Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen Talks Parking Lots and Refugees at The Egyptian

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses The Sympathizer and refugees at The Egyptian Theatre. Original article by Harrison Berry published on Boise Weekly.

On stage before a packed house at the Egyptian Theatre Tuesday evening, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MacArthur Grant recipient Viet Thanh Nguyen spoke of his obsession with displaced people.

“I am a refugee—was a refugee,” he said. “It’s a distinction that preoccupies me.”

Nguyen was in Boise as part of The Cabin’s Readings & Conversations series. His 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, is about a North Vietnamese spy embedded in a group of South Vietnamese soldiers exiled to the United States after American military forces backed out of the Vietnam War. The book, perhaps his most famous, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2016.

The Sympathizer was hailed as a masterpiece, though Nguyen said he anticipated the tone-deaf language of the review of it published in The New York Times. The review claims Nguyen “fills the void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless.”

“The problem is not that we’re voiceless,” he explained to the crowd. “It’s that we’re not heard.”

Nguyen told the story of his parents’ San Jose, California, grocery store—the second Vietnamese grocery store in the city, he said—and how it was razed to make way for a parking lot when a new city hall was built across the street. Images and stories abound in his work in which Vietnamese people are disregarded, marginalized or silenced. In The Sympathizer, the narrator futilely tries to incorporate more speaking roles for Vietnamese people in an American film about the Vietnam War and, in a nod to Nguyen’s past, notes that America’s greatest gift to architecture is the parking lot.

His readings and remarks drew laughter from the audience, but his point was serious and clear—that the voices of refugees, specifically Vietnamese Americans and survivors of the Vietnam War, are out there, and should be heard. When he started digging, Nguyen said he was “surrounded” by the narratives, and found no end to them.

Category: News


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  1. fred sommer says:

    Nguyen rightly notes in many places in his novels that the parking lot is the central focus of culture in the USA. American civilization IS the parking lot, he asserts, and I find him very convincing on this point.