PEN Out Loud: Viet Thanh Nguyen, Maaza Mengiste and Lev Golinkin

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Maaza Mengiste, and Lev Golinkin discuss The Displaced, an essay collection by refugee writers at the Strand Bookstore.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer), and authors Maaza Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) and Lev Golinkin (A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka) discuss the critically acclaimed anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen and featuring essays by Maaza Mengiste and Lev Golinkin, The Displaced collects the work of 17 refugee writers, painting intimate narratives of their everyday lives and reckoning with the largest refugee crisis in history, and the increasingly hostile conditions refugees face.

For more information about the event, please visit PEN Out Loud.

Read the transcript of the event below:

Speaker 1:  Tonight’s event is part of PEN America’s PEN Out Loud series which we present year round in partnership with the Strand. This is the final event of our spring season, so we’re glad you joined us. I really want to thank the Strand Events team, including [Sabir 00:00:15] and Nicholas who are here tonight. If you’re not familiar with PEN America, our mission is to celebrate and defend free and open expression at home and abroad.

Speaker 1: We do so through wide ranging advocacy efforts as well as public events like this one, which celebrate the breadth and power of story, and the literature that free expression makes possible. PEN America is a membership organization and our strength has always been in our members. If you’re a writer, a reader, an editor, a journalist, a translator, a student, a teacher or more, you’re eligible for PEN membership, and I hope you’ll speak with me or my colleagues about joining.

Speaker 1: I want to make sure that you’re aware of the PEN World Voices Festival which will take place from May 6th through 12th across New York City. We have some amazing authors including Arundhati Roy, Sonia Sanchez, Marlon James, and many more. Tickets for those events are on sale now and you can find out more information on our website at pen.org. Finally, before I introduce our authors, I want to mention that we have representatives from the International Rescue Committee with us this evening. Proceeds from the sale of the displays go to support their work, and they’ll help us close the event with a little bit more information on the work they do. I hope you’ll stick around to buy a book and hear more about how you can get involved.

Speaker 1: To introduce our authors. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His other books include the bestselling short story collection, The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations and he is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Speaker 1: Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Creative Capital. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was selected by The Guardian as one of the 10 Best Contemporary African Books. Her work can be found in the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Granta and the New York Times. Her second novel, The Shadow King will be published in September of this year.

Speaker 1: Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, the winner of the Premio Salerno Libro d’Europa. His writing on the Ukraine crisis, Russia and immigrant and refugee identity has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, among many others. Please join me in welcoming them.

Viet Nguyen: Hello, sorry about that. Hey, thank you everybody for coming out tonight. It’s such a pleasure to have you all here. Thank you to PEN and The Strand for having us here as well. I’m Viet Nguyen, and I am a refugee, thought it would be important to announce that. Saying that might seem kind of strange, because I’m clearly not a refugee anymore, but I go around and I say this constantly, that I am a refugee for two reasons. I think number one, it’s important for those of us who are refugees to assert this part of our history, and this part of our identity because I think when we say the word refugee, people like this; published writers, acclaimed authors are not necessarily the people that we think of.

Viet Nguyen: There’s a way by which people in this country in particular, can hide or forget the distinction between refugees and immigrants, that it’s easier in this country to call oneself an immigrant than it is to call oneself a refugee. Even refugees themselves who call themselves immigrants may not be aware of what they’re doing. They may not be aware of the distinction between these two things, because it seems so natural in this country, even at a time of high xenophobic feeling as we’re living through now. Even now, it’s more natural to stake the claim to this country as an immigrant because at least there’s this mythology of the American dream of being immigrants.

Viet Nguyen:  But, we are refugees in all of this. Refugees are a stigmatized population, and they’re stigmatized for very obvious reasons. They’re stigmatized because unlike immigrants, they’re forced to flee from their countries of origin. Immigrants, at least have the choice of moving, there is more dignity granted to immigrants than there is to refugees. And we, especially in the United States, I mean, many countries struggle with anti-refugee feelings. But I think in the United States in particular, because of our immigrant and heritage, we have a difficult time comprehending refugees in particular, because we as Americans cannot believe that Americans can become refugees.

Viet Nguyen: It is not a part of the American dream to ever imagine d that this country could become a failed state that would produce refugees, that would produce people that the state cannot take care of. That’s what we associate with refugees. Refugees are desperate people that come from broken countries, and so it makes sense that when people come to this country as refugees, but then succeed and assimilate, that they can adopt the mask of an immigrant and get rid of this contamination that comes with being a refugee. That’s why I call myself a refugee.

Viet Nguyen:  It’s important to assert this claim because when we look around, now there might be refugees in this audience, but we can’t tell just by looking so let me ask, how many people here are actually refugees? One. That’s it? You’re two, three. I mean … Four. I was attending a faculty meeting and in this issue came up about refugees versus immigrants, and someone who was sitting next to me and someone, another Asian-American who I’d known for quite a while, I did not know that she was a refugee.

Viet Nguyen: She raised her hand to at this refugee question, and all of a sudden we started talking about our history. I discovered that she was actually in fact, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and had undergone this kind of refugee experience. Once I had gone to give a talk at a Boise high school with a refugee program. That was why I was invited to speak, to speak to students in a refugee program. So, I thought I’d start with an easy question, how many of you are refugees? Almost none of them raised their hands?

Viet Nguyen: Then I asked, “How many of you were immigrants?” Then they started to raise their hands. These students who came from all over the world, from dozens of countries whose histories that we would associate with strife and conflict of various kinds, even after just a year or two in this country, they had somehow learned that being a refugee was a negative that they had to shed, that they had to hide.

Viet Nguyen: But, there’s another reason why I call myself a refugee and that is, that my memories begin with being a refugee. I fled Vietnam with my parents in 1971, came to United States. I’m sorry, I was born in 1971, came to the United States in 1975 with the end of the war in Vietnam. Obviously, we were on the losing side and we came and we settled in this country, along with 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees and we ended up in one of four refugee camps. Mine was Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.

Viet Nguyen:  In order to leave one of these refugee camps, you had to have a sponsor except in the case of my family, there wasn’t a sponsor willing to take all four of us. So, one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10-year-old brother, one sponsor to four-year-old me. That’s where my memories begin, howling and screaming as I was being taken away from my parents, and I’ve never forgotten that, it’s remained with me. Invisible brand stamped between my shoulder blades.

