Reflections on a paradoxical Winter Study and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Sympathizer’

Rijul Jain

This is the first column by Rijul Jain ’25 exploring shared Williams experiences through literature and other art forms. 

At the beginning of Winter Study, when I had just returned to campus from the eternally summery land of California, I’d forgotten what snow was like. Among all the Zoom classes and takeout meals, I reacquainted myself with the sight of it from my fourth-floor window. Snow, it turned out, could not only be alluring and exciting but also slightly bleak without the familiar sight of Williams students trekking across it.  

Like the inviting yet also desolate snowfall we encountered last month, this Winter Study itself was also a bit of a paradox. Within its four-ish weeks, we experienced a campus that felt both eerily silent and hearteningly vibrant. I think this beautiful contradiction of Winter Study has coaxed out a paradox within ourselves — Williams compels us, especially during the pandemic, to embrace the extremes of our solitary and social selves seemingly all at once.  

Throughout January, this ever-present paradox brought me to revisit The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel about a conflicted communist sympathizer who precariously straddles the line between his Vietnamese and American identities and allegiances. While the work primarily illustrates and counteracts the Americanization of the Vietnam War through its anonymous narrator who sees both sides, it also provides piercing insights into how we all reckon with our own — sometimes conflicting — senses of self. 

Framed as a confession to his superiors, our undercover sympathizer’s startlingly incisive narrative begins with the North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon, which forces him to relocate to California. Throughout these happenings, the narrator reflects on his years at Occidental College in his youth, his bittersweet childhood in Vietnam, and his past and present work as a communist double agent — embroiling us all in the mounting tensions between the dual identities of his race, culture, ideology, and morality while driving us to reflect on our own conflicting characteristics. 

Even before I first read this novel one sunny, adolescent May, this kind of reflection had already been demanded of me when Nguyen, an alum of my own high school, returned there in my freshman year to speak about race, being a refugee, and growing up in San Jose. While most of the details elude me, I distinctly remember him talking about how different our city had been for him as an Asian American in the 1980s from the more harmoniously diverse place I’d experienced; he described feeling a stark disconnect between his mostly white high school and his Vietnamese community. That paradox of identities, that limbo, encapsulated how I felt at the time and compelled me to discern my many senses of self — not least how I was striving to understand my place in America through its literature in class while also figuring out my relation to my Jain religious and cultural background. Even now, Nguyen’s (and his narrator’s) words stick with me, insisting that though we all may have contrasting tendencies and traits, they are all ultimately part of us and we should accept them with all their exquisite, confusing contradictions.  

Of course, this novel seems like something many Williams students would enjoy reading — we’re often encouraged to look outside ourselves toward others’ perspectives. Yet The Sympathizer, in my view, augments that ability by also forcing us to look at ourselves from the outside, to “split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves.” Consider, then, the sheer oddness of those few days when we took our classes in person but our food to our rooms, of Goodrich’s reopening for takeout bringing us so close — and yet not quite — back to normal. With this solitary-social dichotomy of campus life during this past Winter Study, how could we not be just a little split in two? Recognizing how we are ourselves in many different senses, whether it’s our conflicting moods, tendencies, or identities, is essential to understanding and being comfortable with our place(s) within ourselves and within the Williams community.

While this year’s Winter Study is over, I think the delectable paradoxes of life at Williams — and those within each of us — that this time has encouraged us to examine will remain invaluable as we enter the spring. As we move between the opposites of being virtual and in person, of leaning into our solitary selves as well as our social selves, we shouldn’t forget that reflecting on and accepting our inevitable contradictions can enrich not just ourselves, but also those around us. However keenly we may feel that some vital magic of the Williams community has been lost amidst the pandemic, I’m confident that our moments in seclusion paradoxically make the times when we all come together more powerful and precious. I hope we can all take heart in the fact that, as Nguyen’s narrator ecstatically concludes, we’re never “the only ones awake, even if we are the only ones with a single lamp lit.”

Rijul Jain ’25 is from San Jose, Calif.