Last Thursday, the UC Berkeley English department held a reading of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer with USC professor, novelist and UC Berkeley alumnus Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Nguyen sat down with The Daily Californian for an interview. Sporting a blue velvet blazer, he is as sharply dressed as he is sharp-witted. He is incredibly mordant but also incredibly gracious, full of insights about literature and advice for young students and writers.
The Daily Californian: How does it feel to win the Pulitzer? Did you think that your book would be this wildly successful?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I had no idea that the book would be this successful. I was just hopeful that it would be published and reach a certain audience. Getting the Pulitzer was like being struck by literary lightning. It’s been unreal for the last couple of weeks.
DC: Why did you choose to have an antihero protagonist and how does this fit into the Vietnamese American genre?
Nguyen: I grew up reading and watching a lot of American literature and film and what became really obvious was that if you were a part of the majority society — if you were white — you could do anything you wanted in literature and film. But it’s different if you’re a minority writer. There’s a lot of pressure from inside and outside of the community to represent the community positively or to represent yourself as victim or as a hero. But I think that if we’re ever to achieve full equality as artists, we have to claim the same prerogatives as the majority, which means that we have to be unafraid of being antiheroic and of the three-dimensionality of ourselves and the evil of which we’re all capable. And Vietnamese American literature hasn’t really done that.
DC: There’s a lot of memoir in Vietnamese American literature. How much of yourself do you see in the protagonist?
Nguyen: It is autobiographical to the extent that his feeling of being split between worlds is something that I experienced growing up as a refugee. I felt that I was a spy in my parents’ house. They were Vietnamese and I was American, and I was watching all of the strange customs that they had. But when I went out of my parents’ house, I was a spy amongst American people because I was not the same as them. So, it was taken from this personal sense of being split and of always being on the outside looking in that I exaggerated through the character of the spy.
DC: In a recent interview with the Guardian, you mentioned that your book has something to offend everyone and also that your book does not pander to white audiences. Could you talk more about that?
Nguyen: I’m dealing with a political history that is extremely sensitive. Both sides are very protective of their histories and their communities and they believe strongly in their ideology. But in terms of looking at this war, I think everyone has their fair share of responsibility. That means I will say something that will offend everybody. What’s funny is that American patriots read this book and they accuse me of being anti-American. But I bet they’re not unhappy about what I have to say about Vietnamese communism.
It was important not to pander to white audiences because a lot of minority literature does pander to white audiences, explicitly or implicitly, because that’s the way to get published. So I had to write a novel that was true to what I wanted to say and hope that the 89 percent white literary industry would somehow find it publishable.
DC: What are your feelings on Vietnamese American literature as a genre? Do you feel like it’s potentially problematic? Necessary? Important?
Nguyen: I think it’s necessary and important because we live in a country in which most Americans know nothing about Vietnamese Americans, know nothing about refugees, know nothing about Vietnam, know nothing about the South Vietnamese for whom they supposedly fought a war. The Vietnamese Americans of both the first and second generation are quite aware of this. Therefore, they feel the need to have their stories told. Vietnamese American literature is one crucial way of doing that. That being said, that doesn’t mean that Vietnamese American literature is always great or interesting or that it doesn’t pander to white audiences. So it’s important to keep pushing Vietnamese American literature to do more than what it’s already done.
“It was important not to pander to white audiences because a lot of minority literature does pander to white audiences, explicitly or implicitly, because that’s the way to get published.”
—Viet Thanh Nguyen
DC: What are your fondest memories as a student here at UC Berkeley?
Nguyen: My fondest memories here are of being an undergraduate. When I came here as a tourist before I applied, I walked down Telegraph Avenue and it felt like home to me. And coming here my first semester and taking classes here was like being hit by intellectual lightning. I was utterly transformed.
DC: What advice do you have for Berkeley students?
Nguyen: I would say that college is the time where you can really afford to be idealistic and passionate and take risks and chances. Given your material constraints, it’s important to try to be aware of that opportunity. Because ironically, trying to get back in touch with the person I was when I was 21 years old and to remember that idealism and that passion has really shaped the writing that I’ve done.
DC: What advice do you have for young aspiring writers?
Nguyen: You’re not marked by whatever happens to you in college. You change, you grow. Even if I want to get back the idealism and passion that I had at 21, I would still never want to be that person, because I was a deeply flawed human being. But the seed of who I’ve become is there.
My advice to aspiring writers is to persist. It took me over 20 years from where I was as an undergraduate to get to the point where I was able to write The Sympathizer. Many people give up along the way, so persistence is as important or even more important than any kind of talent that you might have.