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Pulitzer Prize-winning author straddles two worlds

The news is full of stories about refugees fleeing harsh and often uninhabitable conditions.

Viet Thanh Nguyen (pronounced like "Win") knows something about that.

Nguyen came to the United States at age 4 with his family from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. His search for identity led to his debut novel, "The Sympathizer," a spy novel set in Vietnam that earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 2016.

Nguyen's most recent work is "The Refugees," a collection of short stories. He will speak at 8 p.m. March 23 in Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center's Babel series. Artistic Director Barbara Cole will also moderate an interview-style Q&A following Nguyen's talk.

Tickets are $35, $30 with library card, $10 with student ID. They can be purchased at justbuffalo.org or by calling 716-832-5400. Babel's season concludes April 20 with author Junot Diaz.

Question: You have said, "I was born in Vietnam but made in America." Is that in some ways irreconcilable?

Answer: They are two realities that are undeniably a part of my life, and I have spent a lot of my time learning how to live with and how to reconcile each. It's not a stereotype along the idea of Rudyard Kipling's, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." In my life these two realities have met.  It has made me the writer and scholar that I am, so I am quite thankful for that.

Q: You had a traumatic early childhood. Can you talk about that, and what life was like after moving to San Jose?

A: We were resettled in a refugee camp, and in order to leave the camp you had to have a sponsor. We didn't have one sponsor who would take all four of us, so my parents went with one, my brother to another and me to a third. Later, when I was 7, we moved together to San Jose, and my parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store. My parents worked very hard and didn't want their sons to do what they had done, so they put a lot of emphasis on education.

Q: You have spoken about wondering about what you witnessed when fleeing Vietnam, but it's something you have avoided talking to your parents about because they've in some ways buried their past.

A: My parents are proud of what I've accomplished, and many of the interviews I've done are available in Vietnamese. They certainly have read my take on the family story, but they haven't offered more information. My older brother actually is talking more about our past maybe because of me, but also because of this issue of being a refugee.

He is an immigrant success story: He came here at 10 not being able to speak any English, and seven years later went to Harvard. He is a doctor and was co-chairman of the White House Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. He resigned when Donald Trump became president.

Q: It's important to you that you are identified as a refugee and not as an immigrant. Why?

A: It's important to insist on that name and acknowledge the difference between them. Immigrants are much more acceptable to America because they fit into the American mythology of the American dream. We believe we are a nation of immigrants, even if we don't like them.

Refugees are a different matter altogether. They're often unwanted from where they came from and from where they are going to. For the host country, say the United States, it's tempting to also forget that the people who come are refugees because of how the host country had a hand in producing the history that created them. That was certainly the case with Southeast Asia.

Q: Watching "Apocalypse Now" had a profound effect on you. Can you talk about that?

A: I was part of what used to be called "the latchkey generation" because my parents were working all the time. I watched 'Apocalypse Now' when I was 10 or 11.  I identified with the American soldiers because I was American up to the point they started killing Vietnamese people, and then I was split in two. I didn't know who to identify with at that point.

That was not an uncommon experience with others of my generation who became disgusted with racist and sexist stereotypes in Hollywood movies.

Q: You have said you wanted to write a European version of the Great American Novel, rather than the Great American Novel itself.

A: The Great American Novel is not a term anyone can take very seriously. But it's also kind of real. When we think in general about it, we think of classics like "Moby Dick." It is a genre that is often identified with white men. So when someone like me comes around and publishes a novel it's read as an immigrant or Asian-American novel.

When I wrote the novel I knew what the reaction was going to be, and had no desire to aspire to this genre that was already defined racially. "The Sympathizer" is written the way it is because it draws from the European modernist inspiration, which I'm much more drawn to.

 

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