Guernica Magazine

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Writing to Re-member

The author discusses the refugee crisis, US foreign policy, and the problem of ‘narrative scarcity’ for marginalized and minority populations. The post Viet Thanh Nguyen: Writing to Re-member appeared first on Guernica.
Photo by BeBe Jacobs

Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of our era’s most powerful chroniclers of capitalism, war, and the refugee experience. A writer, scholar, and professor, he has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur fellowship. But Nguyen pushes back against the notion of exceptional genius, emphasizing instead his role in a long tradition of Asian American voices “speaking up and speaking out against inequality and for justice.”

Nguyen first came to the United States in 1975 when the Vietnam War displaced his family, and he continues to identify as a refugee in solidarity with those currently fleeing violence only to be vilified and denied safe haven at borders. His novel The Sympathizer, written from the perspective of an ambivalent Vietnamese double agent, dismantles dominant American narratives about the war, and his short story collection The Refugees shatters the traditional idea of the “immigrant success story.” His non-fiction, including Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, asks questions about global inequality, historical trauma, and the possibilities of ethical representation.

I met Nguyen during his visit to the University of Vermont, where I teach postcolonial literature, in November 2018. In a packed public lecture, the author deftly tackled racist stereotypes, disinformation about the Vietnam War, and the outlandish pressures placed on the children of immigrants.

Wanting to continue the conversation, I asked Nguyen for an interview and we talked by phone earlier this spring. We discussed his personal experience as a war refugee, the causal connections between US foreign policy and the refugee crisis, and the problem of “narrative scarcity” for marginalized and minority populations. While clear-sighted about the scale of the challenge, Nguyen did not dismiss the possibility of progressive social change, highlighting a central message of The Sympathizer: “we have hope only if we recognize just how difficult the world is.”

— University of Vermont Associate Professor Helen Scott for Guernica

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