IT WAS between two or three in the afternoon in a hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Vietnamese American writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen was preparing for a book reading session at a local bookstore later that day. Everything was calm until a series of notification alerts filled the air.
“As I was writing e-mails, there were all these [gadget] beeps. I looked at my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and people were saying that I won the Pulitzer Prize,” Mr. Nguyen said, adding that he immediately called his publicist to confirm the announcement.
That day Mr. Nguyen had been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer (2015).
Word must have spread quickly in Cambridge — Mr. Nguyen went to the local bookstore later that afternoon where he found more people than he expected lined up to listen to him and have their books signed.
Three years later, Mr. Nguyen found himself at the Raffles Makati as one of the guest authors invited to for writing and literature discussions and book signings at the 6th Philippine Readers Writers Festival (PRWF) on Aug. 2-4.
At the hotel’s conference room reserved for media interviews on Aug. 3, the award-winning writer arrived holding a clear folder with his printed schedule. He referred to the list and told this writer that it is his 14th interview since he arrived in Manila two days earlier.
It took a year for the reality of winning the Pulitzer Prize to sink in. Mr. Nguyen admitted that being a Pulitzer Prize winner is “very stressful.”
“I will carry this title for the rest of my life, so I better do something with it,” he said, referring to talking about pressing issues such as migration and refugee crisis. “For them (the readers of The Sympathizer), it was not just for me [but also] for all Vietnamese people and Asian-Americans. So I thought that was a tremendous obligation, to use the Pulitzer Prize for good.”
The Sympathizer tells the story of the Vietnam War narrated by a French-Vietnamese communist double agent and army captain who arrives in America after the fall of Saigon. While building a fresh start as a refugee in Los Angeles, he secretly reports back to his communist superiors in Vietnam.
Mr. Nguyen noted that giving a voice to a minority and an understanding of the Vietnamese point of view of the war and its effect on its people is was what led him to write the book.
“I think that being a refugee in the United States has defined my life. It’s the reason I came to the United States, and it’s an experience and identity that unifies me with other refugees,” he said.
The writer was just four when his family fled to the United States from southern Vietnam after Saigon fell in 1975 and the Americans fled the war-wracked country.
In an article published in the New York Times on April 2015 titled “Our Vietnam War Never Ended,” he wrote: “I was taken from my parents and put into a household of American strangers who were supposed to care for me while my parents got on their feet. I remember a small apartment, or maybe a mobile home, and a young couple who did not know what to do with me.”
Mr. Nguyen said, “Refugees now are a category of people that are oftentimes quite stigmatized. So it’s important for someone like me, who has been a refugee and still thinks of himself as a refugee, to write about these experiences and to form around them.”
THE MINORITY’S POINT OF VIEW
Immigrants and refugees, despite their similarity as populations that move from one country to another, are terms that should not be used interchangeably,” he told BusinessWorld.
“Immigrants choose to go. They choose when and where to go, while refugees don’t choose to go. They’re forced to go for a number of reasons. And they oftentimes don’t have much of a choice where they end up,” Mr. Nguyen said.
According to statistics from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were 70.8 million people who “were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations” by the end of 2018. That was an increase of 2.3 million from the previous year.
Historically, refugees have fled because of war. “Refugee experiences have been fundamental to the 20th century and now in the 21st. Wars produce refugees,” Mr. Nguyen said.
Another dilemma they face is that they are expected to be grateful. “In the United States, Americans welcome immigrants and refugees and expect them to be grateful to be allowed into the country… and not to talk about the history that produced them.”
In 2017, Mr. Nguyen published his second piece of fiction titled The Refugees, a collection of short stories set in Vietnam and America. It is a way of giving a voice to the Vietnamese and Asian-American experience.
“Literature is a very individualistic pursuit. Books are oftentimes about individuals. So that can lead to writers thinking that the work of literature is purely about and by individuals. And that’s only half true. Because literature is also produced out of social context,” he said.
For The Refugees, Mr. Nguyen chose to tell diverse stories based on experiences of people of different gender, ages, and ethnicity.
“It’s a very human reaction to not think about that kind of issue. That is partly what arts and literature is supposed to do: tell the human stories,” Mr. Nguyen said.
“I believe that writers, whether they’re minorities or not, have the obligation to transform the world, not just through their literature, but also through their actions, and helping other writers,” he said.
The Sympathizer and The Refugees are available at National Bookstore for P769. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman