‘Many Immigrant Stories and Refugee Stories Need to Be Understood as War Stories’

Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen. Photo by Rex Features via AP Images

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his novel The Sympathizer, about a communist double agent during the Vietnam War who comes to America after the Fall of Saigon.

Nguyen, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of 2017’s collection The Refugees, was born in Ban Me Thuot and came to the United States as refugee in 1975, moving with his family to San Jose. In a 2016 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Nguyen spoke of the importance of the connection between refugee and immigrant stories and war stories:

I mean, obviously we’re successful and we’re successful partially because of the opportunities that America has offered. But, again, it’s only possible because of a war that the United States waged in Vietnam. And there are so many Asian immigrants and refugees who have come from countries like the Philippines, Korea, Laos, Cambodia who are here in the United States because of wars that the U.S. waged overseas. And the difficulty for Americans and for these refugees and immigrants is to think about both of these kinds of things at the same time – economic opportunity domestically in the United States for some Asian immigrants and refugees, not all of them – that are made possible because of foreign wars that the United States have waged abroad.

And the way that I think about it is that I have to insist all the time that I am not an immigrant and that I – the story that I’m telling in my novel is not an immigrant story. I’m a refugee and the story I’m telling is a war story because one of the ways that the United States tries to contain the meaning of these histories is to think that all of these Asians are here because they’re immigrants, and that their story begins once they get to the United States. But again, my understanding is that many of these Asians are here because of the consequences of wars. And many immigrant stories and refugee stories need to be understood as war stories.

Here is Nguyen speaking with Seth Meyers in February:

Read the interview