The humaniser

Tillman Miller

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Photograph: Megan Miller

On the road to Little Saigon, the land is flat and urban, and the California air is warm and cloudless. Under this vast American sky, there are Vietnamese tailors and fabric shops, banh mi joints and merchants selling herbal medicines. There are teahouses where patrons play tien len, a popular card game, listening to the shopkeepers call out to one another above the traffic noise, and in the cafés are portraits of Vietnamese celebrities. A mega-mall with green eaves and red neon is designed to look like a pagoda guarded by deities. Wander around Bolsa Avenue in the midmorning and you’ll catch a fishy trace of nuoc cham. Then the heart of Orange County begins to smell of scallions, ginger and the briny scent of fish heads.

When Viet Thanh Nguyen became the first Vietnamese American to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, it seemed certain that the author would become a luminary in Little Saigon. And yet there was simply no telling how Vietnamese Americans in Orange County would respond. “I just am not certain how The Sympathizer is going to be received in that community,” Nguyen says, “especially given that the protagonist is a communist spy.” The reason for his uncertainty is that for many Vietnamese Americans, the war has never ended. Anti-communist sentiment still runs deep here, where South Vietnamese flags can be seen flying from streetlamps and a Vietnam War Memorial honours US and South Vietnamese service people.

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