Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, was nominated earlier this month as one of five finalists for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer.
According to the press release of the PEN/Faulkner Award, nearly 500 novels and short story collections written by American authors published in the United States in the 2015 calendar year have been reviewed by a panel of judges. The five finalists include Nguyen, Elizabeth Tallent, James Hannaham, Julie Iromuanya and Luis Alberto Urrea. The final winner will be announced on April 5.
The Sympathizer is a novel narrated by a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy in the South Vietnamese army, who eventually flees to the United States before the fall of Saigon. He is forced to confront the limitations of his beliefs upon his arrival.
â€œI really wanted to use that type of a narrator and that type of a setup â€” someone who feels that he is caught between different worlds and between different ideologies,â€ Nguyen said.
His personal background shaped his literary focus. He and his family came to the United States in 1975 as refugees because of the Vietnam War.
â€œOur family was separated from each other, sent to different sponsors. So at 4 years old, I was sent to live with a white family by myself,â€ Nguyen said. â€œThat was the beginning of the consciousness and memory for me and that always imprinted itself on me.â€
According to Nguyen, he initially wrote the book for himself because he wanted to have a say in the world. To him, books and movies about the Vietnam War lacked the element he looked for.
â€œThere was a significant absence of something I wanted to say that hadnâ€™t been said before. So, therefore, I was writing for myself,â€ Nguyen said. â€œBut I also have to believe that, in doing that, I would find some like-minded readers who are also like me. That was an act of faith to try to reach out to those people, too.â€
After his successful debut, he started working on his second book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which will be officially released in April.
â€œThis is fictional and scholarly bookends of a project about how we remember war and how we confront our own inhumanity,â€ Nguyen said. â€œThe concerns I had as an undergraduate and a graduate student, thinking both about literature and culture on one end and ethnic studies or race on the other, have motivated me for most of my professional career.â€
Nguyen also talked about the importance of the class he teaches. He has taught â€œAmerican Studies 150: The American War in Vietnamâ€ five times to classes of 150 to 200 students.
â€œI was able to write that book as a story because I was trying to tell my students a story about what the Vietnam War means and the challenges of memory,â€ Nguyen said. â€œIt was really important to me as a teacher to incorporate what I was thinking about as a scholar and as a writer into my class. Teaching that class was really important to me to write these two books.â€
Nguyen expressed his emotions after achieving the accomplishments with his debut novel.
â€œThe book has been reviewed almost completely positively in the press, and that is gratifying, of course,â€ Nguyen said. â€œBut I am someone who spent many years working as a critic and as a writer, and I tend to take all of that with a big grain of salt. It is great to get all the accolades and prizes, but all of that is less important than the act of writing itself.â€
He shared how he currently feels about being nominated along with other writers.
â€œOne of interesting facts for being nominated for prizes is just recognizing how talented other writers are â€” their accomplishments, the books and how powerful their works are,â€ Nguyen said. â€œTo be in the company of these other writers in the PEN/Faulkner is really an honor because many of them have significant track records and publications I donâ€™t have.â€