Viet Nguyen: That’s why I say I’m a refugee, because that experience is something that as much as I’ve tried to forget, I’ve gradually come to understand I’ve had to confront in order to become a writer. This is one of the reasons why so much of my work has been focused on refugees in various ways. When I say that, I don’t mean that I only talk about what happens to people once they come to this country. My work has been very much about insisting that we cannot separate refugees from the conditions from which they came.

Viet Nguyen: In my case and in the cases of so many other refugees, those conditions were war. In this country, another reason why people have a hard time understanding refugees is that when people look at Vietnamese or Southeast Asians for example, we just arrived here out of nowhere like other immigrants. But in fact, we came here because of an American war fought in our countries of Southeast Asia. I insist on remembering this continuum between what happened there to bring us here. Raising these issues makes a lot of people uncomfortable, not just Americans but even my fellow refugees who would rather forget this kind of complicated history that would overshadow the more acceptable story of, welcome to America and help make the American dream.

Viet Nguyen: This is part of the genesis behind a book like The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. But, the real momentum for this came from our editor, Jamison Stoltz, who was the real hero of this book, Jamison Stoltz of Abrams Books. Abrams Press or Abrams books?

Jamison Stoltz:  Both.

Viet Nguyen: Both, okay. About two years ago, he approached me and said … This was in the middle of the attempted ban on Muslims enacted by our current as administration. He was reasonably quite upset about this, but something else that happened. I kind of shared a little bit of personal history, which is that in protesting this ban, Jamison discovered that his wife was a refugee. It had never come up that his … From the Soviet Union?

Jamison Stoltz: [inaudible 00:10:20].

Viet Nguyen: Classification, right, officially classified as a refugee. And so, there was a personal motivation now, besides the political motivation and the empathetic human motivation for addressing this issue of refugees in the first place. He said, “Why don’t we do an anthology on refugees?” It was very important for both of us that this be an anthology of refugee writers, and not just refugee stories or refugee oral histories. If we wanted to do refugee stories or refugee oral histories, there would be no shortage because in the present moment, there are about 68 million displaced people in the world, and the UN officially classifies about 22 million or so those people as refugees. So, there are literally millions of refugee stories out there.

Viet Nguyen: But, I think it was important for us to have refugee writers. Why? Because, another way that refugees are stigmatized is that they’re often seen as being voiceless. They’re abject, they have been transformed into being less than human. These issues of transformations that happened in the experiences of refugees is something that both Maaza and Lev bring up in their works, and we’ll talk about that. But, they have been reduced, they have been stripped of not just their voices, but hence therefore, their subjectivity as well. Other people tell their stories for them, even in the guise of oral histories where someone else is going to transmit their experiences and their stories. So, it was very important for us to insist on the voices of refugees themselves.

Viet Nguyen: That helped us to narrow down the pool of potential writers because if this was a book of immigrant writers, we’d have hundreds or thousands to choose from. Once we decided to narrow it down to refugee right writers, people who had once been refugees or might still be refugees now, we literally had a pool of dozens to work with. It was Jamison’s idea, his impetus, his organizational skill that brought half of the writers to the book, and my connections are brought the other half.

Viet Nguyen: And so, that’s what we have, a book of refugee writers. We have 19 contributors to the paperback edition, one more than the hardback edition. They come from the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Hungary, Iran, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and Laos. Those are only the countries of origin. If you actually read their stories, you discover of course, that there are other countries involved in the refugee experience, the refugee trajectories that eventually would take them to the United States or to the UK. That’s the context for this book and why Maaza and Lev are here. I’m going to turn it over to Maza first, right?

Maaza Mengiste: I’m going to read a very brief section of the essay that’s in this book. I have to say before I start that, thank you to Jamison, to Viet for contacting me, reaching out to be in this book. I hope I’m not … I have three minutes. I hope I’m not using up my three minutes. But, when I got the email asking me to do this, I had a similar response I think to maybe what Viet is talking about where I said, “Oh, I’m not a refugee.” In fact, I’ve talked to journalists where we’ve had a mini debate about whether I was or not.

Maaza Mengiste: It took a while to sit there and say, “Actually, yes. I know that this is my story.” The thing with all stories is, they change and they transform just like human beings can and do, and so I realized that this is also my story, the story of a refugee. I really appreciated your opening essay and also what you’re saying now, because I think there are a lot more people who are like me, who may not have necessarily classified themselves as such. But, I’m going to read.

Maaza Mengiste: This comes from a moment when I was in Italy. Just happened to go to a café, because I was trying to get away from the news, which was horrible. Looking through a window at the café, I started watching this young man that was clearly East African, either Ethiopian or Eritrean and had been or was I could tell, a refugee or maybe am immigrant. He stopped traffic in the middle of this busy intersection and started talking to himself and shouting at invisible people, and listening to something that no one else could hear and responding back and soon, his gestures were getting more and more erratic. I think that’s where I’ll pick up in the essay.

Maaza Mengiste: Lazarus, I think, as I keep watching this young man, a defiant body refusing stillness, resisting quietness. A body using noise to stay alive, to move, to be seen. The waitress comes to take my order and smiles down at my notebook. I notice the couple next to me eyeing it wearily as if they are afraid I’m taking notes on their conversation. No one seems to be aware of the drama unfolding outside the cafe, where a young black man with unkempt hair is spinning in increasingly white circles, motioning wildly, shouting incoherently at passersby.

Maaza Mengiste: He is a spectacle without an audience. He is an actor in Shakespeare’s tale, full of sound and fury. He spins and flings his arms. He throws up a hand and snaps his wrist. He closes a palm over an ear and listens to his own whispers. He frowns and smiles, laughs alone then twirls and catches another stranger’s stare. There is anger and his spastic energy. There is sorrow and confusion in his eyes. “He is breaking,” I say to myself, “And doing what he can to keep himself together.”

Maaza Mengiste: My reflection catches my eye and so I put my head down and in my notebook I write, “You did not leave home like this. This is what the journey does.” It comes again, that ache in the middle of my chest. For a moment it is so strong, that I am sure he can feel it. I am certain it is a tether binding us together, and he will turn in just the right way and I will be exposed. If he looks at me, then our lives will unfold, and in front of us will be the many roads we have taken to get to this intersection in Florence and we will reveal ourselves for what we are; immigrant, migrant, refugee, African, East African, black, foreigner, stranger, a body rendered disobedient by the very nature of what we are.

Maaza Mengiste: When I glanced up again, the young man has quieted down. Now he looks almost bored as he weaves between pedestrians while twisting a lock of hair around a skinny finger. He moves lazily, as if he has accomplished what he set out to do. From where I sit, it looks like he is walking toward me, but he is simply following the sidewalk and soon it will force him to proceed directly past the open door of the café where I am. As he saunters past, I noticed a small bald patch on the back of his head.

