Winner of the Pulitzer Prize


Emily Temple of the Literary Hub lists The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen in her list of nine American novels by foreign authors. 

First things first: what exactly is a Great American Novel? Opinions have long been divided on the subject, and the truth is, one person’s GAN is another’s trashy beach read. Er, probably. Still, I think that John Scalzi more or less nailed it when he cited the three qualities necessary to rate as a GAN in the Los Angeles Times in 2016, in support of To Kill a Mockingbird:

Ubiquity: It has to be a novel that a relatively large number of Americans have read, and that a large proportion of those who haven’t read it know about in other ways (for example, by a popular filmed adaptation).

Notability: There has to be a general agreement that the novel is significant—it has literary quality and/or is part of the cultural landscape in a way that’s unquestionable (even if critically assailable).

Morality: It needs to address some unique aspect of the American experience, usually either our faults or our aspirations as a nation, with recognizable moral force (not to be confused with a happy ending).

Notice the lack of any suggestion that the book actually be written by an American. And while I’d certainly agree that it would be difficult to write a novel addressing the American experience without at least living here for a while, sometimes it takes an outsider to really see the truth of something. Not to mention the fact that America was built on immigrants and refugees, and that diversity of any kind typically enriches the lives and minds of all involved, making it much more likely to be Great. It’s no different in literature, and it’s no different in the canon of Great American Novels. (Someone should tell our current administration that, but everyone knows they don’t read books anyway.) So with that in mind, an incomplete selection of books that could be considered Great American Novels, despite the fact that their authors—though they may now be Americans—were born elsewhere.

[See complete list here.]

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen’s bestselling debut, which takes on the Vietnam War—a huge and divisive moment in American history—from a new perspective (that of a conflicted half-Vietnamese communist sympathizer), won the Pulitzer in 2016. After the fall of Saigon, Nguyen and his parents fled to the US; Nguyen is now a professor at UCLA. In an interview with Terry Gross, he described watching Apocalypse Now as a ten-year-old:

I was cheering for the American soldiers until the moment in Apocalypse Nowwhere they started killing Vietnamese people. And that was an impossible moment for me because I didn’t know who I was supposed to identify with, the Americans who were doing the killing or the Vietnamese who were dying and not being able to speak?

And that moment has never left me as the symbolic moment of my understanding that this was our place in an American war, that the Vietnam War was an American war from the American perspective and that, eventually, I would have to do something about that.

Eventually, he did.



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