For as long as he can remember, author Viet Thanh Nguyen has been interested in how stories are told in America about Vietnam, his home country.
In his own works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer”, he focuses on the voices of refugees like himself.
And, tonight, he gives his brief but brilliant presentation on writing and memory. This is part of our ongoing art and culture series, Canvas.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author, “The Sympathizer”: I think no one who has been touched by war ever forgets it. And it has been true for me.
As far as I remember, I never learned anything about Vietnam in school. It was not even just a topic. I got most of my education through Hollywood and through the books that I was getting in the public library, because I was very curious where we came from and what that history was.
And, for the most part, that history was entirely American-centric. At times, it was a liberal boycott of the Vietnamese. But, at times, it is also very racist and sexist when it comes to the depiction of Vietnamese people. And that was — that was shocking to me. And it played a big part in shaping my psyche and my determination to become a writer and scholar who could do something different about that history.
I was 4 years old when Saigon fell, or broke free, depending on your point of view. So, of course, my recollections of that time are not really reliable. I vaguely remember the soldiers on the tanks, I miss the sailors shooting at the other boat on our boat.
We arrived in the United States in the summer of 1975. And we were resettled in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. This is where my memories really begin. And I remember those barracks and take away those feelings and those memories and eventually write about them.
And so the tension here, of course, is that we must somehow eventually forget everything in order to move on and survive. And with the war in Vietnam, we’ve reached a point where those people, that generation, are starting to disappear.
And that’s obviously a big loss in a way, but it’s also a great opportunity for other people to step up and tell different stories, either stories of moving on or stories about times that had the luxury of emotional distance. Is.
And I feel like I am right there. I guess I’ve been lucky enough to have read “The Sympathizer” by so many people. It’s inevitable that you — when you’re talking about war and tragedy and trauma, if you have something meaningful to say, it’s probably going to be controversial, because people are still divided about it.
I’ve always thought of myself as a writer who mingles with movements. What I am saying when I take the label of being an Asian American writer, I am a writer in relation to Asian American communities and Asian American political and social movements.
It was through writing that I could fight for my place in American society, but also in the global imagination.
I am Viet Thanh Nguyen, and this is my brief but brilliant writing and memory.