Author Viet Thanh Nguyen Connects Refugee Experiences to Race in America Today

While in the 1970s, many Americans found themselves disillusioned with the United States government after the Vietnam War, in 2020, we face a similar disillusionment. On Wednesday October 28, members from across the Saint Mary’s community came together for author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s talk, “Race and Our Moment of Crisis: 45 Years After the VietNam War,” hosted by Associate Professor Hilda Ma of the English Department and Associate Professor Loan Dao of the Ethnic Studies Program. The discussion marked the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, a critical moment in the history of both the United States and Vietnam, as well as anti-colonial and liberation movements around the world.

Nguyen, who is a professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature, as well as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California, connected the events in our current moment of racial crisis to his origin story from the beginning of the Vietnamese-American diaspora. Nguyen’s family, like 130,000 other Vietnamese people who fled to the United States after the Vietnam War, arrived in a refugee camp and was separated. “This is where my memories begin: four years old, being taken away from my parents as I was howling and screaming,” shared Nguyen. “And I thought in the years after this event that this was not such a big deal, that I had put it behind me, but in fact, it’s remained stamped between my shoulders like an invisible brand.” When his son turned four at the same time the Muslim Ban was enacted, he couldn’t help but realize how his origin story was connected to family separations as a result of current policies. 

Growing up, Nguyen identified as any other American, and like most Americans was fascinated by war stories. However, he became aware of how stories of the Vietnam War portrayed Vietnamese people through harmful racist stereotypes. “That’s how I knew that stories are powerful,” he said. “Stories can save us, but they can also destroy us.” The power of stories is what Nguyen credits as his fight as a storyteller to write novels such as the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction winner The Sympathizer, which students in Professor Ma’s Vietnamese American Literature class studied. 

As a result of misrepresentation in stories, Nguyen explained that marginalized writers tend to defend the humanity of their people in the stories they write. However, he argues that by proving their own humanity, writers are “participating in their own marginalization.” Instead, he suggests, “To claim full humanity is to also acknowledge one’s inhumanity. That’s how we get to be at the center of our own story, by acknowledging these contradictions and these complexities that are very difficult to confront, but which make for truth and honesty.”

To understand how the history of war and refugees relates to our current events, Nguyen talked about how the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and acts of violence against Black Americans relates to the history of war in Vietnam and around the globe. While Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pinned down and killed Floyd, Nguyen pointed out how Tou Thao, a Hmong, Asian-American police officer who is the son of refugees, protected the scene. “How do we make sense of this global history that has brought us here, brought me to this room talking to you and brought him to that street in Minneapolis?” asked Nguyen. 

The Vietnam War, Nguyen described, was also fought in Laos with the Hmong fighting alongside the United States, but after the war, many suffered a great loss and also fled to the United States as refugees. In other words, “Tou Thao would not be here if it weren’t for this war that the United States had fought in Lao,” explained Nguyen. “He is like me and yet unlike me at the same time.”

Just as Nguyen argued that marginalized writers should lean into complexities, he challenged us to examine the complexities of race and the history of war to understand our current moment of racial crisis. Nguyen illustrates how the history of war and history of race cannot be separated, saying, “When we arrived in this country as refugees or immigrants, we faced obstacles and struggles and racism and all of that. But we also arrived with automatic advantages, complicated advantages built in because we, who were Asian immigrants or Asian refugees, are not Black. We get to benefit from anti-Black racism. We might even get to participate in anti-Black racism.” As Americans, we were all brought to the United States through global histories one way or another, and Nguyen encouraged us to critically look at current events, not just through identity politics, but through these global histories that are intertwined.

Besides being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Viet Thanh Nguyen is a MacArthur Genius, Guggenheim Fellow, and the first Asian-American to join the Pulitzer Board. His novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller. His upcoming novel The Committed will be released in March 2021.  

The talk was made possible by the Roy E. and Patricia Disney Forum, the Communication Department, and the History Department’s National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Access Grant, and co-sponsored by the English Department, Ethnic Studies Program, Asian Pacific Islander Resource Group, and Seminar Informal Curriculum.