Rob Cline interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen for Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Did winning the Pulitzer Prize give Viet Thanh Nguyen a platform to advocate for refugees? Nguyen, who came to this county as a refugee from Vietnam when he was a child, is the author of the novel “The Sympathizer,” winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, and the new short story collections “The Refugees.”
In an email interview, Nguyen discusses what winning the Pulitzer means in terms of advocacy opportunities and what fiction can and cannot do to expand a spirit of empathy concerning the refugee experience. He also considers the challenges of portraying minority characters as anything other than wholly virtuous and reveals his favorite story in “The Refugees.”
Q: I understand you wrote the short stories in “The Refugees” before you wrote “The Sympathizer.” It seems the common publishing move is to publish the story collection first and then the novel. What led to the reverse approach in this case?
A: My agent, Nat Sobel, is a very smart man with five or so decades of experience. We held the short story collection back because we thought the novel would make a bigger splash as a debut work, which would then heighten interest for the short story collection. The collection coming out first wouldn’t have received as much attention. The number of reviews for “The Refugees,” and their enthusiasm, and the book’s sales, seems to have borne out that strategy.
Q: “The Sympathizer” was recently included on the New York Times’ “25 Great Books by Refugees” list. You tweeted: “(T)he best list possible for me as a writer to be on. Accepting refugees makes American great.” And, of course many folks have noted that a book called “The Refugees” seems perfectly timed. To what extent do you think fiction can help change the hearts and minds of folks who are suspicious or afraid of refugees at this moment? Does your status as a Pulitzer winner give you more opportunities to advocate for refugees?
A: My status as a Pulitzer winner means that more people are willing to listen to what I have to say, even if what I have to say doesn’t differ from what I was saying before the Pulitzer. I do feel that I have to seize this moment of opportunity to advocate for refugees, because I’m not sure how long people will be paying attention to my opinion.
So far as what fiction can do to change hearts and minds, I’m somewhat pessimistic. The people who are going to pick up my books are readers, and readers are already inclined to have a degree of empathy and a willingness to see the world through the eyes of others. Some of these readers will not have thought much about refugees before, and so with these readers my work might make a difference. But this leaves out all the many people who don’t read fiction and who fear refugees (and perhaps these two things are related). My book can’t change those who don’t read it, or who don’t read fiction or literature in general.
Q: In a recent interview, you talked about your characters and virtue — or the lack of it — saying, “We’re not virtuous; none of us are.” Tell me more about how notions of virtue are important to your work.
A: In so-called “ethnic literature,” or any kind of minority literature, however you classify minority, there’s a temptation to write about virtuous characters. This is because minority writers know that they face an unequal terrain of storytelling. The majority exists in an economy of narrative plenitude, with endless numbers of stories about its experience. The minority lives in an economy of narrative scarcity, with many fewer stories about itself.
So there’s tremendous pressure on minority stories to represent the minority community, which includes the urge to censor anything that might cast the minority in a negative light. The majority writer rarely feels that compunction to not talk about vices, does not have to worry that readers will mistake a character as somehow standing in for the entire majority. Minority writers worry about that often.
For me, to say that none of us are virtuous is simply a statement of fact, for all of us have flaws, whether we acknowledge them or not. But in the context of being a minority writer, such a statement also means that I have to self-consciously foreground such an idea to work against the tendency not to talk about the deep flaws of minority characters and communities.
Q: What’s your favorite story in the collection — either because you’re fond of the tale that is told or because you’re particularly pleased with the craft (or both)?
A: “Black-Eyed Women,” the opening story. For many readers, this is their favorite story in the collection. I’m amused by some reviewers saying that this story, and the collection as a whole, feels effortless. In fact, this story took 50 drafts over 17 years, with the first words laid down in 1997 and the last ones in 2014. It was the first story I wrote and the last story I revised, so it embodies the struggles I had with the entire collection, all the enormous labor it took to write a short book and make it seem easy to the reader.
Writing the story was an agony, and it’s amazing to me that I can read it in less than half-an-hour. But that’s where the pleasure lies too, with the pain receding in memory, and the grace of the story delivering me forward to a future where perhaps I won’t fear writing a short story.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The sequel to “The Sympathizer,” titled “The Committed,” set in Paris of the 1980s.