Maaza Mengiste: It is a perfect circle, as if a round object was placed on his scalp to burn away his hair through to his skin. I tell myself that I cannot possibly know what it is, that it could be an illusion, it could be just a leaf stuck in his hair, but that is not enough to keep me from flinching. Stories come back to me, told by a friend who crossed the Sahara to get to Europe by way of North Africa. He spoke of horrifying treatment at the hands of human traffickers, and police, and detention centers, and makeshift prisons.

Maaza Mengiste: He shared what he could skipped the rest. In moments when several who made the journey were gathered, I would watch them point to their scars to help fill the lapses in their stories. Sometimes, there was no language capable of adding coherence to what felt impossible to comprehend. Sometimes it was only the body that bore the evidence, pockmarks and gashes forming their own vocabulary.

Maaza Mengiste: Staring at the busy intersection, I don’t want to consider what this young man might have gone through to arrive in Italy, to be in the street on this day, that he is alive as a testament to his endurance. What he has been subjected to, what might have caused that scar was too much for his mind to balance. These thoughts lead the way to for darker realities than I can ever know. I look back at the first note I took upon seeing him, “You did not leave home like this. This is what the journey does.” I’ll stop there.

Lev Golinkin:  Hi, thank you for coming here. I also wanted to thank Jamison, Maya, Viet for putting this together. I was thrilled like Maaza to get the email. I was absolutely thrilled to work with this, and Jamison you’ve been beyond patient with me and my late deadlines. Viet, I’m so glad that you took us under your wing. I think we really bonded over this. I’m trying to think of your achievement as our achievements, and your Pulitzer Prizes, I think of it as ours. We just got a Douglas Grant? We’re very excited.

Lev Golinkin: I’m not that great at reading, but I’ll do a quick piece. One of the countries that my family was in was Austria. We were stuck in this … They took this old Villa, and they converted into a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. My dad and I had a little bit of time and we would sometimes wander out to Vienna proper. This was one time that we snuck into a museum that just kind of … It was a moment in my life that felt was … It was a moment that I realized that I was a refugee.

Lev Golinkin: An art museum is a great place to be a refugee. The authorities don’t skimp on the heat, there are plenty of couches, loitering is encouraged for once, and everyone is so engrossed in the art they don’t look twice at what you’re wearing. And if you allow yourself to get lost in the masterpieces, if you stand just long enough among incomprehensible murmurs, you can forget that you’re no longer part of the world. In a museum, no one cares. In a museum, everyone’s a ghost.

Lev Golinkin: Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum where my father and I had gone in late February 1990, was a jewel of a massive art collection amassed by the Habsburgs, it’s gorgeous Baroque building proclaiming the power and glory of Vienna’s bygone rulers, especially the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresa. She was a quintessential benevolent despot, I’d heard another refugee proclaim during a wait for asylum interviews at the US Embassy in Vienna. I was nine years old and had no idea what that meant, but the gist seems to be that Maria Theresa liked art and had armies which she used to make other people like art.

Lev Golinkin: So one afternoon as a tour group was filing, dad gave me a light tap on the shoulder. “[inaudible 00:23:03], let’s go,” said he, and we edged in around the crowd. Maybe it was the malaise of a late winter afternoon, or some benevolent old decree of Maria, instructing the guards to look the other way when financially strapped visitors came to the door, but dad and I snuck in with ease. And yet, I remember that moment for it was in that short walk across the black and white foyer that I felt myself become a refugee in a true and irreversible fashion.

Lev Golinkin: The drastic images which make newsreels create the impression people turn into refugees overnight. In my family’s experience, that isn’t true. Becoming a refugee is a gradual process, a bleaching out, a transition into a ghostly existence. With the exception of those born in refugee camps, every refugee used to have a life. It doesn’t matter whether you were a physician in Bosnia, or a goat herder in the Congo. What matters is that thousand little anchors once mured you to the world. Becoming a refugee means watching as those anchors are severed one by one, until you’re floating outside of society, an untethered phantom in need of a new life.

Lev Golinkin: Some strands are cut right away. Two months prior to winding up in Vienna, I had an apartment in Soviet Ukraine, the same address I’d lived at my whole life. Three days and two international borders later, I was being herded by humanitarian workers speaking strange languages in a foreign train station with no address to go back to, no address to seek out. Those are the anchors that snap overnight, others erode more slowly.

Lev Golinkin: It happens when your identity fades names and titles, giving way to numbers and papers. You become a visa to stamp, a pair of pupils for the quarantine doctor to check. 55 kilos to add to the maximum capacity of a train, at worst and infestation, at best particle and transit. After a while even, your thoughts adjust to the new reality. It’s a brutal little difference between subject and direct object. Once you made the transition from when are we eating to when are they feeding us, you know you are a refugee.

Viet Nguyen: Thank you for those readings. I reread both of your pieces for this event, and I’m just so moved to can by the stories that you were telling. I want to start off actually, with the question of writing and you as writers. This is very important, because this is a book on refugees and so of course, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about refugees as I have already done. For writers, that can be a problem because we also want to talk about what we do as writers; the words that we’ve put down, the sentences that we’ve shaped, the stories that we’ve conceived.

Viet Nguyen:  And oftentimes when you’re dealing with a social or political issue, especially if its associated with you in some kind of autobiographical way, the only thing the audience wants to talk about or your interviewers on the radio they want to talk about, is a social and political issue, which is important. But then, people forget to talk about the writing itself and so those of us who are … I think it’s a very common experience. Those of us who are writers are like, “Can we just have a literary question? Is that possible?”

Viet Nguyen: I noticed this because recently I did … Michael Ondaatje came to USC. Great guy, and he was really amazing. He did a reading, he did two interviews. Every single question asked of him was literary, never happens to me, never happens to me. Most of my questions are about politics and history. I probably bring that upon myself, but at the same time I think it’s crucial to talk about ourselves as writers for the very reason I raised my initial comments, which is that part of the purpose of this project is to say that refugees are not voiceless.

Viet Nguyen: They can speak, they can write. What the problem is, is that they can’t be heard. They’re structurally silenced, but they themselves are not silent. They just don’t have access to the mechanisms that we would have access to in terms of hearing stories, because they are writing in languages other than English, they’re being published in languages other than English, or they’re not even being published at all. It’s crucial then, to assert the fact that refugees have voices and subjectivity here through the act of writing.

