Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

‘The Refugees’ author Nguyen speaks at Clemson Lit Fest

Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed by Paul Hyde of Greenville News ahead of the Clemson Literary Festival.

The bodies of dead paratroopers hung from the trees along the roads where Viet Thanh Nguyen fled with his family to safety and freedom in 1975.

Nguyen was only 4 years old when his family left South Vietnam as refugees journeying to the United States.

Now a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Nguyen often writes about the plight of refugees and immigrants, past and present, struggling to find a home amid fear and suspicion.

Nguyen, 46, will read and discuss his work at the Clemson Literary Festival Thursday, 8-9 p.m. at the Clemson Alumni Center, 114 Alumni Circle in Clemson. The event is free and open to the public.

Nguyen plans to spotlight his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” and his new collection of short stories, “The Refugees.”

The Greenville News recently caught up by phone with Nguyen in Los Angeles. As Nguyen spoke to the News, children at play could be heard in the background. Nguyen was enjoying an outing at a combination children’s gym/restaurant with his son, who is about the same age that Nguyen was when he arrived in America.

The Greenville News: In your new collection of short stories, “The Refugees,” you write about Vietnamese refugees, but you’ve suggested that the plight of today’s Syrian migrants is remarkably similar.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think there are obviously significant differences but similarities as well. Syrians are fleeing from a war-torn situation they did not ask for. They are coming to countries that range from being hostile to ambivalent to hospitable. That was a situation also faced by Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees. The reactions they get are based on the political circumstances of the potential host countries.

Greenville News: In a recent essay, published in The Financial Times, you said that you hoped America would embrace “the best version of itself,” welcoming refugees.

Nguyen: I think there is a part of America that is based on hospitality, on immigration, on pluralism and on diversity and inclusion. That’s what we really need to be drawing from today. There’s also part of America that is based on racism and xenophobia. Those impulses are still with us today as well. It’s a basic contradiction of the America character. Those who believe in the more positive aspects of the United States need to do all we can to bring those forward and to remind Americans of that tradition.

Greenville News: You also have said that you wish everyone could have the experience of being a refugee — of being an outsider.

Nguyen: As writers, what we do is based on empathy. We couldn’t be writers without empathy. To ask for people to identify with Syrian refugees is not simply based upon my sense of a shared historical experience as a refugee myself but also based on my sense of the fact that empathy is a crucial human trait. I think the world would be a better place if we could give in to empathy. I think there are a significant number of people who don’t want to give in to empathy, who see this world as a zero-sum situation, that if we took in refugees we would lose something of ourselves. I simply think that’s the wrong way to look at things. It’s not a zero-sum situation. If we think this would be a drain on our resources, we need to look at where we are spending our resources and why we think we have such limited resources to spend on human beings in need.

Greenville News: In addition to being a writer, you’re also the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Are both of these roles — writer and professor — equally important to you?

Nguyen: They are both equally important to me. They serve very different kinds of purposes. Certainly being a writer is very emotionally necessary and sustaining for me, and I reach many more people that way. But as a teacher, I see the immediate consequences of what I do and what I believe in — in terms of the impact of my classes on my students. But I also have the benefit of learning from my students because they come from diverse backgrounds and experiences that often are quite difference from mine.

Greenville News: Does winning the Pulitzer Prize, perhaps the most prestigious U.S. honor for an American writer, change a person’s life?

Nguyen: It definitely changes one’s life because it transforms the way people look at one’s work. It transforms the value of the work, even though the novel itself is not any different before or after the Pulitzer. People attribute more meaning and significance to it. They also do that to me as well, so my own value has changed in the eyes of many. I still try to write things that are important to me, knowing that more people will be listening.

Greenville News: Is it important for a writer to be engaged with politics and public policy these days?

Nguyen: I think so. I know there are other writers who would not necessarily do that. But, for me, well before the Pulitzer I always saw myself who as someone who was concerned not only with his own work but with politics and history and believed that writing could make some kind of impact on the world. It’s not that the situation we face with refugees are new today but they are recurrent. This happens to be the case that the situation is recurring at a moment when I have the opportunity to write things that more people are willing to read. I have an opportunity, as a writer, to try to have some kind of impact on the political situation.

Greenville News: The Clemson Literary Festival often is attended by young aspiring writers. Can you offer some advice for young writers?

Nguyen: The pithy advice is read a lot, write a lot, persist and have patience.


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

More Interviews