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.

Listen to Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Start Making Sense podcast.

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.

JW: You write in the introduction to The Displaced, “I do not remember many things. And for all those things I do not remember, I am grateful.” Why is that?

VTN: If you do any reading into refugee experiences, what you discover is that people who almost uniformly have suffered terribly in trying to escape the country they were fleeing from and then trying to get to the countries that they want to go to. In the case of this South Vietnamese population that we’re talking about, the refugee experience was horrendous. Many, many lives were lost. Many terrible things happened to the people who were trying to flee. Because I was 4 years old, I didn’t remember any of that stuff. My brother who was ten remembers dead paratroopers hanging from the trees—on the mountain route that we took escaping from our home city, walking 180 kilometers to a port town to get a boat to Saigon. I’ve done research on that mountain route. It was clogged with tens of thousands of civilians and all their vehicles and property, and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers fleeing as well. It was a nightmare. No one who’s been through that experience has ever forgotten it. That’s why I’m thankful that I don’t actually remember those things myself, and that I have the luxury of reconstructing them from other people’s memories.

JW: You have a wonderful sentence about being a writer about refugees: “I keep my tattered memories of being a refugee close to me.” Why is that?

VTN: I keep those tattered memories close to me because it’s important to remind other refugees and other Americans that we exist. And also because it makes me more empathetic. It makes me feel for these new refugees and what they’re going through. Some former refugees out there are saying, “We’re the good refugees. We deserve to be here. All these new people from the Middle East, or Syria, for example, they’re the bad refugees. They’re different. We’ve got to close the door on these people.” I think that’s fundamentally wrong.

JW: The purpose of a book like The Displaced is to help us imagine the lives of refugees, but you say in your introduction that this imagining can lead us to deceive ourselves. What do you mean?

VTN: This is part of the problem with literature. Literature’s strength is built on empathy, both the empathy of authors and the empathy of readers who want to get to know other characters, other people from different places. This is a very powerful thing, but it’s also deceptive because it’s a luxury. We want to know about terrible situation X and sympathetic person Y, and when we’ve read their story, our hearts are warmed and our emotions are moved. But what happens if we don’t do anything? What happens if we just put down that book and pick up another book? What happens if we don’t get involved in an aid organization and donate money? What happens if we don’t call our elected officials? What happens if we don’t march in the streets? What happens if we don’t take action? I think that’s the danger of literature. As much as it awakens our feelings, it can also lull us into a sense of complacency that we’ve already done something simply by reading about someone’s terrible situation.

JW: You had a piece in The New York Times recently with the title, “Don’t Call Me a Genius.” You of course are the winner of what is usually called a “MacArthur genius grant.” Why don’t you want people to use that word to describe you?

VTN: First of all, let me just say I didn’t write that title. The whole piece is actually about the problems with “genius”—it’s not about how I don’t want to be called a genius. When we say “genius” nowadays, we’re typically talking about some individual of remarkable talent or achievement, and we laud and elevate this person. In my case, it’s related to the label that’s often put upon someone like me, a writer from a minority or marginalized community. I have been called “a voice for the voiceless.” Many writers like me have been called that. “A voice for the voiceless” is what we trot out whenever someone is writing about an experience we don’t know anything about. It’s meant to be a compliment. But it’s dangerous, because when we call someone a voice for the voiceless, what we’re really saying is we don’t want to hear all the other voices that are out there. It’s easier dealing with one person.

I think it’s the same thing with “genius.” If I’ve been able to achieve anything as a writer, yes, it’s partly because of hard work on my own, but it’s also because of a whole history of people who have sacrificed before me, other writers who have come before me, whose voices who been forgotten. My work is made possible by all the social and political struggles by Asian Americans, by African Americans, by so many other people who have created the space for someone like me not to be persecuted or discriminated against simply because of the fact of my own existence. I don’t think of myself as a voice for those who are “voiceless,” because actually they’re all really, really loud. My work is aligned with literature, but also with the social and political movements whose goal is, yes, to get more voices out there—but also to transform the conditions of our society so that we don’t have voiceless people anymore.