BBC World News: Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed by Kasia Madera on BBC World News. The interview is available to watch below.

Here is the transcript:

Kasia Madera: Now, Viet Thanh Nguyen has won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. It is an immigrant tale of a man of two minds and two countries, Vietnam and the United States. While Mr. Nguyen, who lives in Los Angeles, was himself born in Vietnam, his family came to the U.S. as refugees in 1975. And I’m thrilled to say he joins us live via webcam from Philadelphia, where he is continuing his book tour. Thank you very much for joining us. Congratulations. You describe this book as a confession. Who is it a confession to?

Viet Nguyen: Well, the book is told from the perspective of a communist spy in the South Vietnamese army, and eventually, we discover he’s telling his confession to another communist, who has ended up being his prison guard.

Kasia Madera: I see, and how much of a perspective is this on your personal life and your background?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think readers will be happy to know that it’s not an autobiographical novel, since my narrator happens to be a spy, a liar, an alcoholic, a womanizer, and eventually, a murderer. But I think it comes out of some autobiographical themes in my life, which is, I’m not actually an immigrant. I’m a refugee. I think it’s very important to make that distinction, especially in this day and age when countries are so afraid of refugees, and I was one of them.

Viet Nguyen: But I always felt like I was living between worlds. I never felt totally comfortable in any kind of home, whether it was my own parents’ home, or whether it was in America, in American communities. And that sense of always being in between, of being divided between worlds, informs the world view of this novel and this character. It’s just taken to an extreme in this case, because he’s a spy and a mole, and he’s caught terribly between oppositional sides.

Kasia Madera: Absolutely. And when we see the amount of people moving around the world today, especially going across the Mediterranean, can people ever really assimilate to the countries where they end up in?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think I’m a perfect example of that. I mean, if you didn’t see my face, and you just heard my voice, I probably could pass for an American, and in most features of my life, I’m very much an American.

Viet Nguyen: Obviously, I think a lot of the fear that people have about refugees is that they think they are utterly foreign, that they bring various kinds of contamination with them, whether that’s physical, or spiritual, or religious, or linguistic, and that they will … But I think really what’s also frightening about refugees for a lot of people is that they remind citizens of stable countries that the privileges that they take for granted might actually be really fragile. That one day a natural disaster or a war might eventually come and make them into refugees, too, and these are all the various kinds of complex psychological, cultural reasons that make people afraid of refugees. When in reality, if we look at the waves of refugees that have come to the United States and Europe, oftentimes they’ve been very successfully assimilated.

Kasia Madera: And when we look at, you’re talking about stability in the United States, arguably one of the most stable countries, where we have, we’re in the midst of the race to the White House. What do you make of what is going on in the country that you’ve taken on as your home?

Viet Nguyen: Well, obviously, I think refugees and other kinds of immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and so on, have become the scapegoats for so many people’s rage and fear. But that rage and fear shouldn’t be directed at refugees or immigrants. It really should be directed at the structures of inequality that have led people in the United States to feel dispossessed. And that is, I think, what Donald Trump is appealing to, that’s what Bernie Sanders is doing a much more articulate way of showing that, actually, it’s a systematic inequality built into capitalism that have dispossessed people of all different kinds of backgrounds. But it’s frightening to look at structural inequalities, so people would rather turn and blame these people who look different than them.

Kasia Madera: It’s been absolutely fascinating speaking to you Viet Thanh Nguyen. Congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you so much.

Category: Interviews


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