Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

BookCon 2018: Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Work of Empathy

Hannah Kushnick of Publisher’s Weekly features The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives for BookCon 2018.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, a startling anthology of essays by various authors, was the brainchild of Abrams executive editor Jamison Stoltz. He was, according to the anthology’s editor, Viet Thanh Nguyen, “moved by the protests against the Muslim ban at New York airports” partly because his wife was a refugee when she came to the United States, and he wanted to do something to help people in that situation.

He recruited Nguyen—the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the novel The Sympathizer, the scholarly study Nothing Ever Dies, and the short story collection The Refugees, all about the experiences of refugees from Vietnam, from which he and his family fled in 1975—to help create a book that would raise awareness of issues surrounding displacement and funds for refugees.

Nguyen and Stoltz brought together “17 refugee writers who were already established, and asked them to write about their own lives or the lives of refugees they’ve encountered.” The contributors are, Nguyen explains, “standing in, to a certain extent, for 66 million displaced people in this world, about 22 million of whom are classified as refugees by the United Nations,” says Nguyen

The result is The Displaced, which was released by Abrams in April. A portion of its proceeds will benefit the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization that offers assistance to refugees. The contributors and their stories vary widely: Fatima Bhutto describes a visit to an immersive virtual reality installation designed to simulate the experience of crossing the Mexico-U.S. border; Ariel Dorfman rhapsodizes about the joys of a pan–Latin American grocery store in his adopted home; Joseph Azam remembers the significance of name changes to his experience of cultural assimilation; Aleksander Hemon narrates the story of a fellow Bosnian refugee who changed his name from Kemal to Kemalemir to remain connected to his deceased brother, Emir.

What these writers and their stories have in common, Nguyen says, is that “their refugee experiences have left them with a deep empathy for human beings and refugees.” With gentle irony, he points out, “They’re overlapping categories.” Nguyen describes writers and readers in general as being “engaged in the work of empathy.” What unites the entries in this volume, he says, is the implicit, sometimes explicit, claim that the act of empathy—which is so crucial for becoming a writer—is also crucial for identifying with refugees, or recognizing their humanity and maintaining our own humanity in the face of this extraordinary crisis.” The relationship between refugee identity and literary identity is part of the discussion he’s looking to have at BookCon’s panel “Refugee Writers and Refugee Lives,” which brings Nguyen together with four contributors from the book. “What does it mean,” he asks, “to go from being a refugee to being a writer, and once you’re a writer, can you still call yourself a refugee, or have you been completely made over into something else?”

This ties into larger questions about who can be considered a refugee. “Am I, personally, for example, a refugee, even though I was a refugee 40 years ago? I personally think that I am. I have to keep on talking about being a refugee because the temptation to pretend that I’m not a refugee is very strong.”

He wants The Displaced to speak to, and encourage the aforementioned empathy among those who distance themselves from refugees. “I think the ideal intended readers for this book are people who don’t care about refugees”—he laughs a little—”or people who hate refugees or people who may have ambivalent feelings about refugees, but who are going to enact policies that punish refugees in one way or another. But I think, sadly, these people are not likely to pick up the book.”

He also hopes to reach refugees and former refugees who are or want to be writers. “Out of that population of 22 million officially classified refugees, some percentage of those people are going to become writers, which means they’re readers or want to be readers. This book would hopefully validate their experience to them and let them know that they will eventually have that opportunity to write about what they have been through or what they are going through.”


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