Author Viet Thanh Nguyen reflects on refugee story at President’s Lecture

 

Stepping to the lectern in Stude Concert Hall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen raised his cellphone and snapped a photo of the standing-room-only audience. “I can’t help it,” he quipped. “I’m Asian.” Then he began his Nov. 13 President’s Lecture: “I’m also a refugee.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. They were initially settled in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania before moving to San Jose, Calif., where he grew up. Those were really the formative years of his life, he said. “That was when I acquired the requisite emotional ‘damage’ necessary to become a writer, and a lot of that damage came about from being a refugee.”

During an almost two-hour talk, he held the audience rapt with his reflections on the decades he’s spent trying to make sense of what it means to be a refugee and of the history that brought him to America. He read passages from his books and concluded the evening with an on-stage interview by author and screenwriter William Broyles ’66, a veteran of the Vietnam War. The event was part of the Rice University Community of Asian Alumni’s yearlong celebration of 100 years of Asians at Rice and was presented in association with the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

“I grew up in a Vietnamese community, and they never stopped talking about the war,” Nguyen said. “They had lost relatives. They had lost homes. They had lost identities. They had lost their country. And they were enormously angry and bitter and sad and melancholic and depressed and alcoholic and violent because of those feelings.” But, he said, he knew that the rest of America had no idea that this was going on in the Vietnamese refugee community and that it was important to tell their story.

Nguyen is the author of “The Sympathizer,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” “Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America” and a short-story collection, “The Refugees.” In October he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship for his work as a fiction writer and cultural critic. He is a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.

Nguyen said that when “The Sympathizer” came out, he was pleased with its reception, including “a great front-page review by New York Times Book Review.” But he was taken aback by the third line of the review: “Viet is the voice for the voiceless.”

“No! That’s not true!” he thought upon reading it. “Have you ever met any Vietnamese people? Gone to a Vietnamese restaurant? Been to a Vietnamese family gathering? We are very loud! We’re not voiceless — we’re just not heard. A big difference.”

Moreover, being called “the voice for the voiceless” was not a compliment, he said. There were many Vietnamese-American writers — voices for the voiceless — who preceded him. “I’m pretty sure a few years from now there will be another Vietnamese-American ‘voice for the voiceless,'” Nguyen said. “People want a voice for the voiceless so they don’t have to listen to all the many people clamoring to be heard.”

“The Refugees,” which he wrote before “The Sympathizer,” is a set of stories that he said attempts to be the voice for the voiceless, that attempts to humanize the Vietnamese people and Vietnamese refugees, who were less than human in the American imagination. He wanted to tell the stories of Vietnamese people that were very different from the one-dimensional portrayals he had seen in so many American movies growing up.

Like many young boys, he was a war fanatic, Nguyen said. He read books on war and watched war movies and always identified with the American soldiers. Then one day he popped “Apocalypse Now” into the VCR. He was rooting for the American soldiers, he said — up until they killed the Vietnamese people — people who looked like him.

“I felt myself split in two,” he said. It was an enormously traumatic experience, he said, one that provoked deep emotion even a decade later when he was recounting the scene to a college class. He said that was when he realized, “This is what stories can do. Stories can literally split you apart. It’s not just guns that commit violence; stories can commit violence as well.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Author and screenwriter William Broyles ’66, left, interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen at the Nov. 13 President’s Lecture, which was also part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

It took him decades, he said, to be able to articulate what he understood growing up: When Americans say “the Vietnam War,” they really mean “the American War” — what the war meant for Americans.

Many Americans could tell you that more than 58,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War, he said. “I’m not sure how many Americans could tell you that 3 million Vietnamese people died during the war on all sides. I’ll bet even fewer Americans know that the war was fought in Laos and Cambodia as well and that 3 million Laotians and Cambodians died during the years of the war and afterwards.”

He has said he wrote “The Sympathizer,” a novel that follows a spy who infiltrated the South Vietnamese army and fled with its remnants to America, as a sort of revenge on those Vietnam War stories he grew up with. He wanted to give a voice to the Vietnamese who in so many American depictions of the Vietnam War were merely stage props with literally nothing to say, he said.

However, he pointed out, his perspective of the Vietnamese experience isn’t representative of all Vietnamese refugees. “Even if you go within my own family, there are a dozen other opinions on what this history means,” he said. “To have a truly just and equal society, at least when it comes to storytelling and representation, means that we have many, many voices from many, many different experiences. Just because we’re Vietnamese doesn’t mean that we’re all the same.”

Nguyen said he keeps asserting his refugee identity because it’s so important and because it’s so easy to overlook. When “The Sympathizer” came out, he said, many reviewers and readers called it an immigrant story. “No, that’s not right,” he said. “I’m not an immigrant; I’m a refugee. And it’s a really important distinction to make.

“Immigrants are a part of the American mythology; they’re a part of the American dream. If you’re pro-immigrant, you believe that immigrants make this country great. And if you’re anti-immigrant, of which there seems to be an increasing number in American society, even so, you still believe in immigrants because you think, ‘Of course, immigrants would want to come here. We’re awesome!’

“It’s important to keep asserting that I’m a refugee, partly to say, ‘Hey, let in some more refugees. Maybe they’ll win the Pulitzer Prize some day,” he said. “But more than that, it’s just common human decency and morality to think about our obligations of hospitality.”

A video of Nguyen’s full lecture is archived on the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series website, http://bit.ly/2iowG6n. Rich Levy, executive director of Imprint, who introduced Nguyen at the lecture, thanked President David Leebron and Rice University for hosting Imprint in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey’s damage to the Theater District.

Each year, the President’s Lecture Series brings to the Rice campus a variety of stimulating speakers on a range of topics. Rice offers the President’s Lecture Series as a means of enhancing the intellectual life not only of the Rice community, but of the university’s neighbors throughout Houston. For more information, visit https://president.rice.edu/pls.

 

About Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans is a senior editor in the Rice's Office of Public Affairs.