Writers & Company

Viet Thanh Nguyen on redefining what it means to be a refugee

In this 2016 interview, the Vietnamese-American novelist speaks to Eleanor Wachtel about writing his ambitious, disturbing and darkly comic novel, The Sympathizer, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a professor at the University of Southern California. The Sympathizer is his first novel. (Bebe Jacobs)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 6, 2016.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in what was previously known as South Vietnam in 1971. Four years later, after the fall of Saigon, his family was forced to flee to the United States as refugees, eventually settling in California. His first novel The Sympathizer, is an ambitious, disturbing novel that explores the aftermath of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a Communist Party spy who escapes Saigon for California, where he carries on his double life through assassinations and the making of a Hollywood war film.

The Sympathizer was on 30 "best of the year" lists in 2016 and won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. In 2016, Nguyen spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Los Angeles.

On the degradation of Vietnamese "boat people"

By 1978 Vietnam was a poor country. People were starving, there was a lot of desperation and the victorious Vietnamese government was persecuting people who had been affiliated with the defeated regime. People started fleeing the country, and for most people — tens of thousands of people — their only option was to flee by boat.

It was a huge issue for the Vietnamese refugee community to see their compatriots going through this horrible experience. There are some estimates that half the people who took to the seas by boat didn't make it to their destination. So as a boy, I was aware that the rest of the world saw the Vietnamese people in this way, as victims of war and as "boat people," as the press labeled them. But this seemed really inadequate to me, because I knew the complexities of Vietnamese life and I knew that thinking of them as "boat people" automatically was demeaning. It brought pity to them and in some cases helped to rescue them, but it was also a way of relegating them to a really abject status. There had to be another way to think of these people. So I choose to think of them as heroic. They undertook a really risky journey, knowing that these were the odds, and to see them purely as victims was woefully inadequate. 

So I try to contest this term, try to get readers to think about what it was like to be a refugee. And obviously while writing that, I was cognizant of the fact that we're still seeing refugees today, and that much of the rest of the world, when they look at refugees, they continue to see them as abject victims.

The shattering effects of war on families

I think this experience of having people separated from their families and having families divided is actually not that unusual. Many Vietnamese families that I know endured similar kinds of experiences. In some cases, families were able to reunite, but sometimes they remained divided for decades. My father didn't see his siblings for 40 years, from 1954 until the early 1990s, when my family returned. My mother didn't see her family for 20 years, and they didn't see my adopted sister [who stayed in Vietnam to watch the family property when the rest of the family fled to the U.S. in 1975] during that time either. We didn't talk about it. It was a very sensitive subject. Even today, my parents don't really talk about it. 

A refugee child, growing up in two worlds

I was growing up in San Jose in a Vietnamese household. My world, domestically, was all about Vietnamese people. But then I had to venture out, to go to school, and I watched American movies and TV shows in my free time. So that was my exposure to American culture. It was a very bifurcated kind of existence, and I think that was actually very common for people of my generation. We had to live in these two worlds. Our parents and our grandparents were not living in the American world — they were trying to avoid it as much as they could. 

I was intimately familiar with the Vietnamese world, but at the same time I was also intimately familiar with the English-language world. So no matter where I was, I couldn't help but bring that other world with me. Of course I would understand the customs, the history my parents were trying to relay to me. But at the same time I would also look at them as if they were foreign, because I couldn't help but see them through the eyes of what I imagined the American world to be.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Một cõi đi về" composed by Trịnh Công Sơn, performed by Diva Viet.