Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer. He’s also the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and was recently selected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He teaches at the University of Southern California, where he’s University Professor of English, Comparative Literature and American Studies and Ethnicity. And he edited the new book The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You insist on being called a refugee and not an immigrant. Why is that?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The immigrant idea in America is very strong. We call ourselves “a nation of immigrants”; it’s a part of our mythology that immigrants come here and achieve the American dream. Even at this moment in history, where the xenophobic attitudes that have always been present are reaching another peak, even people who don’t like immigrants nevertheless believe in that immigrant idea. But refugees are different. Refugees are unwanted where they come from. They’re unwanted where they go to. They’re a different legal category. They’re a different category of feeling in terms of how the refugees experience themselves. If you call yourself an immigrant here, you fit. People will want to hear your heartwarming story about getting to this country. If you say you’re a refugee, that’s the quickest way to kill a conversation, because people can’t relate to that. It’s easy for someone like me to pass himself off as an immigrant, to pretend to be an immigrant, but if I do that, I feel like I’m not speaking the truth. I feel that it’s necessary for people like me, who have benefited from being a refugee, to acknowledge our existence as such and to advocate for the new refugees today.
JW: You became a refugee in 1975. You were four years old. What’s the story there?
VTN: My parents were fleeing from the Vietnam War. They were on the losing side, and afraid of Communism. They were among the lucky ones who managed to get out; the CIA estimated there were about a million South Vietnamese people who had some kind of affiliation with the United States who wanted to leave and couldn’t. 130,000 made it to the US. They ended up in one of four refugee camps, and my parents and I ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. That’s where my memories begin, in a refugee camp—and being taken away from my parents. Because in order to leave one of these camps, you had to have a sponsor. One sponsor took my parents, another took my 10-year-old brother, and another took 4-year-old me. When you’re 4 years old, it’s traumatic to be separated from your parents. I speak now as a father of 4-year-old son. Looking at him, I see myself. I imagine how painful that experience must have been for me—and also for my parents. That’s where my memory begins. I’ve never forgotten being a refugee—because of that trauma.