Refugee and Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen spoke on the need for more marginalized communities’ narrative voices in literature during a reading in Goldwin Smith Hall on Thursday.
The reading was part of the Zalaznick Reading Series hosted by the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program. Nguyen is a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Nguyen read passages from his most recent book The Refugees, as well as from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer.
Throughout the reading, Nguyen also spoke intermittently about his personal experiences as a Vietnamese refugee growing up in the United States, and how this inspired his work. Nguyen and his family were evacuated from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975, and after living in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, he resided in California.
“Narrative scarcity existed all around me in San Jose,” Nguyen said, discussing the absence of voices from different ethnic groups and sexual identities in literature.
“I think that we achieve true justice when all voices are heard,” he continued. “So many more voices are needed.”
Nguyen described how at the refugee camp, his family was separated in order to receive sponsorship. Nguyen’s parents, brother and himself were assigned to three different families.
“That’s where my memories begin, being taken away from my parents, howling and screaming,” he said.
Nguyen’s family established a Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose during the 1970s, which was later bought by the city to build a parking lot as part of a new downtown.
“All that was erased, so for years and years it was too painful for me to go back to that street,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen recalled that the Vietnamese translation of The Refugees was censored to exclude his autobiographical story, “War Years,” about growing up in downtown San Jose. He said that he “felt that store, my parents, that history, had been erased. In Vietnam too, we had been erased.”
The censorship that Nguyen faced over “War Years” was an example of the reason why he became a writer.
“That’s why I tell stories, that’s why we should all tell stories,”he said.
On being a refugee, Nguyen detailed the stigma that current refugees face when they come to the United States.
“It seems that the only way to become acceptable in this country is to be exceptional,” Nguyen said.
To audience laughter, Nguyen joked that he did not want to portray his experiences as a refugee as “a completely negative experience.”
“After all it gave me the necessary requisite experience to become a writer,” he said.
Nguyen said that in writing The Sympathizer, he set out to write both a refugee novel and a war novel, explaining that “being a refugee and surviving a war were completely related.”
When asked by an audience member about the prospect of returning to Vietnam after the success of his books, Nguyen remarked that he “feel[s] like now I don’t want to go back to Vietnam until my books are published in an uncensored fashion.”
Nguyen claimed that the Vietnamese translation of The Sympathizer has been under review by the Vietnamese government since April.
In response to an audience question about his writing process, Nguyen emphasized the need for writers to look past their audience of critics and peers.
“For many writers, their breakthrough is that their first audience is themselves,” he said.