Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

PBS-Serica | Exploring Hate: “be/longing: Asian Americans Now,” [Episode 1: Viet Thanh Nguyen]

What does it mean to belong?  

During the pandemic, misinformation about the coronavirus contributed to an alarming spike in racial violence against Asian Americans. The pandemic became an excuse for anti-Asian xenophobia, drawing attention to a painful reality. In this country, Asian Americans — even when born and raised here — often are viewed and treated as perpetual foreigners. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, be/longing: Asian Americans Now profiles Asian American trailblazers from across the country in five stories of belonging and exclusion; resilience and hope; and solidarity in the face of hate for PBS-Serica.

Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee when he was four years old.  Today Nguyen is a college professor and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer. He discusses his lifelong feelings of displacement, the resilience of the refugee, and why telling stories is not only his craft but his mission. Part 1 of our 5-part series be/longing: Asian Americans Now

read the transcription below.

I’m Viet Thanh Nguyen. I’m a writer and a refugee from Vietnam. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in San Jose, California, with parents who were refugees, struggling to survive and make a life for themselves in the United States. It was a really hard existence emotionally, physically, for my parents, and then also, therefore, for their children.

Stories were my escape from this world of difficulty and struggle that I saw happening all around me. A seed was planted in my mind that maybe I could one day be a writer and give gifts to other readers as gifts have been given to me. Beyond the question of escapism and art, there was also a sense of mission that developed over time that I would also use storytelling and writing to make an intervention in the world in terms of how we think about refugees, how we think about war, how we think about the United States and Vietnam. Like so many other so-called minorities in this country and in other countries, we have been silenced. People have refused to hear our stories and what we’re saying. We see how important stories are to national identity, to the national narrative. When someone says, “Make America Great Again,” that’s four words that tells an incredibly powerful story that a lot of Americans believe in, and a story in which people who are Asian Americans are excluded from typically. So we actually DO need our narratives, we need our storytellers, we need our writers because one of the ways that we defend ourselves is by contesting the national story that excludes us.

The structure of my writing is whenever I can get it done – between parenting and teaching and giving interviews, for example; but also realizing that writing is not just the words that we put onto a page. Writing is also, I think, thinking, preparing, taking notes, doing outlines; so all of that is writing.

If I was not a writer, then I think that I would do something that demanded that kind of spiritual engagement; something in which what I was doing brought my whole body and soul into the practice.

I pulled the covers up to my nose, the way I used to in my early years in America, when creatures not only lurked in the hallway but also roamed outside. My mother and father always peek through the living room curtains before answering any knock, afraid of our young countrymen. Boys who had learned about violence from growing up in wartime. My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said: that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings, except our stories.

Growing up among refugees, I had the sense that we were dispossessed. We had lost our country. We were trying to find a new country or trying to find our place in this country. And the only thing that I could do was to tell stories.

I think being a refugee has given me the requisite emotional damage necessary to become a writer. And I’ve done my best to pass on that damage to my son. So like many other little boys, he loves Legos. he was always asking for Legos, so I tell him, ‘No, you can’t have those Legos. And do you know why?’ And he’ll think about it for a moment, and he’ll say, ‘because you’re a refugee?’ And it’s like, ‘That’s right.’ I want him to know that both of his parents and all four of his grandparents are refugees because I want him to have empathy for refugees.

We need empathy to be writers. We need empathy to be good readers as well. And of course, empathy makes us, transports us into the places of other people who we may be very unfamiliar with.

It certainly was a shock to win a Pulitzer Prize, and obviously one of the great things about winning one is that my father finally acknowledged what it is that I was doing. He called me up and said, “the villagers in Vietnam called, You won the Pulitzer Prize!” You know, that’s how he found out. And so I do take it seriously that people will pay attention to what I’m saying simply because I won a Pulitzer Prize. And that’s an opportunity, but also a responsibility.

One of the experiences of marginalization is to feel that one is separate and isolated from other populations; and to be invested only in one’s own representation, in one’s own interest, in one’s own uplift. And my feeling is that, while it could be possible that we uplift ourselves, that in order to truly liberate ourselves, we actually have to make sure we liberate everyone. And that’s actually much more difficult project for people to imagine.


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