Ari Shapiro talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his refugee experience on NPR’s All Things Considered. Listen to the interview here or read the transcript below.
When author Viet Thanh Nguyen was 4 years old, he and his family fled South Vietnam and came to the U.S. as refugees. That’s about the same age his own son is now — and Nguyen wonders if his child will ever know the feeling of “otherness” that he knows so well.
“I think it’s a very valuable experience,” Nguyen tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro. “I wish, not only my son, but everybody, had a sense of what it is like to be an outsider, to be an other. Because that’s partly what gives rise to compassion and to empathy — the sense that you are not always at the center of the universe.”
The refugee and immigrant experience is central to Nguyen’s fiction, and he weaves pieces of his own story into his new short story collection The Refugees. Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen was 4 years old, he and his family came to the U.S. from Vietnam as refugees. His latest book of fiction is a collection of short stories called “The Refugees.” Our co-host Ari Shapiro talked to him about the book and the refugee experience.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When Viet Thanh Nguyen came into our studios, President Trump had not yet issued his executive order restricting refugee admissions. I asked Nguyen about the similarities between the experiences of today’s refugees and his family’s arrival a generation ago.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Every new refugee to a society, whether it’s the United States or some other place, is subjected to fear. They are the new outsider population, the new other. And people of all backgrounds have a short memory. So when it comes to the Vietnamese, Americans now tend to think of the Vietnamese as being a particularly successful minority or refugee population that’s assimilated fairly well.
They forget that 40, 50 years ago, Americans – the majority of Americans did not want to accept these Vietnamese refugees who they saw as completely foreign. Now there are new foreigners – Syrians and other people from the Middle East, people of Muslim backgrounds. And the sense among many Americans is, well, these people are completely different from us, and they’re not like the Vietnamese who are much more assimilable. And I think that’s very, very doubtful. I think that the majority of these new foreigners, if given the opportunity, will be able to assimilate and deal with American culture. And right now we are subject to a new kind of xenophobia that prevents us from seeing that.
SHAPIRO: Many of the characters in this book have double lives in one way or another. I mean, maybe they’re carrying on an affair, maybe they work two jobs. And in a way it felt to me like versions of the two lives that every refugee contains inside of them before and after they leave their homeland.
NGUYEN: And I think that’s true. There’s that sense of a duplicity, a sense that there’s something happening within the community – the ethnic community, and there’s – within the family home. And there’s a different life that’s being lived outside among Americans. You have to wear a different face when you’re interacting with the larger culture. And you can be more of yourself at home or in the local market or in the local church speaking your own language. That was my sense growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose.
SHAPIRO: Your writing is so obviously informed by your life experience. Is there a reason that you chose fiction rather than, say, memoir?
NGUYEN: Well, I’ve tried memoir. I mean, I think there’s one short story in “The Refugees” that’s based on my family’s life. And it’s the only piece I’d written up until that point that incorporated anything autobiographical.
SHAPIRO: I don’t think that was clearly flagged as such in the book. I wasn’t aware as I read it that one of these was…
NGUYEN: Oh, yeah. I don’t tell people. You know, it’s not in the book that says this is my life. But the story “Warriors” about the child of refugee shopkeepers and what happens to that family, that is drawn very much from my life and the lives of my parents. And it was a very difficult story to write because I think my parents’ lives are worthy of writing about. I don’t think my life is particularly worthy of writing about.
SHAPIRO: I’m looking back at this story – “The Warriors” – through different eyes now. And it’s sort of about the way politics from the home country follows immigrants to the new country. It’s pretty dark.
NGUYEN: It is a dark story. And that was pretty much what it was like to be a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose in the 1980s, that the politics of the war was not done. The war was not finished. People might like to think a war is done when a cease fire is signed, but for most people who lived through a war it goes on for decades. And in the 1980s, the struggle in the Vietnamese refugee community was still very much over the fact that people thought the war could still be fought again.
People were suspicious of the possibility of communist infiltrators. And that meant that there was a lot of fear in this community, that your neighbor might be a communist and you better not be seen as a communist. And on top of that, again, people were just trying to build their lives. And yet they were still struggling under the shadow of trauma and the legacy of violence that they brought over with them.
SHAPIRO: You write in the acknowledgements that your son will be about the age you were when you came over by the time this book is published. Do you think about how different his experience of America will be from yours?
NGUYEN: All the time. (Laughter) I came over when I was 4. I mean, my – basically my journey into – my initiation into memory, into consciousness happened in the refugee camp in the United States in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. So I’m very much defined by this refugee experience of this sense of loss, of losing a country, of being separated from my parents once I came to the United States and living a life that I felt to be a life of privation, even though my parents provided so many material things.
And I look at my son. And he has pretty much everything he could possibly ask for and want for. And I don’t want – wish to deny him those kinds of things, but that means that he will have a vastly different sense of security, of place of identity than I had when I was his age.
SHAPIRO: And do you think that’s an unquestionably good thing, or is there something about the sense of not belonging 100 percent – of being something of an outsider – that you think is valuable, that you wish your son would have?
NGUYEN: Oh, I think it is a very valuable experience. And I wish not only my son but everybody had a sense of what it is like to be an outsider, to be an other. Because that is partly what gives rise to compassion and to empathy, the sense that you are not always at the center of the universe. But how to attain a sense of otherness, of compassion and of empathy without having to live a difficult life is something that I don’t know how to provide any answer for.
SHAPIRO: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new collection of short stories is called “The Refugees.” Thank you so much for talking with us.
NGUYEN: It was my pleasure.