Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Power of Imagining & Building New Futures

Alexandra Da Dalt discusses the impact of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s talk about refugees, immigrant, communities of color, and writing in this piece for Rain International.


“The xenophobic tendencies of American society, which have always been with us, are experiencing a resurgence.”

To celebrate the release of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, author, activist, and USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen spoke at Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series. Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Sympathizer, short story collection The Refugees, and editor of It Occurs to Me That I Am America and The Displaced, spoke about writing, memory, and how the United States often remains an unfulfilled promise, hostile to refugees, immigrants, and communities of color.

Nguyen’s appearance in Buffalo offered me, as a Canadian, an opportunity to revisit the United States post-Trump inauguration. I lived in New York City from 2009 – 2016, made my plans to leave while witnessing the toxicity of the election, and ultimately left the country a month before Trump was sworn in. Additionally, New York City isn’t upstate New York; though I grew up watching the local American TV channels that floated over Lake Ontario, my only interactions with Buffalo had been trips over the border to the outlet malls when the Canadian dollar was strong. I’d heard rumors that the city itself was experiencing a resurgence, and that some of artists, writers, and activists that had been pushed out of other cities had ended up there.

Climbing into a cab and declaring what had brought me to Buffalo, the taxi driver clicked the doors of his van closed and remembered the Vietnam War. He spoke about the refugees that conflict had sent to the United States, and how the lives of refugees look in his city now. He reported that after Trump’s win and threats against migrants and communities of color, taxi drivers in the city started driving members of the Haitian community as close as they could get to Canada to watch them walk across the border to claim asylum. People knew what could happen if the threats became real— mass deportation, ICE raids, families torn apart— and we know now that their fears were justified.

Later that night, as I waited for Nguyen in my seat, I reckoned with what it meant to be a Canadian in a space that was focused on the history and idea of America. It would be naive to dismiss the sweeping forces that have shaken the United States as exclusive to our neighbor to the South. The complacent Canadian rhetoric of “at least it’s not as bad here” has and is used to gloss over atrocities and structural oppression. Ontario recently elected conservative Doug Ford, who once claimed the province should “take care of our own” before providing assistance to new Canadians, and we are also grappling with increasingly bold forces of nationalism, xenophobia, and violent misogyny. Canada’s cooperation with the United States under the Safe Third Country Agreement prevents legitimate claims of asylum or refugee status at border crossings. Immigration detention continues in Canada, forcing innocent people like Ebrahim Toure into indefinite detention with no justification.

All of this was running through my head Nguyen walked onstage. He spoke movingly about his experiences as a writer of color, and read aloud from The Sympathizer, a book that had taken my breath away when I read it years earlier. He talked about identifying as a refugee, and when some stop using that term, and instead opt for “immigrant.” He spoke about being separated from his mother and father at four years old, and the trauma it cuts into both the child and parents.

Then Nguyen expressed his admiration for creators and activists, and the way both worked in tandem to imagine a future and then build it. It brought to mind philosopher Hannah Arendt’s definition of freedom— to imagine what you cannot yet conceive of, and to interrupt old processes with new ones. I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of this interpretation, that artists and activists work together to lay the blueprint and then begin constructing new realities. I walked out breathing somewhat easier. Amongst the noise of all the injustice that felt deafening, Nguyen had clearly outlined a path forward.

The next day after Nguyen’s talk, I saw what he was talking about everywhere. At the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women showcased the world of African American women reimagining reality in the face of a Black liberation movement that often ignored gender, and a feminist movement that disregarded race. Small local businesses like Burning Books bookstore are creating a community space and selling books that tell new stories and retell the ones we think we know, and lawns signs I passed beamed, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in Spanish, English, and Arabic.

Over the border again, I have doubled down on immersing myself in the writing and art that plots the way forward, like The Displaced, A Different Pond, and Exit West. Authors, photographers, and artists have labored to imagine worlds and futures where borders and the violence around them related to nationhood and ideas of who has access to legitimate belonging in a country. In both the United States and Canada, we need huge policy changes. We need a reimagining of the way we even conceive of borders and movement on a global scale. However, we also need smaller and more personal imaginings of what that could be like, too. We’re up against those “xenophobic tendencies” Nguyen referred to, and they are getting bolder and bolder both south and north of U.S./Canada border. But those that are pushing back against them are getting stronger, too.

Here’s to imagining new futures, sharing them with each other, and making them real together.
You can get your copy of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives at your local bookstore. Support RAIN’s World Refugee Day 2018 campaign here.


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