Contemporary Issues Forum: Viet Thanh Nguyen

By: Heather Fleck

Viet Thanh Nguyen was the designated speaker for the 18th Contemporary Issues Forum talk at Coe College Wednesday night. Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American novelist and English professor at the University of Southern California.

Coe College President David Hayes welcomed everyone to the event and introduced Nguyen to the Coe community prior to Nguyen taking the stage.

“I came to the United States at four years of age as a refugee and when I came at four years of age I was fluent in Vietnamese,” said Nguyen. “My first memories begin when I was in a refugee camp.”

Nguyen was not the only one from his family coming over to the United States as a refugee. Nguyen, along with three of his immediate family members and thousands of others from Vietnam fled in 1975. 

“In 1975 Saigon fell, or was liberated, depending on your point of view along with 130,000 other refugees who came to the United States,” said Nguyen. “[We] ended up in one of four refugee camps. Our particular camp was Fort Indiantown Gap in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”

Nguyen and the rest of his family were separated when they left Fort Indiantown Gap. In order to leave the camp, an individual had to be sponsored and no one or church would sponsor a family of four, Nguyen told the audience. 

“I got to come home after a few months to my family,” said Nguyen. “My brother who is 10 years old didn’t get to come home for two years.”

Nguyen continued on in his talk about what it was like as a refugee, sharing stories of his family’s grocery store in Southern California being one of two Vietnamese grocery stores in the entire area, if not the whole state. Nguyen shared with us that shortly before high school he experienced his first bias against him and his family – a sign in a grocery store that equated to the reason that business is going out of business is because of them, the Vietnamese, Nguyen continued to share with us. 

A few years later he went to high school with a few people that were like him and he and his friends realized that. 

“We knew we were different, we just didn’t know how to put it into words,” Nguygen stated. “Everyday at lunch those of us of Asian descent would gather in a corner of campus and we would call ourselves ‘asian invasion’. That was the only language we had for ourselves. Of course the joke was on us because the irony of it is that Asians have never invaded the United States.” 

Nguyen also spoke about his books that he has published. He stated that he wrote the Sympathizer to offend people and he knows it worked because he gets handwritten hate mail from people that have read the book. Nguyen also added the fact that the book is not allowed to be published in Vietnam.  

Nguyen talked about how there is narrative plentitude and narrative scarcity around books. 

“Narrative plenitude is when you can take for granted that almost all the stories you encounter are going to be you,” said Nguyen. “And when a story that comes along that isn’t about you or portrays you in a way that you think is inaccurate or is painful in some fashion…you can it’s just a story and walk away from it.”

Nguyen emphasized the fact that those of us that live in narrative plentitude have many books about us that having a book that doesn’t portray us in a good way or is painful, does not affect us nearly as much as someone that lives in narrative scarcity.

“Narrative scarcity,” Nguyen said. “That’s when almost none of the stories are about you. And so when a story about you comes along and you appear in it in a way you felt victimized because it is racist or sexist or homophobic or hateful in someway it is deeply painful to you.”

One of the last things that Nguyen emphasized was that he refuses to say thank you. 

“I felt there is no longer a need to prove our humanity,” Nguyen said. “We were already human.”

Nguyen’s talk ended with time for questions from the audience which Nguyen said was his favorite part. 

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