The Refugee Experience

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses separation and decolonization

April 12, 2019

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks to attendees April 11 at the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Cleveland. (Photo: Laurie DeWitt/Pure Light Images)
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks to attendees April 11 at the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Cleveland. Photo: Laurie DeWitt/Pure Light Images

The keynote speaker on April 11 at the Association of College and Research Librarian (ACRL) Conference in Cleveland was Vietnamese American Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction in 2016 for his debut novel The Sympathizer, which depicts the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective. Nguyen, who is Aerol Arnold chair of English at the University of Southern California, is also a refugee from that war who came to the US with his family in 1975.

“I am a refugee—present tense,” Nguyen said. “Although long ago I made the transition from refugee to bourgeoisie, I claim present tense because my earliest memories began as a refugee when I was 4 years old.”

Put into an internment camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, Nguyen was soon separated from his parents and older brother because few refugee sponsors wanted to take on four people, even as a family. “As much as I’ve tried to forget being separated from my parents,” he said, “it’s impossible. That’s how I know that our policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border of the US is wrong, and it’s inhumane.” Although his own separation was for allegedly benevolent reasons, he said, “it was still traumatic for me.”

Nguyen said that now that he has his own 4-year-old child, he can see how devastating that separation was for his own parents. However, “the experience was not all bad,” he said. “It gave me the requisite emotional damage to become a writer.” He decided to write about his own perspective on the Vietnam War when he saw the film Apocalypse Now. “Because I saw myself as an American, I cheered for the American soldiers” all the way up to the point where they massacred Vietnamese civilians. “Then I was suddenly cast in a narrative not of my own choosing,” he said. “I yearned for representation because representation is power.”

Having diverse voices in literature and social discourse is important but not enough, Nguyen said. “We need decolonization.” The presence of colonialism is embedded in the “deep, ongoing persistence of racial and economic inequality in our society. It has resulted in a massive transfer of wealth and privilege to the colonizer.” The refugees who stay in the US become settlers, but they are still colonized, he said. “Successful colonization is called the American dream,” he said, just as successful treason is never called “treason,” and successful war crimes are never called “war crimes.” By writing freely and critically about the US, Nguyen said he is helping readers “make better choices…. I’m anti-imperialism, not anti-American.”

As a writer, Nguyen said he believes he can help others realize the contradictory realities of American life—“its beauty as well as its brutality”—and recast the narrative with “stories that build bridges instead of walls” that reinforce colonial biases. “I love this country,” he said, “but I reserve the right to criticize it.”

Finally, Nguyen had some advice for immigrant parents. “You have to do better,” he said. “Don’t discourage your children’s dreams. One day, they might even grow up to be writers of scathing autobiographies that are all about you.”


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