An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen

2017 MacArthur fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses questions of justice, diversity in literature, and empathy across cultures.

Catherine Cusick | Longreads | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,200 words)

Viet Thanh Nguyen had just gotten back from a summer in Paris when he received an unexpected phone call from a Chicago number. He didn’t recognize the caller, so he let it ring. Out of curiosity, he texted back, “Who is this?”

The number replied, “It’s the MacArthur Foundation.”

“Oh,” Nguyen thought. “I should call these people back right away.”

Nguyen managed to stand for the first few seconds of the call, but soon had to sit down. He’d just won $625,000, no strings attached, as an unrestricted investment in his creative potential.

Eighteen months earlier, Nguyen had received another life-altering phone call when he won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Since the book’s publication in April 2015, Nguyen’s been no stranger to worldwide recognition: He’s also received a Guggenheim fellowship, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and countless others.

According to the MacArthur Selection Committee, “Nguyen’s body of work not only offers insight into the experiences of refugees past and present, but also poses profound questions about how we might more accurately and conscientiously portray victims and adversaries of other wars.” After writing in obscurity for more than a decade to honor his and others’ war stories — and all refugee stories, Nguyen insists, are war stories — he will now have even more resources to help tilt the world in a more peaceful direction.

I spoke with Nguyen the day after the MacArthur Foundation announced him, along with 23 other extraordinary recipients, as a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.


Who was the first recipient to shape your understanding of the meaning of a MacArthur fellowship and the caliber of the work it recognizes?

I’ve been following the MacArthur announcements for many years. So many writers I’ve admired and who I’d thought were doing powerful and necessary work had received these grants, people like Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and many, many others. I think that the MacArthur does incredible work, finding these people who are doing innovative and groundbreaking things and bringing them to all of our attention.

I also feel that some worthy writers have not been lucky enough to get this award. And that’s a key word, I think. We work hard, but luck plays such a huge role in getting these types of things. I always, of course, think back historically to the many writers whose labors created a tradition that made it possible for me to write. They were writing long before any of these kinds of recognitions existed. So that puts everything into context.

How have you been feeling about defining the purpose of this monetary windfall — a definition the prize leaves entirely up to you?

This has been a crazy 18 months for me, ever since I won the Pulitzer. The Pulitzer had already started transforming my life economically. This award is just… it’s more than I actually need.

I have no idea what to do with the money, but I know that at least some of it will be used to support an arts organization that I’ve been involved with for a long time, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). I started DVAN with a friend of mine whom I’ve known since our college days. Its mission is to support Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic arts and culture.

I started DVAN’s blog, diaCRITICS, as a space to publish writers and news about Vietnamese diasporic arts and related issues, knowing full well that much of my work has been about addressing the lack of access, the lack of visibility and recognition given to Vietnamese voices outside of Vietnam. The last two years it’s been nearly moribund, so I’m hiring an editor with the money to take over.

Do you have a dream editor in mind to continue that legacy?

Yes. I asked another writer, her name is Dao Strom. Dao is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; she’s already published two of her own books and self-published her own multimedia CD. She’s been our literary editor. I hope I’m not putting pressure on her if I say her name in public! She tentatively agreed to say yes.

You’ve spoken with Josephine Livingstone at The New Republic about how, up until you’d secured tenure in 2003, you’d lived your life in a “very pragmatic, very strategic way,” which “required a lot of repression.” Does the MacArthur put that phase of your life into a different context? Was it a necessary period of incubation for the scope of your work?

It was definitely necessary, just given my understanding of my own character. I’m like my parents — they are, at the same time, both risk capable and risk averse. They mostly want everything to be stable, to be safe, but when times require it, they will do tremendous things. They were refugees twice. They built their own fortunes twice. So they know when to take risks. But after those risks are successfully accomplished, they just want everything to be safe. I’m like that.

I wanted to make sure that my life was secure by being a professor, then I could maybe be more explicit about the risks that I was taking. I was already writing fiction before that, but no one cared, no one knew.  After 10 years more people knew, but no one cared! So that was a very long period of risk-taking after tenure. That was like 12 years before The Sympathizer got published.

I think that with the MacArthur now, at this point, it’s a confirmation of the fact that the risk that I was taking paid off. It also just really adds to the pressure! No one knew who I was when I was writing The Sympathizer, which was very liberating. It’s one thing to take risks when no one knows who you are. It’s a different matter to take risks when expectations are heightened all around.

You wrote The Sympathizer as a comedic spy novel to draw readers into engaging with the history of the Vietnam War. Why was it so crucial, in order to create that engagement, to disguise theory and philosophy as plot and action?

