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. Read more…
In a profile at New Republic, Josephine Livingstone talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the ghosts that inhabit his life, his writing, and his birthplace in Vietnam. Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”
In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.
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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: Read more…