Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Datebook | ‘Native son of Silicon Valley,’ Pulitzer-winning author remains true to his multifaceted nature in memoir

On a grim, rainy Friday in October, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen is impressively collected and calm as he sits for an interview, despite a storm that’s brewing around him for Datebook

He’s in New York to promote his latest book, “A Man of Two Faces,” a brilliant, unconventional memoir that splices together elegy, images, voids and other fragments to tell his life story. And he’s about to make international headlines as 92NY, the host of his Manhattan book event that very night, cancels the engagement due to his signing of an open letter demanding an end to violence in Palestine.

“I’m deeply skeptical of nationalism, of nations,” he tells the Chronicle, seated in a New York hotel lobby. “Nations and nationalisms are the sites of the feelings of war and division. Art should be about overcoming divisions. Art should be against war.”

In this moment, Nguyen is speaking about his work as a builder of literary community, creating bridges between fellow Vietnamese American writers and their peers in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia as co-founder of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. But his words carry particular weight, considering the timing and circumstances. 

War is central to Nguyen’s work — he’s “obsessed by war and refugee experiences,” he says. When he was 4, he and his family fled war-torn Vietnam as refugees and eventually resettled in San Jose, where he grew up as “a native son of the Silicon Valley,” as he writes.

“The Sympathizer,” his 2015 debut novel that won him the Pulitzer and is being adapted into an HBO drama, requires readers — especially Americans — to question well-trodden Vietnam War narratives based on previous films and books. 

At the University of Southern California, where he is a professor, he teaches a multidisciplinary course called “The American War in Vietnam.” As an author, editor and speaker, he has consistently spoken out in support of refugees like himself and provided platforms for their voices. 

The many facets of these interests and his experiences all manage to find a home in “A Man of Two Faces.”

“My memories are fractured,” he says, explaining the unusual form of his memoir, a surprisingly quick read that frequently uses unconventional line breaks, font size variations and white space. “The Vietnamese refugee community is fractured. We exist because we’ve been blown up by history. So I didn’t want the memoir to give a sense of cohesion and conclusion to the Vietnamese refugee experience that I don’t think exists.”

While Nguyen writes clearly and earnestly about war’s devastation, especially for his parents, he also deploys humor and absurdity in unexpected ways throughout the book.

“You speak out often because apparently you are good at 
giving voice to the previously voiceless 
as the New York Times describes The Sympathizer,” he writes in reference to himself, 
setting off the middle of the sentence in larger type. 
“Dear reader,” he continues, interjecting. “Have you ever been to a Vietnamese
restaurant, wedding banquet, or family gathering? If not, your loss. If so, you know that
Vietnamese people are not voiceless!
They are really, really loud!” 

This passage ends in comically large text.

“Humor is how people survive,” Nguyen explains over the roar of a vacuum cleaner in his hotel lobby. “There’s absurdity to the political conditions that give rise to refugees, which oftentimes are due to contradictions, like the United States is a defender of freedom and democracy, yet it goes to war and displaces all kinds of people. That’s absurd. Hopefully, we can find some humor in the absurd.”

The tonal shifts of the book — at times heartbreaking, other times hilarious — underscore Nguyen’s belief that there are a multitude of ways to tell Vietnamese American stories, which has been a critical part of his work as an organizer.

“Viet is very aware of his positionality (as a Pulitzer-winning author), and he is using his name to uplift other writers,” says DVAN co-founder and executive director Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, in a separate interview via Zoom from San Francisco.

Pelaud first befriended Nguyen when they were undergraduate students at UC Berkeley in the 1990s. At the time, the two were involved in a literary magazine that published the work of Vietnamese students. 

“As we became tenured professors later in our careers, we didn’t see our communities reflected in academia and the arts,” Pelaud, now a professor at San Francisco State, adds. This absence inspired them to start DVAN in 2007, which has since become a nonprofit that publishes a respected literary journal called diaCritics. 

Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, pictured in 2016 at City Lights Bookstore, is back in town to discuss his new memoir, “A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial.”Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

She makes sure to note that Nguyen has funded diaCritics for multiple years by sharing $100,000 of his MacArthur Fellowship stipend. “Some people don’t make the time to align their ideals and their practice, but Viet walks the walk,” Pelaud says.

If writing the memoir was an act of self-examination for Nguyen, promoting the book is proving to be an exercise in staying true to himself. 

“I spent my adulthood learning how to be very professional, very sensible,” he says. “But then I spent most of my 30s and 40s trying to unlearn all of that professionalism and go back to youthful, passionate foolhardiness to believe that what I could do (as an artist) can actually change the world.

“I like to be reminded of the purity of that passion — that’s what I should be aiming for.”


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