Viet Thanh Nguyen is a fresh name to watch among literary communities and beyond. The Vietnamese American writer reached national acclaim for his books, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Sympathizer and became a finalist for the National Book Award for his latest book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.
Both remark on the travesty of war. More specifically, Nguyen’s books shed light on the trauma and emotional scars Vietnamese refugees still face 40 years later
The Vietnam Conflict is near to Nguyen’s heart as the writer grew up a child of war victims and fled Vietnam as a refugee. Nguyen was placed in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania at the age of 4 and distinctly recalls periods of flux between his two Vietnamese and American identities. He also recalls the separation he experienced from his parents and their family reunion albeit not a perfect one, as his parents worked 12-14 hour days to keep the family afloat. These experiences inspired Nguyen’s artistry.
He attended University of California-Berkeley as both an undergraduate and a Doctoral student in English. Aware of his parents’ desires for traditional professional achievements, Nguyen states, “I never told my parents I was writing fiction. I told them I was an English major, and that was bad enough.”
Nguyen’s parents may now be accepting of his professional pursuit, however, his opinions still cause tension, even among the Vietnamese community. With his books, Nguyen voices his personal opinions which are critical of both the Communist and Non-Communist actions in the Vietnam War. Some of Nguyen’s characters are analogous to real-life people such as Nguyen Cao Ky, South Vietnam’s general for two years in the 1960s.
“(Ky’s) infamous as the general who—as this guy does—went on the radio as Saigon was falling and said, ‘Defend this country to your last breath,’ and then he took off in a helicopter,” Nguyen told Orange Coast Magazine. “And then he went to Orange County and he opened a liquor store.”
Nguyen remains wary of presenting the novels to the Vietnamese community. Though decades later, the Vietnam War remains a touchy subject, especially for Vietnamese American readers. At least now, his applauded novels will open the dialogue.
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