This ‘Refugee’ author explains what it’s like to live between worlds

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

It's "The Refugees," a short story collection from last year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Jeffrey Brown talked with Viet Thanh Nguyen at this year's Conference of the Association of American Writers and writing programs here in Washington, D.C.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wanted to start with — maybe it's a basic question, but it's the word refugees, because it's an important one to you.

VIET THANH NGUYEN, Author, "The Refugees": Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does it mean?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: To be a refugee, especially in our contemporary moment, is to be different than an immigrant.

I think immigrants are somewhat acceptable to Europe and the United States, but refugees are the unwanted from wherever they come from. And they're often unwanted where they come to, and especially in the United States. I think Americans think it's un-American to be a refugee.

So, it's actually really important for me to continually assert, I am a refugee, I write about refugees, and that we need to think about the necessity of opening our doors and welcoming refugees in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Living between worlds, never leaving one behind fully, why is that so much harder for the refugee than other — than the immigrant or others?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think immigrants do feel some of that attachment to wherever they came from, but they usually made a choice to go somewhere, and they have decided to look forward to some extent.

But refugees are often compelled to leave by violent circumstance. They're really still attached to wherever they came from. So, that's where I think refugees oftentimes have a hard time adjusting, at least psychologically.

They may adjust culturally and economically, but, psychologically, half of them is still somewhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in the first story in this new collection, "Black-Eyed Women," the main character is a woman who's a Vietnamese American ghostwriter, right? So she's actually there, but not there, literally.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Right.

And so I wanted to make it sort of a story that was about ghosts in many different ways. She's a ghostwriter, but she's actually haunted by a real ghost.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: And that ghost is of her dead brother, who she thought had died on the escape from Vietnam on a boat.

And then, one night, he comes knocking on the door. He's literally a ghost who swam thousands of miles to get to her door. And it's about the figurative and the literal hauntings that so many people who have escaped through traumatic circumstances continue to live with.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

But the emphasis is on the real ghost, right?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, real, as in these people are alive for your characters?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Yes.

And I think, for many people — many cultures, ghosts really exist. I mean, literally, Vietnamese people, for example, often recount being visited by people who have just died, not to haunt them, but to come and say goodbye.

JEFFREY BROWN: As I read through the stories in this book, you have got characters who have lived here in the U.S. for a long time. You have stories set in Vietnam. You have Americans going back. What are you exploring through these stories?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think that, when I say Vietnamese to Americans or to other people, there might be this idea that there's only one Vietnamese kind of culture or one Vietnamese kind of people, and I'm going to speak for them.

But Vietnamese are just like everybody else. And they're diverse. So this is a collection where I wanted to talk about the young and the old, the straight and the gay, the conservative and the radicals, the ones who stayed and ones who went back, to give people a sense of how heterogeneous and contradictory these people are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you aware, as the readers are aware, of the newness of this voice in our literature? I mean, do you feel that?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think so, because, in order to be a writer, you need to read a lot in the traditions in which you write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: So, I have read a lot of Vietnamese writing, Asian-American writing, and American writing.

And the novel is explicitly designed to provoke all these different categories and do things that I don't think has been done before in those categories, including in contemporary American fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about you and your ghosts, because you say, I was born in Vietnam, but made in America. To what extent do you feel yourself of two worlds?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, when I was growing up, I felt myself to be a spy in my parents' household, because they were Vietnamese, and I was being Americanized.

And then, when I went outside, I was a Vietnamese spying on Americans. And that sense of always being an observer, always being a spy has continued to stay with me. And it's been influenced by this refugee past, the sense of being haunted by what has impacted my parents and my Vietnamese community.

And it's been productive, in the sense that it has made me into a writer, to always be able to see things from the inside and the outside, to always be observing, to always be spying on people. That's really enormously useful for a writer.

But it means I have to allow myself to not forget that sense of haunting and displacement.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that means you don't want to leave that behind, in other words. I mean, you have to live in this world, but you also have to hold onto something.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think I have to be willing to be unsettled and to be uncomfortable.

And most people don't want that. Most people want to be in one place. They want to feel settled and happy. They want to feel comfortable. 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you — if we fast-forward to today's world, and this discussion of refugees and immigrants, do you feel a responsibility as a writer or as citizen to address these things even more?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I do feel that as an individual. I'm a politically, like, aware person, but I also feel that, as a writer, that I think one of the writer's most urgent tasks is to say something about what is happening in the world today.

And I think that the sharpening of the political division has really made other writers much more cognizant of that also, that we need to address the urgent political controversies of our time.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how are you doing that?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I think "The Refugees" was my way of doing that.

And it just happened to be that the refugee problem, which has always been with us, has come to a head. And now, outside of that, I take the opportunity outside of this platform as a writer to write op-eds, to speak out in public, to go on the Seth Meyers show, and not just to talk about happy things, but also to talk about our history and refugees and immigrants to a late-night audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Do you get a sense that the culture is listening?

VIET THANH NGUYEN: I think so. 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new story collection is "The Refugees."

Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you very much.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: Thanks, Jeffrey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we thank him for talking with us.

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