Viet Thanh Nguyen featured in the American Writers Museum's special exhibit "My America"

My America: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Each week, the My America blog series introduces you to one of the writers featured in our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, which can now be explored virtually. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every week to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. This week, get to know Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer.

Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen

Long before Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, the public library in San Jose gave him an award for his debut book, Lester the Cat. Nguyen was in third grade. This “put the first seed in my mind that perhaps this could be fun to do.” So from an early age he loved to read and write for the sheer pleasure it brought him, the escapism and entertainment it can provide. But he soon realized something was missing in literature, “and what was missing in it were stories about people like me and my family, refugees, Vietnamese people, Asian Americans…and I wanted to write some of these stories myself.”

Nguyen first came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975. When the North Vietnamese invaded the south, his family was living in a small town in the central Vietnamese highlands called Buon Ma Thuot, the first town captured by the North Vietnamese. So the family “fled on foot, made it to the nearest port city 150 kilometers away, through very terrible circumstances, throngs of refugees and fleeing soldiers, and dead people.” They safely got to Saigon, only to have to flee again a month later after North Vietnam captured Saigon. Nguyen’s family all made it safely to the U.S., which Nguyen credits to an incredible amount of luck, or from his parents’ perspective, “God smiled on us.”

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
View the full My America reading list here.

Nguyen and his family eventually settled in San Jose, which at the time was the second largest Vietnamese refugee community in the United States. Being surrounded by fellow refugees gave Nguyen a sense of his Vietnamese heritage and greatly impacted his writing, especially The Sympathizer. The novel is written from the perspective of a Communist spy, something unacceptable to his Vietnamese refugee community. As Nguyen says, “I took everything I knew about this community and this lifestyle and I put it into that novel, but I did it with a difference…I wanted, in my work, to acknowledge their pain, to acknowledge their history, but I wanted to do it in a way that would also make them uncomfortable with their own assumptions. This is part of the complicated task of a writer…we can talk about our people, whoever they happen to be, but we can challenge them as well.”

Nguyen has been an important contributor to the AWM from the beginning, serving on our National Advisory Council as well as helping us form our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, in which he is featured. Read and watch select excerpts from the exhibit below, and explore the virtual exhibit here. And if you’d like to hear more from Nguyen, he visited the AWM along with writers Kao Kalia Yang and Vu Tran in May of 2018 to discuss the anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which they all contributed to. Watch the program in its entirety on YouTube.

Selected Quotes from My America

On Books as Salvation

“When I was growing up as a refugee in San Jose my parents were working all the time, so they provided all the material things that I needed but they didn’t have the time to spend with me. And so I dealt with my isolation and my loneliness by retreating to books and to the library. The library was my second home. Books and stories, especially literature and fiction, were my salvation.”

On the Importance of Storytelling

“I believe deeply that stories are fundamental to how we see ourselves as people, as citizens, as Americans. Even for people who don’t think of themselves as professional storytellers, in fact we are always telling stories to ourselves. And we’re living at a time in our country when the fact of storytelling is ever present. We have a president who tells one particular version of the American story, with which I deeply disagree, but his version of the American story is persuasive to a large number of Americans. And storytelling becomes one terrain where we fight over what it means to be an American.”

On Home

“I think all writers should try to cultivate that sense of how important home is. And to recognize what it feels like not to be at home because it’s that discomfort that helps us to produce something interesting in our writing. I think recently that changed for me a bit because I became a father, and now I feel at home with the family that I have, the home that we’ve created. Because as generative as it was for me not to feel at home, I don’t want that for my son.”

On Being Asian American

“One of the transformative moments of my life was going to college at UC Berkeley and discovering that I was an Asian American. Up until that point I thought I was either an American, or Vietnamese. It’s an enormously powerful identity for those of us in the United States who are of Asian descent because it takes a weakness, which is our racialized status, our status as being possibly lesser than white Americans or other Americans and turning it into a positive, which is strength in numbers and in identification with other people who are not like us…being Asian American just put a name on it, that we shared a common bond, whether we were Japanese, or Vietnamese, or Korean or Filipino, and we can transcend those bonds into something called being Asian American. And so that’s had an enormous impact on me as a writer, and obviously on other writers, because we have a very vibrant body of Asian American literature today in the United States.”

On the Writing Process

“The writing process is learning the discipline of writing, learning the art of it, but also learning how to deal with isolation, and rejection, and solitude and all these kinds of things. That’s all a part of the process. It’s a matter of building endurance and building character, building spirit to confront that page, because writing is a lifelong endeavor.”

Selected Works by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer

The Refugees

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives

Chicken of the Sea (written with his son Ellison Nguyen)


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