Viet Nguyen: It’s just an open ended invitation for you to talk about yourselves as writers, how you became writers. If you want to talk about whether being a refugee had any relationship to that as well, that would be that would be great.

Maaza Mengiste: I think that I have to refer back to the your opening essay in the book in this collection, because I think you made a really interesting comment Viet about, writers often feel like they are outsiders, outliers. We feel like we are not ever quite in the center of any place. That’s clearly what it feels like to be a refugee, or even an immigrant. But, I also have to say that as a professor, and as someone who has read now, I think hundreds of student essays talking about their experiences growing up, their childhood, I have yet to read anything by anyone who feels like they were the center. Everyone felt or feels like the outsider.

Maaza Mengiste: I feel like that is just a natural human condition and it gets exacerbated when suddenly the things that we might cloak around ourselves to shield ourselves from that fact get stripped away, such as when we become refugees or immigrants. I do think that when I came here, I had no crutches necessarily to lean on, to help me forget that I did not belong in every space that I was in. I think my natural inclination was always to go to books.

Maaza Mengiste: Because I came here so young and because my family would not talk about what was happening in in the revolution in Ethiopia, or help me put some of my own memories and context, I decided well, I think I just have to read books about the European Revolution and try to find information. Unfortunately, no one had written anything yet that a kid could read. So, I started reading everything I could find on the revolution in China, on Vietnam, on Cambodia, on Afghanistan, on Iran, which the things were happening then. I started paying attention to what was happening in Libya with Gaddafi at that time.

Maaza Mengiste: What I began to understand, which has shaped my view as a writer, is that no story ever happens alone, and also that the past is always constant. The past is always here. I don’t think the past is the past. It’s just invisible, but we carry it with us. That idea of listening to my family, listening to relatives talk around certain memories, but then constantly talk about memories helped me realize that the past is now, and how do we shape that? Whether we are writers or whatever we do in this world, how do we learn to accommodate our present and our future? How do we broaden the circle so that all of us who are outsiders just make a bigger outside circle?

Lev Golinkin: I experienced a lot of what the Viet said in the beginning, about people wanting to downplay being a refugee, and even often downplay being an immigrant. For a long time for me, I would just tell people I’m from New Jersey, and that’s it. They would ask, “Where are you from originally,” and I would just say, “East Windsor, New Jersey,” just to hammer it home. But, writing to me helped to make it real. Even just writing something on a piece of paper to me makes it more real. And as you said, the past is always there but for me, I tried to ignore the fact that it’s there and writing it helped me connect with it.

Lev Golinkin:  I don’t know if this covers a question though, but I found that writing about refugees, the thing that I felt behind me is that I was very careful, especially as the book became more of a reality, knowing that the things that I present would be reflected upon the others in the book. Even though it was still an issue of writing, for me more than anything in this particular instance, accuracy took place over anything else because I just couldn’t help but … I mean, it’s like, you know … I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing [inaudible 00:32:52].

Lev Golinkin: My parents, when they would see somebody writing by the Soviet Union and it was not quite right, they would go ballistic. It was like a person insult, so I felt I really didn’t want others to do that. To me, that superseded everything else in the writing process, being able to nail that down both for myself to understand my past and for others.

Viet Nguyen:  What’s interesting for me in all of that is that I think when we … Everybody is alienated, as you said. Everybody has some degree of feeling like an outsider at some point. But for most people who belong to a so called majority, that’s just an individual tick. Some ticks are so extreme that people become writers. I like to say that being a refugee was not a totally negative experience for me, because it gave me the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer, so I appreciate that.

Viet Nguyen: But, the thing about being a refugee or so called minority, is that your alienation is a structural condition, you have no choice in the matter. The irony of it all is that the artist of the so called majority can take their individual alienation and turn it into a universal experience, whereas we with our structurally imposed conditions of alienation are not allowed to be universal. We have to tell these stories, but they become identified with the refugee experience.

Viet Nguyen: Then in the example that you brought up Lev, all this weight is put on this representation that your parents will freak out if you get some detail wrong. That’s a very common experience, right? But if you’re a writer of the majority, no one cares if you get a detail wrong because people will assume, “That’s just artistic license.” But if we get something wrong, it’s not artistic license, it’s because we don’t know our history. You’ve forgotten your ancestors, or something like that. It points to the-

Lev Golinkin: Thousands of years have been destroyed thanks to you.

Viet Nguyen: Because you’ve got this little detail wrong or, you got the accent mark wrong, therefore you don’t know their language. It’s a structural inequity that we face, and a structural impossibility because then when we become writers, we assert the importance of having voices and all that, but we can’t change the structural conditions. So, refugees are perceived as being voiceless, they’re structurally silenced.

Viet Nguyen: All of a sudden you have these refugee writers, and then you become elevated to being the voices for the voiceless. You become representatives for your particular ethnic or national or refugee experiences, which is not an expectation put on other kinds of writers. I want to point this out because this book, The Displaced, exists exactly at this moment of contradiction for writers like us.

Viet Nguyen: People will buy this book because they’re like, “We want to learn more about all these refugee experiences, because these are the voices for the voiceless.” Then hopefully the essays are good, hopefully you’re swayed and moved emotionally by these essays, and then what happens? And then what happens? Nothing has changed. Simply because we wrote the essays and you’re moved by the essays, the structural conditions that have silenced refugees to begin with continue to exist.

Viet Nguyen: I just want to point it out because there’s we could do it, except to point it out and to say that we as writers cannot escape this, but we have to constantly point to this impossibility that we find ourselves in. And, that when we become writers we have been transformed to being something different than refugees. I bring this up because in both of your works, the question of transformation is really crucial. You both talk about what happens to a person when they become a refugee.

Viet Nguyen: Because, some people are born into being refugees like Palestinians, for example, but most refugees are not. They are citizens of some country, some calamity happens and then they are cast out and both of your works look at what happens once you’ve been cast out. For you, it’s actually the title of your essay, what the journey … This Is What the Journey Does. Then in the piece that you read Lev, you were talking about the moment you step across the threshold, you’ve become … you’ve finished the of becoming a refugee. I’m just wondering because the audience has not read the entirety of your essays, whether you can just elaborate upon what this journey is, what this transformation is that happens to refugees in your work.

Maaza Mengiste: In the essay, I’m basically just watching this young man walk across the street after he has his episode. But, what witnessing that made me think about was friends of mine who have made similar journeys, and how I know the ways that the journey has changed them. But, it’s interesting that there was a moment, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it as I was sitting there though. I was trying to gauge my reactions, which was a very physical reaction. I was flinching and I literally did feel a pain in my chest.

