Nguyen’s discussion opens door to conversation on immigration, refugeeism

Nguyen’s discussion of immigration and refugeeism stemmed from being a refugee himself. Forced to flee his native Vietnam after the Vietnam War, Nguyen and his family ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. (Kimberly Nguyen/The Daily Campus)

“All wars are fought twice,” author Viet Thanh Nguyen told the audience gathered at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts during his reading on Tuesday night.

“The first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory,” Nguyen explained.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Sympathizer” was invited to read at UConn on Tuesday as part of the UConn Reads program, a common reading initiative that aims to open a dialogue about a different topic each year. This year’s theme is “The Conundrum and Challenge of Immigration” and Nguyen’s short story collection “The Refugees” was chosen to open a discussion on this topic.

Nguyen’s discussion of immigration and refugeeism stemmed from being a refugee himself. Forced to flee his native Vietnam after the Vietnam War, Nguyen and his family ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. After being separated from his brother and his parents when different American sponsors supported the different family members’ departure from the camp, Nguyen and his family eventually reunited and headed to, as Nguyen described it, “the promised land:  California.” The author’s parents opened a Vietnamese grocery in downtown San Jose, and the experience of anti-refugee sentiments that Nguyen was exposed to in his youth here inspired some of his fiction.

A notable moment that Nguyen touched on was his seeing a sign in the window of a store that said “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” The sign shocked Nguyen, who immediately thought of all of the sacrifices that his parents were making to successfully run their store and improve their lives.

“‘Do you know that my parents work 12-to-14 hour days in this grocery? Do you know that my parents were shot in the store in an armed robbery on Christmas Eve?,’” Nguyen said regarding his thoughts when he saw the sign. Ever since, he struggled to incorporate some of America’s views of refugees into his sense of self.   

Nguyen also described how watching the movie “Apocalypse Now,” a movie that depicts some of the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese civilians by American troops during the Vietnam War, caused him to feel “split in two.” The author described how he identified with the American soldiers until they killed Vietnamese people.

He used this example to discuss the power of stories. “When you’re part of the majority, all of the stories are about you, so you take the power of those stories for granted…. But when you’re a minority, almost none of the stories are about you, and so when… you appear to them only as a stereotype... these representations become so powerful and damaging for us,” Nguyen said.

So, when the Vietnamese Nguyen wrote his Pultizer Prize-winning “The Sympathizer” from the point of view of a Vietnamese character, he was hailed as “a voice for the voiceless.” Nguyen isn’t sure of the accuracy of this description, however, noting that these people are not voiceless, but unheard.

“It’s crucial for me to show that Vietnamese people were not [all] the same,” Nguyen said of accurately representing the people of Vietnam and of the importance of his literary voice.

His discussion was well-received by students, faculty and community members, who all clapped heartily at the end of Nguyen’s talk.

“I thought it was very interesting…. He has a interesting perspective because he’s a refugee himself,” second-semester ACES student Brielle Murillo said.

“I thought it was really great hearing him talk about his stories and his own experiences. And also I found it incredibly powerful how he talked about representation in the media as well….” sixth-semester English and history major Brianna McNish said. “Even though I don’t come from a refugee family, just his experience really struck a chord with me.”


Stephanie Santillo is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.