Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

How a Pulitzer Prize shifted Viet Thanh Nguyen’s family conversations

Viet Thanh Nguyen dicusses money, body image, and sex with Benjamin Law in this interview for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we’re told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they’re given. This week, he talks to Viet Thanh Nguyen. The American writer, 50, is the author of the short-story collection The Refugees. His latest book, The Committed, is a sequel to his novel The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: “I spent most of my earlier life being a writer and academic. I invested all my time in my brain, which meant I was not very physically fit.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen: “I spent most of my earlier life being a writer and academic. I invested all my time in my brain, which meant I was not very physically fit.”CREDIT:GETTY IMAGES


What are you liking and disliking about hitting 50? The number itself is very depressing, but every other aspect of my life is pretty good, and better than it’s ever been in the past. There’s been wisdom. There’s been literary success. There’s been fatherhood: my first child was born when I was 42 and my last one at 48. And I’m in the best physical shape of my life.

So many people are physically demolished by parenthood. Are you physically fit despite parenthood – or because of it? I spent most of my earlier life being a writer and academic. I invested all my time in my brain, which meant I was not very physically fit. I finished the first draft of The Sympathizer days before my first son was born. Around that time, I decided I have to get in shape for all of this. So I dropped down to my college weight and started running. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, I’ve [now] gained 20 pounds [nine kilograms]. But I’m still strong enough to carry my children in my arms. And I can beat my eight-year-old son at tag.

What is your worst habit? Either midnight snacking or midnight drinking. Take your pick. I do both. When I was writing The Sympathizer, I would take a combination of scotch and Ambien [sleep medication] to help me sleep at night. It worked great. But the problem was I’d end up eating and drinking and totally forgetting about it. The next morning, I would be like, “Wow, what happened to all the chips and whisky?” Now I do it without the Ambien.


When you and your family fled Vietnam as refugees for the US in 1975, your family lost a fortune. What kind of fortune? My parents were born poor and didn’t have very much education. They basically had to work their way up. But they were very entrepreneurial, talented and driven and, by 1975, they had become very successful small businesspeople [with a jewellery and motorbike parts store, among others]. They owned their own home and their own car – which was very rare in Vietnam back then. They were lucky in that they were able to sew gold into their clothes – the typical kind of Asian refugee story – and come to the United States with something, which is better than nothing. But they also then had to rebuild everything.

The stereotype is that Asian parents expect us to be certain things: architects, engineers, doctors. You’ve pursued academia and writing. What have those conversations been like with your parents? My older brother became a medical doctor; he also went to Harvard and Stanford, so he set a very high bar. When I said I was going to get a doctorate, they were like, “Well, it’s not a medical doctorate, but at least it’s a doctorate.” Telling them I was a writer was just going too far, because there was no way to explain what a writer was in terms of a job or income or anything like that, so being a professor was my day job. The Pulitzer Prize changed all of that.

In financial terms, too? Absolutely. There’s a huge boost in book sales. And strangely enough, it opened up a whole new career for me – as a public speaker. I had to give a lot of interviews and speeches. And, as it turned out, I was actually pretty good at it. Which has been interesting because I grew up never saying a word.

In your writing, you interrogate – and mock – both capitalism and communism. Where does that leave you personally? I have a contradictory relationship with money because I really do believe that we should share the wealth. I’m all for that. Tax me more: I don’t have a problem with that. At the same time, being raised in a refugee bourgeois household, I also absorbed some bourgeois and capitalistic values. It’s a huge contradiction. But having been caught up in war and colonisation means I’m always trying to be self-critical. I have a lot of critical things to say about Vietnam, communism, America, capitalism and – in the novel The Committed – France and colonialism.


What misconceptions did you have about sex when you were growing up? What misconceptions didn’t I have? I grew up Catholic and Vietnamese. Both of them are conservative. Put them together, [you wind up] really conservative. I was basically f…ed up and very repressed. For a long time I had no language in either Vietnamese or English for any parts of the body. In fifth grade, this girl, my classmate, said “penis” to me and I was like, “What’s that?” So that is me and sex. I’m still recovering.

Did you feel attractive growing up? Attractive? No, I felt ugly. I started wearing glasses in the second grade. I went to Catholic school and had very few clothes outside the Catholic school uniforms. Looking at my pictures, I could say I was reasonably cute until about sixth grade, then adolescence hit and it just got ugly – real bad. That whole childhood insecurity has never gone away. On the one hand, people say positive stuff about my appearance; inside, I’m like, “Mmm, not true.”

What does it take to write a good sex scene? Not overdoing it. Being conscious of the language. Not being utterly male-centred, if you happen to be a man or masculine. Not being too vulgar. Don’t be too florid. And humour always helps. Frankly, I think that my sex scene in The Sympathizer – where my narrator loses his virginity to a squid – is a great sex scene. You don’t see it coming, and people don’t forget it.


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