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Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen reads from Pulitzer novel and tells refugee stories in Salt Lake City

Published March 7, 2017 10:00 am

Pulitzer Prize winner's fictions tell of the reality of being people of "two minds."
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Viet Thanh Nguyen knows not many English professors find themselves chatting up Seth Meyers, as he did last month, clarifying the distinction between refugees and immigrants for the late-night audience.

It gave the writer the chance to spin about his latest book, a collection of literary stories released in February, "The Refugees." The late-night appearance might signify the "peak of my coolness," he says, as it certainly impressed his young nieces and nephews.

But then, not many academics win Pulitzers for their debut novel, either, as Nguyen did last year for "The Sympathizer," making him the first-ever Vietnamese American writer to win the fiction prize. Also unique is that the literary novel also earned genre distinctions, in the form of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for best first novel.



Nguyen, 45, a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, will read and discuss his books in Salt Lake City on Thursday and Friday.

"The Sympathizer" launches its story with a memorable first line, spoken by his particularly memorable narrator. "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces," says the unnamed Vietnamese-French man, who readers learn is a Viet Cong spy who also happens to be serving as an aide to a South Vietnamese general. "Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds."

In Salt Lake City, Nguyen says he'll read from the first story in his collection, "Black-Eyed Women," which unfolds many of the collection's themes, told by a wide variety of refugee characters. The story's narrator is employed as a ghost writer. She is vividly reminded of her family's flight from Vietnam when her mother introduces her to the ghost of her brother, who died on the boat.

As a new presidential administration sets stringent immigration policies, Nguyen says it's important for Americans to understand the distinction between refugees, who are forced to leave their homelands, and immigrants, who have some kind of choice.

The idea of immigrants might be threatening, but they have important chapters in the history of what citizens think of as the American Dream. In contrast, refugees are unwanted in wherever place they come from, and they're unwanted wherever they arrive, he says. And their presence brings with them this fear of contamination, a reminder that citizens of the host country may be just one disaster away from becoming displaced themselves.

The writer's nearly 4-year-old son helps remind him of himself as a 4-year-old in 1975, when his family fled the Viet Cong along with scores of other South Vietnamese. His first memories are of being temporarily split from his family in a Pennsylvania resettlement camp, as no sponsor would take in a family of four.

Eventually, his family settled in San Jose, Calif., where his parents worked long hours operating a Vietnamese grocery, and after his older brother left for college, Nguyen spent most of his time alone, not fitting in with his peers, which contributed to his lifelong feelings of dislocation and in-betweenness.

Although most of his fiction isn't autobiographical, Nguyen's characters are all refugees who remain shadowed by their past, haunted by emotional post-traumatic stress. They aren't particularly interested in confronting their traumas, even if they had the vocabulary or resources to do so.

And with their dual identities, his characters are complicated, just like the rest of literary Americans. "We all are flawed human beings, and we have masks of humanity and we have inner savagery," the writer said to Newsweek writer Josh Saul. "We're not virtuous; none of us are."

His work reminds readers of the important contributions immigrants and refugees make to American culture, as well as the ethical charge to remember other combatants and victims of our wars, says poet Paisley Rekdal, an English professor at the University of Utah who helped arrange Nguyen's readings. (Rekdal met Nguyen in 2012 while both were in Hanoi; her upcoming book, "The Broken Country: On Trauma, A Crime and the Continuing Legacy of the Vietnam War," will be published this fall by the University of Georgia Press.)

"In an age where many of our politicians insist that we should stand alone and for ourselves, Nguyen's writing argues that our global policies and conflicts — as well as our trading policies — bind us to each other, even if sometimes uncomfortably," Rekdal says.

Nguyen acknowledges that winning the Pulitzer changed other people's perception of his work and launched him into becoming something of a national spokesman for Vietnamese people.

Just like his characters, he's of two minds about that kind of attention. As an academic, he's suspicious of the politics of representation, of the idea that any one voice could represent the diversity of cultural experiences. Yet he thinks it's important to take advantage of the opportunity to express a different version of American's recent past.

"It's weird because I have not gotten more outspoken. I have not changed my opinions in any way; I have not changed my personality, but people want to know what I have to say. The platform has expanded, but I'm saying the same things," Nguyen told an Orange Coast Magazine writer earlier this year.

For "The Refugees," he and his agent pulled together eight stories from those that he has published over the past 17 years, time that served as his literary apprenticeship. Writing those stories helped him learn technique and craft, which he drew upon in writing "The Sympathizer."

But more important, in the process Nguyen learned patience and humility. "By the time I had spent 17 years of my life struggling with writing fiction, I came to the conclusion that what really mattered about writing was writing," he says.

ellenf@sltrib.com

facebook.com/ellen.weist —

Reading: Viet Thanh Nguyen

The writer of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel will read and discuss his novel "The Sympathizer" and story collection, "The Refugees," in Salt Lake City on Thursday and Friday, March 9-10.

When • Hivemind Bookclub, noon Thursday, Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City

When • 7 p.m. Thursday, Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City

When • Friday, noon, Q & A, Finch Lane Gallery, 54 Finch Lane (1340 E. 100 South), Salt Lake City

 

 

 

 

 

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