Maaza Mengiste: But then what felt like a stray thought landed and I thought, “Lazarus.” I was like, “Well, why am I thinking of Lazarus at this point with this man who is alive?” I just started jotting down some notes of well, Lazarus rose up from the dead, he was transformed. This is a story that we often tell of, this was a resurrection that actually, it worked. Jesus said, “Get up,” he got up and he lived. How many of us can hope for that? So I thought, “Okay, maybe that’s what happened. This is a second life.” Here is this young man, I know he’s a refugee. I can imagine what he’s gone through, I saw the scar on his head.

Maaza Mengiste: I’m thinking of Lazarus, but it wasn’t until I got back to the house, to my apartment that I said, “Well, let me just try to read the story of Lazarus now. I know this, I know this story but it’s been so long since I read the Bible.” I think this is where the transformation really happened for me in terms of as a writer, thinking about this, thinking about how we imagine. How I imagined refugees or migrants was in this story of Lazarus in John, the disciples I believe, and maybe Lazarus’ sisters come to tell Christ that, “Lazarus is very sick, he’s about to die, please come.”

Maaza Mengiste:  Forgive me. Christ could’ve saved him, but basically looked at as His, he doesn’t have a watch, but he looked and said, “We’re going to wait.” And so, He waited even though His disciples kept saying, “Isn’t this your beloved? Isn’t this man like your brother? Shouldn’t you go save him?” Waited until he died, and then went, and then resurrected Lazarus. So, two parts of this.

Maaza Mengiste: The one thing was, I was so pissed off reading the Bible when I found that out. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a part of the story that I never thought about before.” That this life became nothing but a symbol of some other person’s power and might. Forgive me if I’m offending anyone. But in that moment, I started thinking about how Lazarus really is in some ways, a refugee story. He became a symbol, the way that so many refugees, and migrants, and immigrants are continually used as symbols right now.

Maaza Mengiste: Then Lazarus makes this transformation into the land of the living. He never gets a voice in John, he never speaks. He’s completely silent, even though he is there. In fact, when Christ was … When the Sanhedrins wanted to crucify Christ, Lazarus was also their main target because while Jesus could say that He was the Son of God, it was Lazarus who rose from the dead and Lazarus proved a miracle. But, he never gets a voice. He’s just completely nothing but a tool, a pawn, and he’s silent.

Maaza Mengiste:  I started wondering, “Well, what was it like for him to come back alive?” He has been somewhere else for a number of days and then he’s come back into this land, and how he will always be a stranger. The love that his family has for him, or that his neighbors have for him is now tainted by where he came from. He never quite gets to shed this identity to become who he is, was. That for me felt like a story about migration as much as anything. I can talk more about it, but the idea of human beings as symbols is something that I think that we have to get past because as long as someone can convince us we are symbols and political symbols, it’s that much easier to get rid of any of us. We’re just on the wrong side of lines.

Lev Golinkin:  Well said. I was struck when you had the Lazarus comparison and so many … I mean look, we have this anthology and people from all over the place … We are from three different continents. I was struck by how many people like in my book use the image of becoming a ghost. To me that just came so naturally. Now, you have people from different religions, cultures, faiths, ages, genders and I think The Economist when they did the review, they said like almost half the people use the metaphor of becoming a ghost. From these completely separate experiences, but everybody … To me it was just so natural just like to you, it just came unbidden, you know?

Lev Golinkin: I think that’s for me one of the … I think it shows just how strong that is, because imagine what kind of experience you have where people from just completely, utterly different backgrounds all came to use that same metaphor. The thing that I always remind myself is as you say with Lazarus, people say America gives us new lives, and it doesn’t, it’s wonderful. But, what most people don’t understand is that in order to get a new life, you first have to have your old one destroyed.

Lev Golinkin: I get that a lot in politics, when they say, “These people come here,” blah, blah, blah, blah, and I am grateful for America. Most people are very grateful, but again, if you have this experience, it’s almost like if you had to run out of a burning building and you needed medical care, you could’ve had the best care and you could’ve been very satisfied. You could’ve had the best and be so grateful, but most people if they had to choose between going through that experience or never having to run out of a burning building, would most likely choose not to have to go through it.

Lev Golinkin: I think that’s one of the things that a lot of times people forget that refugees, even small ones, they get new lives but that’s because their old ones have been broken, sometimes with the involvement of the US you mentioned in the your opening.

Viet Nguyen: It’s absolutely right, that ghosts are a really strong theme in this collection, and I think it’s true for a couple of reasons. The first reason has to do with something that you raised Lev, which is the question of being visible or invisible. In your essay, you say that it’s better to stay invisible when you’re a refugee in a hostile country. The Austria, the Vienna that you’re painting is a hostile environment where there are young men with patches on their clothes.

Viet Nguyen:  You say, “Watch out for the young men with patches on their clothes, because they’re going to be the ones out there hunting you,” so you want to stay invisible and not be seen because if you’re visible, then you become a target and that’s what happens to refugees or other kinds of stigmatized populations, they’re visible as targets. And if they’re not visible as targets, they’re invisible. We don’t see them at all, those of us-

Lev Golinkin: Yeah, it’s one or-

Viet Nguyen: It’s one of the other. Now, you Maaza also raised issue, because you are in this café watching this young man, and he’s both visible and invisible at the same time, because he’s a … You say he’s a spectacle without an audience. I believe that’s what you said, because he is not behaving normally as people are supposed to, so he’s quite visible. But everybody’s ignoring him and trying their best to avoid him. To me, the idea of the spectacle without an audience is a metaphor for the refugees themselves. The refugees are a spectacle, which we don’t want to see for the most part. We’re not the audience for that until they become a crisis and then we have to confront that.

Viet Nguyen:  I think for you in particular, there’s this moment where you don’t want to see him. You don’t want to recognize him because you’re just in a café being a writer, in Italy, which is fantastic. We should all have that opportunity. Then all of a sudden, there’s this refugee which you identify as coming from your part of the world, and it makes you extremely uncomfortable I think at that moment, because you have to recognize him.

Maaza Mengiste: I mean, I had to acknowledge him in some way because we were the same, we are the same.

Lev Golinkin: Whether you want it or not right?

