Grove Press | Grove Atlantic
With the coruscating gaze of “The Sympathizer,” in “The Refugees” Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.
The second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, “The Refugees” is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a Gold Medal in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association. The Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, he lives in Los Angeles.
Q & A with Viet
Why did you write “The Refugees”?
I grew up knowing that Americans knew almost nothing of Vietnamese people, whether as enemies or friends. When Americans said “Vietnam,” they usually meant “The Vietnam War,” which really means the war as experienced by Americans. Because of the power of American culture, American views on Vietnam and the Vietnamese — or the American erasure of them — influenced the entire world’s perception. It was urgent to write a book that talked about Vietnamese people and especially the refugees that came to the United States, which included my family. I hoped that I could challenge and change American views, and hence world views, through simply telling Vietnamese stories. And I also hoped that I could speak, first and foremost, to Vietnamese people, wherever they were.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Learning how to write fiction. I learned how to write it through struggling with this book. The first words were written in 1997. The last were written in 2014. Learning to write meant exploring all manner of artistic and technical issues, but it also meant enduring. Coping with neglect, obscurity, rejection, and self-doubt are all part of writing as well, and all of them, singly or together, are challenging.
How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues?
Seeing the connections between people of different times and different backgrounds is one way to explore contemporary issues. That was why I titled my collection The Refugees, because I wanted to draw the connection between what happened to Vietnamese refugees and refugee experiences in general. Even in looking at the past, as I was, I could attempt to show that the traumatic experiences of refugees then are not so different, by implication, from refugees today. Nowadays Vietnamese refugees have mostly become accepted in their countries of settlement, and their fellow citizens have forgotten the fear that they once felt towards them (the majority of Americans did not want to accept Vietnamese refugees). But the humanity of Vietnamese refugees then is no different than the humanity of refugees today.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
My parents opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in downtown San Jose, California, in the late 1970s. As a child, I saw a sign in a store window not far from my parents. It said “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” I wondered if the person who put that sign up knew that my parents worked 12- to 14-hour days, almost every day of the year. I wondered if that person knew that my parents had been shot in their store on Christmas Eve. I knew that the sign meant that we were not Americans in the eyes of this person, and perhaps many others. I knew that the sign told a story, and that we were the enemies, the aliens, and the others in that story. I have spent my life acquiring the tools to fight against that sign and that story, which is still being told today.