The Pulitzer Prize winner author Viet Thanh Nguyen in his masterpiece The Sympathizer, has a remarkable passage toward the end of his book which takes away my breath by it’s sheer force and power.
The long paragraph runs across pages 353 and 354 of the paperback version of the book, over 40 lines, is punctuated by semi-colons, and populated heavily by a set of “ifs.” The super sentence suggests how different the world, and his character’s life, would have been, “If” only certain events had or had not happened:
“…if history’s ship had taken a different tack, if I had become an accountant…if we forgot our resentment, if we forget revenge; if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play, if we had not fought a war against each other; if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists…”
I first read Nguyen’s haunting language during the early summer of the American Presidential campaign of 2016, and repeated the “if” sequence dozens of times during the campaign’s closing days. I traveled around North Carolina observing Barack & Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren try mightily to win the important swing state for Hillary Clinton. I interviewed dozens of voters for Clinton, Trump or “unaffiliated,” entered historic African-American churches constructed since before slavery was dismantled, and listened to the rhythm of the voices of the citizens with whom I spoke. The cadence of their language echoed Nguyen’s:
If history had taken a quicker turn toward the arc of justice, if everyone’s skin color were the same; if furniture were still being made in North Carolina’s factories, and clothing in it’s mills; if I had become an attorney or a diplomat and moved away; if my Jesus could sit down and have a beer with yours, and pick ribs clean together; if I was not frightened by the darkness of your skin and the bright, bold hope in your eyes, and if you did not resent my very existence on the same street where you lived as a sign of your own failure; if I was a teacher or a clergyman or a doctor and could heal your wounds, then maybe my touch would not be so repulsive to you; if I was raised to read about Rosie riveting airplane bolts as well as adoring the Blessed Mother; if Hilter had perhaps, found love, and the murders of millions never happened; if weapons were not invented that could vaporize thousands of children while they road their bicycles; if we acknowledged that we were all pawns in a game played by the rich and powerful; if we understood that killing because of someone’s choice for loving was an act of violence against ourselves.
If some of us had not called ourselves Democrats or Republicans or White Nationalists or Socialists or Pragmatists or Progressives; if there were no poor people or poor healthcare, or run down housing where roaches dart from room to room carrying our resentments; if Muskie hadn’t cried, nor Nixon lied, or Joe Biden’s son died, or, if Mario Cuomo tried, at least once, to be President; if we were all connected by more than a flickering screen, or image on an I-phone, like family, not alone, not so mean; if Trump’s father loved him more than money, or Bill Clinton fell down the steps leading to Loretta Lynch’s plane and expired before being exposed; if Hillary put her dog before the data and walked free among the trees in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania a few more times; if more people thought, or read, or voted, or listened before talking, or choked on their own bile while spewing their vileness of hate; if there was a God or force or some High court that kept the good alive, and punished the evil for diminishing the dignity of others, then maybe…maybe I could sleep, just sleep through the night. If.