Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, a novelist and a refugee. Following the 1975 fall of Saigon, he immigrated to America, where he lived with a white sponsor family before moving to San José and reuniting with his parents. Here, they set up a grocery store in what Nguyen described as a “violent neighbourhood.”
However, the trauma of Nguyen’s youth is only half the story. There is always an aftermath of emigration. Nguyen’s writing navigates the lingering effects of losing one’s country and the reshaping of identity following the loss of homeland. Nguyen’s The War Years deals with these post-migration issues. Like Nguyen, the narrator of the story is a Vietnamese American negotiating the implications of a dual nationality: he talks of Captain America and famine in Vietnam, precariously balancing two different yet integral aspects of his identity.
The narrator notes that “some people are haunted by the dead, others… by the living”. This plays out in Nguyen’s fiction and own experience. Along with losing their past life, refugees are “haunted” by the life they continue to live in their new countries. Nguyen reflects on this issue, describing in a Harvard lecture how he felt simultaneously like an American spying on his Vietnamese parents and a Vietnamese person spying on Americans . Juggling a dual identity is a challenge: it wasn’t until Nguyen entered Berkley that he realised he was both Asian and American. He could thrive in America whilst retaining his roots. Within The War Years, the narrator is forced to reconfigure his self-perception and reconcile his heritage with his American identity. Nguyen’s fiction is reminiscent of his own post-migration experience, a space where he can navigate the complexities of identity and re-establish a sense of self.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Refugees. London, 2017.
Freya is a second year English Language and Literature student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.