Viet Thanh Nguyen Wins Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

John Freeman


“All wars are fought twice,” Viet Nguyen has written, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”


Born in Vietnam to parents who fled to the United States in 1975, Nguyen understands this truth intimately.


Nguyen spent his first three years in the US in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsyvlania and then with a host family in Harrisburg, where he was separated from his mother and father and sister. “Not everyone would take a whole family,” he says, speaking by phone from Boston.


“This period had a big impact on me, I didn’t realize how deep until much later.”


Nguyen’s family eventually reunited in 1978 and resettled in San Jose, where his mother and father opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores. It was not an easy period, given the virulence of anti-Vietnamese sentiment.


As an academic, Nguyen has read and studied his way into the heart of this long conflict—the one that extends well beyond a war. And in the past year he has made a double-barreled assault on broadening how we talk about Vietnam.


Last April, Nguyen released his blackly comic debut novel, The Sympathizer, the tale of a communist party spy who escapes Saigon for the United States, where he lives a double-existence—as a resident, and as an informer on a general who has landed in LA and runs a liquor store.


Today it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


What begins casually turns murderous and then absurd as the unnamed narrator tries unsuccessfully to separate from his past. He winds up having to participate in assassinations to cover his tracks. He even takes a turn in Hollywood working on a film that sounds an awful lot like Apocalypse Now.



Two weeks ago, Nguyen also published a searching and far-reaching work of criticism, Nothing Ever Dies, which examines—less comically—the way memory of the Vietnam War—and war in general—is made, curated and abused by those in power.


Put together, the two books perform an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.


Not accidentally, these were two of the most important books for Nguyen at Berkeley in the 1980s and 1990s, when he began to realize that for the war to be—as he calls it—justly remembered, we needed to broaden the way it is addressed.


It would be tempting here to lay the feet firmly on America’s feet. But while The Sympathizer does not flinch at excoriating what the U.S. did in Vietnam, Nothing Ever Dies argues that blame and victimhood are not helpful categories in the long run.


It is Nguyen’s belief that for such wide-scale conflicts to be avoided in the future we need to learn how to become better acquainted with our inhumanity on both sides of the conflict.


So just as Nguyen examines Apocalypse Now for putting America’s suffering at the heart of the Vietnam War, Nguyen looks at the ways Vietnamese society is reluctant to acknowledge the deaths of Cambodians and Laotians.


Read the rest here.


From Literary Hub and republished by our content partner New America Media

not popular
Google Images
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider