He is haunted by conflict between country and culture, revolution and redemption, embrace and exclusion, and, perhaps most of all, between a yearning to remember and the urge not to. And his prose brings those conflicts to life.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen was 4 when he first started trying to forget. After fleeing war-torn Vietnam with his parents for the United States in 1975, Nguyen was sent to live with a white sponsor family near Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. Eventually he reunited with his mother and father, but that early experience as a refugee marked him “indelibly.”
“That’s when memory begins, and that’s when forgetting begins for me as well, because I spent much of my life trying to forget that experience of separation and of trauma — and trying to forget what it meant to lose a country. And then as a writer and a scholar I have been trying to remember what those things mean.”
Nguyen blended memory, political critique, and history in “The Sympathizer,” his debut novel about a double agent who escapes Vietnam to Southern California during the fall of Saigon. The book was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer for fiction.
Nguyen, a Radcliffe fellow in 2009, returned to the institute last week for a discussion with Gish Jen ’77, also a former Radcliffe fellow. As part of the visit he read from his 2016 nonfiction work “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.”
“I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions.”
Writing down the stories he wanted to forget was always a dream, but how to give them the voice he felt they needed remained a mystery, said Nguyen. His time as a Berkeley undergrad — specifically exposure to Asian-American literature and his work in ethnic studies — helped. These encounters were “crucial to my sense that writing stories could also include the history, the identity, the politics that was so fundamentally important to me, that had shaped me.”