Maaza Mengiste: Whether we wanted to or not, and I think that was that initial reaction. The weird thing or interesting, symbolic thing about it was in order to see him, I had to see past my face reflected in the window, so I was constantly aware of myself looking at him. To see that scar was I think, one of the most painful encounters I’ve had.

Viet Nguyen:  But your essay, you know, as a writer I think what we’re called to do is to bear witness, to empathize, to recognize. When people are not recognized, it’s our job to recognize them, right? That’s what we do in the writing, and so in your essay, that moment of recognition is crucial. It’s a moral test, ethical test and so on. And Lev your essay, this idea of staying invisible, it’s not something that you yourself raise, but the implication is that for a lot of refugees, what they want to do, the lesson they learned is to become invisible. That’s why they don’t call themselves refugees or they forget the fact that they’re refugees.

Lev Golinkin: Oh yeah, it’s a safety measure. It’s the same as making sure if you go out into the cold weather, that you have a coat so you don’t freeze.

Viet Nguyen:  But, the unfortunate implication is that some former refugees will take this to the extreme and become opposed to new refugees. This is like the saddest thing for me, that there are a lot of former Vietnamese refugees out there. I’m just going to speak about them because I know my Vietnamese people. They’re like, “Well, we were the good refugees and these new people from south of the border,” or because they’re Arab, or Muslim, or whatever, “These are the bad refugees. We should not let them in, because they’re not going to be like us.”

Viet Nguyen: This is just taking the idea … They’ve learned the lesson of invisibility to a negative degree, because they refuse to recognize. They refuse to recognize the mutual humanity. In your cases it’s because there’s a very particular connection, but in a more in a broader sense, what your essay is about is also the human connection that we should all make and refugees should recognize all refugees, not just refugees of their own background. I think there’s very serious ethical and political implications wrapped up in this moment of visibility and invisibility.

Viet Nguyen:  Now, the other reason why ghosts become important I think, is because of death, because of death. What do you say in your essay Maaza? You say that, “The journey is designed to test the body’s resilience. Its intent is to break a human being and rearrange them inside. You do not arrive the same as when you left.” Now, that’s for the survivors. But, so many people don’t survive the refugee journey. The so called boat people from Vietnam, a term I despise by the way, because it is a stigmatizing term, it’s an objectifying term. I prefer oceanic refugees, or just call them heroes, because that’s what they did.

Viet Nguyen: Many of these people took to the open seas, knowing that their odds of survival or were 50% or less. Half the people didn’t make it in this journey, and that’s not unusual. I think those people who survived the trip, the journey, know that they might’ve been those people who died. So, is that true? Is there an element of survivor’s guilt? Is there a sense of parallel universes that you are occupying a very particular kind of existence purely by luck?

Maaza Mengiste: Yes, yes. I mean, I feel like I’m very lucky. But it’s also, I think I’ve grown up with this sense that you make your life worth it. You make your life worth the sacrifices that I know my parents made, my grandparents made, cousins made. You know, to become an immigrant, to become a refugee, to leave somewhere, sometimes it’s not … It’s never just an individual experience. It’s something that uproots an entire family, destroys different kinds of communities back in the land of origin so that those places are never the same again either.

Maaza Mengiste: Those places have to accommodate absences, and they accommodate. My grandparents accommodated our absence in different ways, meaning they have to work harder. Suddenly the ideas of having children who would take care of you when you’re older, that’s gone when people become refugees, or move as migrants. So, there is that sense. You’re carrying, or I’m carrying that weight.

Maaza Mengiste: But also, in listening to the stories of my friends who made the trek through Libya, who were in those detention centers, who survived the ships, they survived the Mediterranean, watched friends drown in the Mediterranean if they weren’t already killed in the detention centers, or on the way in the Sahara. That sense of guilt that you’re talking about is so pervasive, that your life is no longer your own. I mean, speaking of all the systems and the levels of the barriers that exist, not just politically or systematically, but internally that are there.

Maaza Mengiste: There’s a very good friend of mine who made this journey, is now a filmmaker in Italy. He made this film documentary about his experience, and it’s in English, Like a man on earth, and you can find it on YouTube. There’s a moment in this documentary where he puts the camera on himself and he calls from a phone, a payphone in Italy to a friend of his who was still stuck in the detention center because they’re trying to get people out, and this is what groups of people do.

Maaza Mengiste: If you make it to the other side, than the job that you get, whatever money not only are you sending back family, but you’re trying to pay human traffickers to get these people out. It’s a really poignant moment and painful, where he calls his friend who didn’t make the boat, picks up the phone and he’s talking to him. He’s saying, “I’m going to send you money,” and his friend said, “Where am I?” You just see, you just realize what happens there. So yeah, it’s … I don’t even remember your question Viet now, but this sense that it’s not just you, that you contain worlds and communities wherever you move, which is why when we feel isolated it’s kind of bogus. But, it’s the same for refugees, the ones I’m talking about now, but also for me.

Lev Golinkin:  I’m also very clear when I write. Compared to a lot of the other experiences, what we went through was a refugee deluxe. We didn’t flee a war zone, we did stay in the refugee camps for six months. There is a lot of sense there, but I … For me, a lot of the guilt, and I think all of us came here very young. So for me, some of the guilt was … I mean, I think that age is by far the number one factor of how successful you can be when you come here. The assembly of being able to pick up the language of just … To me, the guilt was towards older members of my family, because I saw myself immediately …

Lev Golinkin: One of the things immigration in general and being a refugee as well does is, a lot of the times it turns children into adults and adults into children. I think anybody who’s ever worked in a law office, or a doctor office or a bank, knows what it’s like to have a family with a 12-year-old come in who’s doing the translating and making all the decisions. So, I think for me one [crosstalk 00:55:12].

Viet Nguyen: It’s a shared experience.

Lev Golinkin: Yeah, yeah. I think for me, one of the guilts was, I didn’t like seeing my parents helpless. That was one of the things I hated the most. I felt this breathing down my neck, just to make sure to keep their dignity and their sacrifices, especially when it became very obvious that I was adapting much quicker just because of my age than them.

Viet Nguyen:  It’s time for questions from the audience, but I’d like to have us give a hand to Lev and Maaza. We have about 15 for questions from the audience. Are there microphones for the audience? If you can just raise your hand, and someone will come to you with a microphone. Please make it a question, and hopefully less than 30 seconds.

Speaker 6: Hi, I have a question about language. I’m curious what your relationships are with the languages of your native country and how that impacts your writing work.

