Viet Thanh Nguyen is a critically acclaimed author and an accomplished academic. Yet despite his awards, fellowships, and other accolades, Nguyen has never lost sight of where he started: as a refugee fleeing the terrors of war. Born in Ban Mê Thuột, 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, Nguyen would experience conflict and chaos from a young age. At age four, Viet and his ten-year old brother were led by their mother on a 184 km journey by foot to Saigon in the hopes of reuniting with their father. It was not long after they arrived in Saigon that North Vietnamese armed forces took control of the city, forcing families who had any affiliation with the United States - like Nguyen’s - to evacuate in fear of their lives. From there, Viet and his family escaped to the US, where they settled in Fort Indiantown Gap. Nguyen recalls that his earliest childhood memories were of the refugee camp, and the day he was torn from his own family and given to a white-sponsor family.
Despite these initial hardships, Viet Tanh Nguyen would go on to excel in the world of academia. Nguyen graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with degrees in English and Ethnic Studies in 1992, before receiving his PhD in 1997. Nguyen’s shift to fictional literature would earn him similar levels of success. His novel, The Sympathizer, was met with critical acclaim, winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel outlines the experiences of a North Vietnamese Spy in the South Vietnamese military, and serves as a satirical portrayal of espionage and conflict during the Vietnam War. Nguyen has often drawn on his experience as a refugee in subsequent novels, such as The Refugees, which is a collection of short-stories depicting the lives of asylum-seekers in both California and Vietnam. In addition to fictional works, Nguyen also worked as an editor on a collection of essays titled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives which highlights the experiences of other refugee authors.
Nguyen recognises the hardships his family has endured as well as their success in assimilating in the US, despite the stigma of being refugees. Yet, the author also remains aware that for many brown and black refugees, such levels of assimilation are rarely so attainable in the US, due to the lack of opportunities provided to them in comparison with their lighter-skinned counterparts. Nguyen has been vocal on issues pertaining to racial injustice and its impact on migrant communities within the US, whilst also refusing to drop his own title as a refugee. It is clear that, for Viet Thanh Nguyen, being a refugee is not just a circumstance; but a distinct identity, and a responsibility to others.