; and is the editor of an anthology of refugee writing, The Displaced. He is a University Professor and the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. He lives in Los Angeles.

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