Lev Golinkin: Okay. I speak English with an accent. I’ve been here so long that I now speak Russian with an American accent. I was in Brooklyn a while ago and I remember this old Russian lady thought that was an American who learned really well and it felt so disappointing, and I speak Ukrainian like a 10-year-old. So, I don’t have a language I speak without an accent, which is kind of weird.

Maaza Mengiste: Most of my education was in English, so it’s still … It’s been my language as much as anything else. My Amharic is okay, but I’m much easier in English.

Viet Nguyen:  Well, I write only in English unless it’s guilty emails to my father in Vietnamese, which I have to do because he’s hard of hearing, so otherwise I’m screaming at him over the phone in Vietnamese. But you know, it’s a complicated relationship because while my Vietnamese is sort of arrested at a very relatively low level, I grew up in a Vietnamese language community, so constantly exposed to Vietnamese in church, on music videos, at weddings and things like this and I know the tones and all that other stuff.

Viet Nguyen:  So, my relationship to English is actually filtered a little bit through this so called minor language. It’s not very evident in this essay in The Displaced, but in a novel like The Sympathizer, I put intense pressure on that language in English for two reasons. One of it was because I tried to look at English from the outside from the perspective of someone who didn’t wholly belong to English, and that was made possible by my exposure to Vietnamese. Then the other relationship to Vietnamese is sort of a negative one, which is that I was aware that if I wrote in Vietnamese, which some people expect me to do.

Viet Nguyen: Everywhere I go, usually somebody will ask, “So, do you write in Vietnamese?” I came here when I was four so that’s very unlikely. But if I actually were to write in Vietnamese, the problem would be that no one would read the work. I mean, the Vietnamese people would read the word, which is no one, because it doesn’t count. Only 3% of the books published in this country are translations. Then almost all those translations, or maybe all those translations are from other countries.

Viet Nguyen: So, what happens if you are a writer in the United States, writing in a language other than English, which is actually a pretty common thing? You don’t get translated. So if I were to write in Vietnamese, no one would read it. The irony is that in writing in English, more people would read my work about Vietnam than if I were to write in Vietnamese. That’s a condition of power, structural inequality, the silencing of refugees and the silencing of countries outside of the United States, which is important only to the extent that the United States has so much power to broadcast its stories all over the world. So ironically, writing in English meant for me that my work would be translated into dozens of languages and if I wrote in Vietnamese, that would not be the case.

Viet Nguyen: Another question, maybe from this side of there’s somebody. Yeah.

Speaker 7: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. Oh, sorry. Hi, thanks so much for doing this. Lev, there was something that you just mentioned about dignity and watching your parents go through this. Like Viet, I came to the US as a refugee from Vietnam as a oceanic migrant, or whatever you want to call it. I remember growing up not only having to understand and translate the culture, but also watching how my parents were treated and having them do very menial things, then the shame of receiving support, but also just how we were treated.

Speaker 7:  I just want to talk about that idea of shame and then dignity, which you mentioned. How does that experience shape how you write and how you think about being a refugee? Usually we talk about it in terms of the journey, and not necessarily what happens when you get here, and that sense of shame and trying to not be so invisible and treated that way.

Lev Golinkin: That was one of the big impetuses for the book. I mean, watching the way that Americans especially treated my mom, I would want to, especially when I was still young and I didn’t have the … I had the language to understand the shame, but not enough to explain it and all I wanted to do is just dunk them in her experiences. That was a very big impetus for what I … I wanted to take an American to dunk them into what my mom went through. That’s probably the biggest impetus for me in writing this book. If not the biggest, than the second biggest?

Maaza Mengiste: I mean, yes. Suddenly you’re surrounded by all the things you don’t know, and there’s no one there to tell you how to do it, it’s really to point out that you don’t know those things. So yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I understand that. But the one thing also that I was thinking when you were talking, was this idea that what happens with that shame is also, it comes from a refusal to imagine that someone could move beyond and not knowing, to a knowingness, if I’m making sense.

Maaza Mengiste: When we think about refugees, the stereotype that comes to mind is people always in that place of shame and confusion. Lev’s story, I mean the essay, what I really loved about it was that moment when here’s a father taking his son to go into a museum. For Lev, the little boy Lev, this is when he realizes that he’s a refugee. But, I’m imagining a refugee walking into that museum and suddenly, your imagination can be free in that space as well. That suddenly this thing that nobody wants to admit that you have, which is an interiority and an interior life, and maybe a love for paintings or maybe the talent to paint, suddenly can come alive in there. We don’t think about those things beyond the shame, which is what makes … it compounds that feeling of isolation and horror that you’re talking about?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that dynamic between shame and dignity that you bring up is a very compelling reason why so many writers from so called minority populations or refugees do become writers, because we look back and we recognize that part of the reason we’re angry is because we’ve seen our families and our communities shamed. But beyond that, we remember our shame about our own families and communities. This moment of going to the museum, you don’t bring it up necessarily, but that’s [inaudible 01:03:58] type of moment where you might feel ashamed of your parents, for example, for being somehow less than adequate in that moment. Looking back on that shame, we feel regret and then we become writers and say, “We’re going to dignify our populations.”

Lev Golinkin: Get out of my head man.

Viet Nguyen:  Oh, is that what happened? Is that the dynamic? We want to give them dignity. That’s powerful, it’s a powerful motivation to write and it lends beauty to stories, but I will say that there’s a very strong cautionary note to this, which is that we can be crippled by our rejection of our shame, and by our desire for dignity. Because, again, I’ll talk about Vietnamese people since I know them and I can say certain things.

Viet Nguyen: If you look at the experiences of Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese people, we were not always dignified. We did some terrible things to each other. So, what does it mean to render a community with dignity? Does it mean that we ignore all the terrible stuff that happened within our families, within our households, within our communities? Our obligation as writers is not simply the dignity, that’s an important part, but our obligation is to the truth of the entire experience and the truth of the entire experience for refugees oftentimes, is that they’ve been damaged and traumatized by their experiences.

Viet Nguyen: They don’t become better human beings necessarily as a result, sometimes they become terrible human beings as a result. We have to talk about that as well, and so dignity has to be understood in a complex way. To give dignity to a community means to give them the dignity of being fully flawed human beings, and that’s hard to do sometimes as writers.

Maaza Mengiste: I see Lily. I just wanted to share a very quick story. A friend of mine who lived in a refugee camp in Sudan before fleeing and going to Saudi Arabia, which was another hell talked about the idea that he lived in this camp and the person, the man next to him and the tent had these sexual fetishes and he’s like, “Nobody talks about this. Nobody talks about the things that you carry with you.”

