Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen: from refugee to renowned author

Terry Nguyen interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Daily Trojan.

Photo by Terry Nguyen.

Tucked away on the fourth floor of Taper Hall, Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s office is lined with shelves and shelves of books. For a longtime lover of literature and an English professor who has taught at USC for 20 years, the scene is not out of the ordinary — it is almost expected for a man who has dedicated his career to the written word.

Stacks of loose papers and up-ended novels create a wall between the center of his desk and the packed bookshelf, but Nguyen is not confined to classic literature in his line of work. For him, literature is alive — it is the embodiment of heritage, history, myth and culture and an inevitable product of his identity.

In April 2016, Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — a momentous event that shifted the trajectory of his writing career.

But beyond the awards and accolades, Nguyen is, at his core, a storyteller, a believer in the power of stories and how they philosophically change and enlighten people’s lives.

“My teaching is not only analytical,” Nguyen said. “I think about the larger frame of my semester: What kind of story am I trying to tell students every day when I come in to lecture, to lead discussion?”

Nguyen’s path as a writer inextricably intertwines with his work as a professor and scholar. Fresh out of a doctoral program at 26, Nguyen received a USC assistant professorship — a position that allowed him to pursue both fiction writing and academia — and has not left to teach elsewhere since.

“I’ve grown as a professor here by learning how to tell stories,” Nguyen said, reflecting on his academic tenure. “That came from writing fiction. I know that people respond to stories, including students.”

Nguyen has his own story — one that kindles his passion and dedication to his Vietnamese heritage. It’s a story he holds at the heart of his classes, academic research and published novels. At four years old, Nguyen was a refugee. Although he escaped the aftermath of the Vietnam War, he soon faced a war with his own identity as a Vietnamese American.

“The stories and art I encountered about the Vietnam War had nothing good to say about Vietnamese people of any background,” Nguyen said. “At that point, I realized that these stories are very important because they tell us about who we are.”

Nguyen’s story and struggle of cultural duality is not unique among Vietnamese Americans — generation after generation of immigrants, refugees and social newcomers to American society face these challenges.

“I wanted to write stories that would contest the American stories of the Vietnam War,” Nguyen said. “We as Vietnamese refugees are people considered [to those in Vietnam] as traitors, losers, dissidents. It’s a struggle to make our presence and our memory heard and felt.” 

Nguyen’s general education course on the Vietnam War is dubbed his personal passion project — it’s a course on the persistence of war memories and ultimately helped him write his second book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. But for Nguyen, passion, however important it may be, was not the key to a Pulitzer or to the fulfillment of his craft.

It was work and required the will to sit in a chair for thousands of hours, dedicating his life to the art of storytelling.

“It took me 18 years of struggle and pain of writing constantly and continually, of experiencing rejection and obscurity before I got to write The Sympathizer in two years,” Nguyen said. “What I’ve learned is that in terms of writing, it’s the art, the discipline that matters.”

Nguyen was compelled to write he intends not only to tell a meaningful story, but also to foster social, political and cultural messages.

“It’s an important task to be a writer,” Nguyen said.

And in retrospect, he realized his calling to the craft at a young age. When he was in elementary school, Nguyen wrote his first award-winning book, an achievement granted by his local public library. He was a voracious reader and writer, but his literary discoveries led to internal conflicts he struggled to flesh out in the course of his writing career.

He was, like his protagonist in The Sympathizer, a man of two faces. Nguyen knew he was ideologically different from his parents by the time he was 10, and he struggled to reconcile with them.

“The emotional part of me that I tapped into writing The Sympathizer is autobiographical,” Nguyen said. “Writers have to go where it hurts in order to tap into that emotion that has made you who you are.”

Nguyen is not a man of tradition — he did not seek affirmation from the Vietnamese American community in his work. He acknowledges the vehemence in the emotions of many Vietnamese refugees about the Communist regime and its current existence. Nevertheless, he felt justified in having a Communist spy as his protagonist in The Sympathizer.

“I wanted to offend everybody when I wrote the novel,” Nguyen said.

He sought to disturb and question the deep-seated beliefs of Americans and Vietnamese people on the Vietnam War, just as he was disturbed by the duality of his identity.

“As a refugee in San Jose, I was always feeling out of place — that I was a spy in my parents’ household, an American looking at these strange Vietnamese people and their customs,” Nguyen said. “When I stepped out into the rest of American society, I was a Vietnamese person spying on Americans.”

The Sympathizer was emotionally liberating — Nguyen wrote the book for himself, placing his emotions into the heart and soul of his protagonist. But his following releases, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War and The Refugees, likewise hold similar emotional bearings.

Although the Pulitzer Prize has skyrocketed his rise to fame, Nguyen’s life, albeit much busier, remains the same.

Nguyen is both a writer and a professor, but his careers are the two sides of the same coin. On one side, he is a teacher, seeking to prod and provoke students into understanding the multifaceted perspectives of Asian American literature and the Vietnam War. On the other, he exists as a bold voice for the Vietnamese American community, with each book presenting the depth and complexity of not only Vietnamese culture, but also human nature.

Category: Interviews


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