Why MacArthur ‘genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen says writers should make people uncomfortable

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Viet Thanh Nguyen appeared at a book reading and signing at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, April 18, 2016. His debut novel, "The Sympathizer,"  was announced as the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction earlier in the day. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Viet Thanh Nguyen at a book reading at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, April 18, 2016. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“I think I have to be willing to be unsettled and to be uncomfortable,” Viet Thanh Nguyen told the NewsHour earlier this year, about how he writes and how he lives. Nguyen is one of 24 people just named a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, also known as the “genius grant.” The foundation annually awards a $625,000 grant to people in a wide range of disciplines for extraordinary originality and creativity.

Nguyen was chosen for his writing “challenging popular depictions of the Vietnam War and exploring the myriad ways that war lives on for those it has displaced,” the foundation said.

Nguyen’s 2016 book “The Sympathizer,” which follows a Vietnamese refugee army captain in Los Angeles after the Fall of Saigon, is part spy novel and part political satire. His 2017 book of short stories, “The Refugees,” shows how many different Vietnamese refugees’ lives were interrupted by war. Nguyen himself is a refugee, a condition he says means being forever caught between two worlds. In other words: uncomfortable.

“Most people don’t want that. Most people want to be in one place. They want to feel settled and happy,” he said. “That’s not a good condition for a writer, usually. So, it means I have to be willing to tolerate that, to cultivate that, in order to get the kinds of insights that I can, and then make other people uncomfortable with those insights as a result.”

Nguyen spoke to NewsHour in April, just after federal judges in two states blocked President Donald Trump’s second travel ban, which would have temporarily barred citizens from six countries, as well as halted all refugee resettlement in the U.S. The case over an updated ban is still winding its way through court.

The Vietnamese writer said he felt a responsibility to address contemporary issues like the travel ban, both as an individual and as a writer.

“I think one of the writer’s most urgent tasks is to say something about what is happening in the world today,” he said, both to people who agreed with him and people who didn’t. “Either they’re listening because they hate refugees and immigrants, or they’re listening because they think we should embrace and welcome refugees and immigrants. But people are listening, one way or the other.”

Watch the full interview with Nguyen below.

READ MORE: 10 ways this year’s MacArthur Fellows find their ‘genius’

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