Maaza Mengiste: If you are one kind of person at home, you are the same kind of person in a tent, it doesn’t matter. If you have that sexual fetish … I didn’t ask what the guy had. But if you had that at home, you’re going to bring it with you, and who knows what happens there? If you’re annoyed because your partner’s constantly leaving a mess in the house, imagine what it’s like when you’re in the tent. It compounds, but it doesn’t necessarily change. I just wanted to … You know, speaking of dignity and all these things, that people are complicated and it can be really bizarre too.

Lev Golinkin: Yeah, what both of … I mean, it’s a weird thing. When I was writing, people tend … Treating all refugees as these saintly figures dehumanizes and treated them like children just as much as saying that they’re an infestation, or whatever. There were a couple of people that I would change their name in my book, but I almost gave them the right to be an asshole. You know what I mean? It’s like, if somebody was a jerk before, the experience didn’t make them better. I think it’s so accurate to be able to say that.

Viet Nguyen: Are we out of time? One more question? Okay. Yes, this gentleman here.

Speaker 8: Maaza, I really related to what you were saying about looking for information about the Ethiopian Revolution as a child and not finding any being Nigerian myself and nobody talks about the Biafran War. I was wondering if you all could talk about as storytellers, excavating national trauma that your communities try to very much in many ways, sort of suppress or not talk about for a variety of reasons.

Lev Golinkin: Yeah, I mean, there’s a … The Soviet Union, they controlled history. They realize it was one of the most important things to do, so so much of it was … After the Soviet Union collapsed and years, years later, people finally started looking at the past. I think that’s also one of the … One of the most empowering things for me was being able when I wrote about the past in the book, it felt like I was reclaiming it because if somebody steals your story, and the Soviet Union and the Kremlin, they got it down to a T where they took away people’s culture, heritage and story. To me, that’s one of the most empowering things to be able to do, to grab it and to present it back.

Maaza Mengiste:  I think stories also come after trauma like you’re talking about, might sometimes take a generation, because the people that are directly impacted by that, they need that distance. And so, it takes sometimes the children, but it’s often the grandchildren who become interested and have enough curiosity to go dig back into it. So, it does take time because now we know these stories are coming out. There are other writers coming up who are doing the work about the Biafran, about Ethiopia and so on.

Maaza Mengiste: I can imagine now, I mean, let’s just move this into the present day, that these concentration camps that are set up by the Trump administration right now, those children will be writers. There will be some in there who will survive and start telling their stories. God help us when they do, but that is one of the only things that gives me hope in this, that someone will write, that the word is still going to survive.

Viet Nguyen: That experience of not being seen in the archive, or in the library, or on the movie screen or TV screen is common for all of us who are so called minorities of one kind or another. We’ve been stung by the lack of representation, or under representation or misrepresentation, so we hunger for that. That’s one of the reasons why we become writers. It’s like, “Okay, our stories are missing, we’re going to write these stories.” In the interim before we can write our stories, sometimes we benefit from being next to someone who was running the story kind of like ours, so you were looking at other kinds of traumatic histories, for example.

Viet Nguyen: When I was 18 and I read The Joy Luck Club for the first time, I was like, “Awesome. Not really me, but close enough, close enough.” So, then we become writers and we write our own stories. What happened to me was that I wanted to write these Vietnamese refugee stories, but I was such a slow writer so that in the 1980s and 1990s, I could legitimately look around and say, “There are no Vietnamese refugee stories.” By the time I finished my refugee story collection, there was already like two dozen Vietnamese publishers. I was like, “I was too damn slow, I’m not the first one out the gate.”

Viet Nguyen: But that was very liberating because then to address your question, really what it freed me to do was to write a book in The Sympathizer, that was not representative. When there is nothing out there, you think that, “I have to be representative. I have to give them dignity, I have to write the entire history,” and all that kind of stuff. When you don’t have to be representative, it’s really liberating because you can just see your story is one among many stories. That’s a true luxury.

Viet Nguyen: What that allowed me to do was not to worry about dignity or representation. What it allowed me to do was offend everybody, which is what every writer should really try to do. Let’s end on that note. One round of applause again for our contributors, and then we have one more [inaudible 01:11:12].

Speaker 9:  All very, very difficult acts to follow. I’m a member of the International Rescue Committee. My name is [John Efonse 01:11:29]. I work for an organization that supports people like those sitting here, and the countless millions around the world that you don’t get to see their faces of. You hear the stories, if you’re lucky you get to hear about them in the news when there’s space carved out for them. So, it’s a real honor to be here and I just want to thank you all, everyone, Jamison, PEN America. Thank you so much for giving IRC and myself a forum to say thank you and to put stories and faces to names, to the people that we’d never get to say, thank you.

Speaker 9:   I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that we are incredibly grateful for the partnership we have with Abrams Books whose … I mean, every time somebody buys a copy The Displaced, that’s a donation to the IRC and our work. We are in over 40 countries around the world delivering services that save lives, that help people and we’re in over 24 US cities. We’re the largest resettlement agency in the United States right now, which saying right now, we’re not doing so much as a country. To be the most impactful in a very not impactful space is a little bit tricky, but we still do what we can.

Speaker 9:  When we resettle all of our clients, we provide services that relate to empowering them, helping them find jobs, welcoming them at the airports, Everything that you would want a community center to do for you as an individual, we do for people who are lost, who feel like ghosts in their own home, or not in their own home, but very far from home. On average, somebody who is displaced now is displaced for over 20 years. That was 11 years last year when I gave a very similar conversation about this at an event, at BookCon with Viet. It was wonderful.

Speaker 9: The situation is challenging, but the hope is there, and I really just seeing a room full of people like this, really engaged in the stories, willing to have conversations is really inspiring. I thank you all for being here and thank you to the panelists again, thank you.

Jamison Stoltz:  Just one thing, is that 10% of the royalties for both the hardcover and the paperback do go to International Rescue Commission sorry.

Speaker 9:  Committee.

Jamison Stoltz: Committee, I’m sorry. IRC, that’s easier for me to remember.

Speaker 1:  I’m just going to close very quickly. I just wanted to share a line from Viet’s introduction to The Displaced that’s really stuck with me to close this event and our season as well. It says, “Literature changes the world of readers and writers, but literature does not change the world until people get out of their chairs, go out in the world and do something to transform the conditions of which the literature speaks.” Tonight we want to invite you to get out of your chairs, come meet the authors, get a book signed, and then go out into the world. Thank you all.

Category: Interviews

 

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