Viet Thanh Nguyen kicks off Fall Speaker Series

Viet Thanh Nguyen comes to campus to speak about his experience being an immigrant coming to America during the Vietnam War on Wednesday, September 12 in Plachta Auditorium.

Viet Thanh Nguyen kicked off the Central Michigan University Fall Speaker Series this Wednesday.

Nguyen discussed The Sympathizer his best-selling novel that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Sympathizer is a historical novel about a communist spy living in an American refugee camp in 1975. The spy comes to America following the Fall of Saigon in Vietnam.

Before the event began, their was an opportunity for CMU students and faculty members to speak with Nguyen. There were snacks and refreshments served while students engaged in conversation with the author. CMU President Robert Davies was in attendance.

Davies expressed his excitement to have the award-winning author on campus. 

“This is what a University is all about; bringing in speakers and presenters to help educate,” Davies said. “Being on a college campus is all about exploring new ideas.”

The event began with a story of Nguyen's youth. Him and his family took refuge in the United States during the Vietnam War in 1975. His family had to leave his adopted 16-year-old sister in Vietnam due to border complications. 

He and his family stayed at a refugee camp in Southern California . The camp could not find a sponsor to take in his entire family, so they were separated. He remembers being taken away from his parents. After a few months passed, he was reunited with his family. His parents opened a grocery store in San Jose California, which was vandalized on many occasions. The store was bought out and turned into a parking lot.

“Being a refugee gave me just enough emotional damage to become a writer,” Nguyen said.

His inspiration came from the lack of Vietnamese representation in literature about the Vietnam War. Much of Nguyen’s work is about war and how it affects civilians. 

“Most Americans do not know much about the Vietnamese war,” Nguyen said. “I want the war to be told by a Vietnamese perspective, But even the spy in my book says he is a man of two minds; meaning he likes both communism and capitalist ideas.”

The Sympathizer won a Pulitzer Prize after selling 22,000 hardcover copies, Time reported.  As of 2017, the book had sold more than 400,000 copies.

“I went from being a refugee to a part of the bourgeoisie class," Nguyen joked. “I went from living in camps to being invited to country clubs."  The auditorium erupted in laughter.

Nguyen said Americans don't believe that what happens in the countries refugees flee would ever happen to them. He feels that some Americans don't know what goes on in corrupt countries or understand the effects of war.

The author encouraged the crowd to think about the corrupt governments and war-ridden countries refugees come from. Nguyen said Americans often stereotype what a good and bad refugee is.

“The idea of having good refugees and bad refugees is very dangerous,” Nguyen said.

World Languages and Cultures faculty member Krzysztof Kulawik participated in the question and answer portion of the event. He and Nguyen discussed the differences and similarities of being Asian or Hispanic in Southern California. 

Chi Diep, a freshman from Vietnam appreciated Nguyen's representation of Vietnam.

“It was amazing and very inspirational," Diep said. "He really captured the voice of the Vietnamese people. The thing I remember most from the speech is he said we need create conditions for the voiceless people to speak.”

Nguyen wanted everyone in his lecture understand that we are all storytellers. He hopes that people begin to think about what kind of stories society and people are telling and how the stories affect minorities.

“A sign that you are a majority is when most of the stories in your society relate to you,” Nguyen said.