Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks to maintaining radical roots while navigating academia

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On a seemingly typical Tuesday afternoon last week, Wheeler Hall’s Maude Fife Room hosted a very special guest — Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Sympathizer.”

For the first part of his talk, Nguyen, who attended UC Berkeley for both his undergraduate and graduate studies, discussed his time studying English and ethnic studies as an undergraduate and his journey to becoming an author. The rest of the event was comprised of a Q&A between Nguyen and English students in attendance.

For Nguyen, the realm of academia provided the opportunity to study higher-level theory but, as he soon found, the way in which academic thought is communicated is inaccessible to the general public. He explained that this is a conflict perennially discussed and considered in disciplines including ethnic studies, and that such a discourse directly impacts vulnerable communities outside of academia.

“I came in, 21 years old, very determined to write a dissertation on Asian American literature. And for better or for worse, I was required to take the entire history of English literature,” Nguyen said of his graduate studies, eliciting laughs from a crowd that sorely related. “All these radicals came to campus and became domesticated as professors! So we occupied this interesting situation of having radical groups outside of campus and inside the campus eventually becoming very institutionalized.”

Nguyen recalled taking a graduate seminar taught by English professor Genaro Padilla on the topic of immigrants and border crossings. He explained that this politicized topic, which is very relevant today, was one portion of his academic studies that he wanted to make more accessible through his writing.

“A student in my doctoral program said something I never forgot,” Nguyen said. “She’s of Mexican descent and she said, ‘I want to be able to write in a way that my mother would understand. I want to be able to write something that my mother could read.’ And I thought that was a very powerful statement. I thought, ‘I want to do that too.’”

After 10 years of intense studies Nguyen was on his way to becoming a tenured professor at the University of Southern California. He had also published his first academic book, which upon finishing, he had thought “I hate myself!”

“What happened was I learned exactly how to write as (an) academic… but I had become somebody who I had not wanted to become,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to go back to those intellectual origins, back here at Berkeley, where I was very passionate, very idealistic.”

So Nguyen founded his current blog, diaCRITICS, centered on the arts and culture of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian Diaspora. This blog, which solicits writing from Asian authors and serves as a platform for Nguyen’s unrestrained writing, was the venue in which he found intellectual freedom.

On diaCRITICS, Nguyen is free to write op-eds, longform essays and whatever he feels creatively inclined to produce. After some time, the alumnus found himself indulging in a knack for satire and humor that he never knew he had.

“Lo and behold, I wrote the ‘The Sympathizer’ and I thought ‘Oh! There’s actually some fun in this, some humor in this,’” Nguyen said. “And when the book was published, people who knew me for a long time said, ‘Viet, we didn’t know you had a sense of humor!’”

In response to Nguyen’s discussion of discourse with the public, one student in the audience asked whether he feels that responding to hate mail and engaging with criticism is productive.

And the answer was decidedly yes from Nguyen, who said he believes that engaging with “everything from stupid to smart” and “from hateful to critical” is helpful because it forces him to confront his own assumptions.

“The reason I talk to people (is) for the sake of experience,” Nguyen said. “In Berkeley… I felt like I was amongst people who had the same set of assumptions as me. It’s important to have this contact … to puncture those assumptions and make you confront limitations of your model or learn how to articulate yourself in a way that addresses criticism.”

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.