I have spent a lot of time as a scholar thinking about the question of where art and politics intersect. It seemed to me that you would find this intersection happening very regularly in countries outside of the United States. It’s within the United States that there is great reluctance, generally, to engage in this. It’s a legacy of the fact that this is a very anti-communist country, with very stereotypical perceptions of what the intersection of art and politics can look like.

Coming at this as a writer who did not go through an MFA program, where I think it is discouraged to talk about politics explicitly, I felt that I could draw from what I knew as a scholar to try to do this novel. I had to create a character and a plot where it would be viable dramatically for him to think about these theoretical and political issues. The novel is implicitly a rejoinder to many of the works dealing with the Vietnam War — but in general, American literature — that shies away from that.

I did not want to write a realistic account of the Vietnam War because so many of those have already been written. I didn’t have anything new to add to that. I felt like we had to get beyond realism to talk about this war and its consequences.

Humor is also a very important strategy for when we are dealing with really horrific situations. It just helps to alleviate the mood, to make us more capable of bearing the burden of what we are witnessing. Soldiers who go through war find humor, terrible humor, in the most terrible things.

Throughout history, contractions of empathy tend to occur cyclically in different countries, eras, and populations. This certainly seems to be happening in a very acute way in America right now. I think your work absolutely does this, but can you point to any other examples of cultural projects that combined plot and character so successfully that they helped calm a spasm of xenophobia in their audience?

It’s a tricky question because whenever I think about literature, I also think about context — about who is reading the literature. I think so many of us who are involved in literature gauge our reactions based upon the literary world. But there’s a whole bunch of people who are not of the literary world, who may not be moved by these empathetic works. So it’s hard to say what works can actually move to alleviate something like xenophobia, because the most xenophobic in the country are probably not reading books. There’s a relationship between xenophobia and the rejection of literature, because literature demands empathy.

Now that being said, I think there are certain books that have transcended the literary world and have reached truly mass audiences. Here you find books like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, which achieved that kind of status of work. Within the world of literature you have many more examples of works that serve that kind of function, but of course they are already speaking to an audience that wants to find a message of empathy.

There’s no shortage, I think, of works that influenced me, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Tony Morrison’s Beloved, or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior — basically so much of the most influential body of work around people’s color, or about minorities, immigrants, or refugees.

In building out a fuller canon of characters whose lives were shaped by the Vietnam War, one of your long games is to create this larger capacity for empathy in readers’ imaginations on both sides of a conflict. In a more peaceful world, how would an ideal reader approach reading across cultures? How would you word what you expect from a reader now, in the more violent, war-haunted world we currently inhabit?

For me, this is all related to questions of justice. I’ve been concerned with questions of justice for a very long time, especially around how arts and culture can address these types of issues. Ultimately, the answer is that we are never going to get these ideal moments unless we have a radical transformation in our society, in which we have a greater distribution of opportunities for everyone. Because if we don’t get there, then everything is a piecemeal effort, right? Ideal reading situations take place in ideal learning environments. That extends to the resources that people have when they are at home.

The Sympathizer, for example, has been read in high schools. When I visited a very elite high school in Pasadena, California, the students were brilliant, but that school costs $35,000 a year! That is not the ideal learning environment, because so few people can afford that. So until we get to a situation where all students in this country have access to that same quality of education, then we are not going to have ideal learning environments.

But now given all that, let’s say what would those conditions be. I think that within the literary world, number one, we need to have a much more international reading awareness. Americans read mostly American literature. Something like three percent of our publishing is in translation. That’s unacceptable. That leads to how so many of the literary conversations in the United States are completely solipsistic, and framed within the boundaries of American nationalism. Even American liberals end up being really nationalistic because they don’t look outside the United States.

We were also just talking about questions of race. To talk about race in isolation from what happens internationally is only getting the answer half right. If we don’t understand how racial inequality in the United States is tied to these mechanisms of the military industrial complex that connect the United States to the rest of the world, we really do not understand how race or inequality work in this country.

Even if we don’t have a just environment in the United States, the publishing industry and the academic literary world could do a much better job of addressing these questions of ideal reading and publishing. We don’t have enough diversity in the publishing world. We don’t have enough diversity in the academic literary world that’s producing so many writers and editors. And by that I mean of course the whole spectrum of demographic diversity, but also of ideological diversity in the ways that people think about literature. That affects how literature is taught in this country from top to bottom. If you’re on the front lines of teaching reading in elementary and high school classrooms, for example, you’re sort of stuck with the resources that are available to you in terms of what the publishing world is providing. So there really needs to be continued reformation and transformation of all these different facets of the literary world within this country.

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Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor at Longreads.