MacArthur Genius winner Viet Thanh Nguyen addresses UC Santa Cruz

Mairav Zonszein covers Viet Thanh Nguyen’s appearance at UC Santa Cruz’s Living Writers Series for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, September 23, 2017

Image credits to John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Author and academic Viet Thanh Nguyen spoke at UC Santa Cruz Thursday night, telling the crowd of more than 200 his refugee story.

The University of Southern California professor spoke just days after being awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant for his work, which includes his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” The book explores the Vietnam War through the eyes of its American-educated Vietnamese narrator.

Born in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam, Nguyen arrived in the U.S. in 1975 at age four with his family and was initially settled in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., before moving to San Jose, where his parents opened a grocery store.

Nguyen said he considers “The Sympathizer” to be both a war novel and a refugee novel.

“I was a refugee in 1975 and I am a refugee today. Not sure when you stop being a refugee. I don’t look like one, so it’s important to remind people that I am.”

Nguyen told the crowd the Trump presidency “makes things worse, his existence.”

“But it is important in forcing certain issues into visibility that people of all kinds of backgrounds would rather not talk about. The shift from Obama to Trump represents two opposing sides of an American contradiction: the American dream and nightmare, that are mutually in existence,” Nguyen said.

Asked where he feels at home, Nguyen said, “Home is always a place where I felt uncomfortable. I grew up in San Jose, I felt like an American spying on my Vietnamese parents…I feel at home in my own house. But in this country, I can’t say I feel at home. There are many things that make me feel uncomfortable, from genocide to Trump.”

His current book “The Refugees” is a collection of short stories published earlier this year, at the same time that Trump announced his refugee ban. The stories in the collection were written over a period of 20 years.

“These stories were written through trial and error, which is how I learned to be a writer” Nguyen told the Sentinel. “The impetus was wanting to deal with experiences of Vietnamese refugees whose stories were not being told in the U.S.”

Bryan Miller, a creative writing student at UCSC who attended the lecture, said he was assigned “The Refugees” in a class this quarter.

“He is one of the greatest writers of our time,” Miller said, adding, “he is the latest in a series of authors who captures intricacies in a single moment.”

Nguyen, who uses fiction to tell very real and personal stories with a comic tinge, stressed the differences between refugees and immigrants during his lecture. “I am a refugee and not an immigrant. Reviews (of the Sympathizer) said it was an immigrant story. It’s important to dispute that. People call it that to contain its meaning. Immigrants are part of the American mythology and dream. Refugees are the unwanted, unwashed. They bring with them fear, contamination.”

While “The Refugees” has already been translated into Vietnamese, Nyugen says there are censorship issues hindering the publication.

“They want to eliminate an entire story,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen joked during the lecture about how ironic it is that he has been billed as the author “giving voice to the voiceless Vietnamese,” when in fact, Vietnamese people are highly talkative and loud. “When I finished ‘The Refugees,’ I said to myself, I’m done with trying to prove humanity of Vietnamese. We are already human.”




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