Asian Americans should be more angry.
Or at least that is what USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen thinks.
“If we truly understood our history, and if we understood our present, there’s a lot to be angry about,” Nguyen said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “Anger taken in the wrong direction, too much anger — this can be negative, but anger in the right dose is positive because it tells you that you are awake and that you are aware that there are injustices out there that you should be angry about … and if you’re not angry at all, in any way, shape or form, then you are completely blind or numb to these injustices that exist.”
That anger and awareness likely played a crucial role in propelling Nguyen to his latest achievement: In late September, Nguyen joined the Pulitzer Prize Board, becoming the first Asian American member in its 103-year history. The Pulitzer Prize is one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world and its board presides over the judging process that determines the award’s winners and finalists. Nguyen will serve a three-year term that’s renewable twice for up to nine years.
Despite the trailblazing nature of his new position, Nguyen does not think that the honor itself is cause for satisfaction. Instead, Nguyen hopes that his new position will help tear down entrenched barriers to representation. He hopes his distinction as the only Asian American on the board doesn’t force him to be its metaphoric gatekeeper of all things Asian American, a role he wholeheartedly rejects.
“We have to do more than simply ask for representation or demand representation. We also have to change these systems, so that there is more — more access, more opportunity for different peoples — and we have to try to make sure that these institutions don’t have just one person of a certain background, but that they have many,” Nguyen said. “I’m not interested in being the only Asian American on the Pulitzer board, I’m not really interested in being the only one of my kind wherever I am. I’m committed to drawing attention to the fact that we need to throw open the gates altogether not to have a gatekeeper as the [only] representative.”
Long before Nguyen ascended to the heights he’s reached over the course of his career — heights that also include Aerol Arnold Chair of English at USC, contributing writer for The New York Times, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (more commonly known as the “Genius Grant”) and a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer, Nguyen was a child growing up in San Jose as the son of Vietnamese refugees that fled the Vietnam War in 1975 when Nguyen was only 4 years old.
Nguyen’s upbringing in San Jose might best be described by juxtapositions. On the one hand, Nguyen’s parents lived the American dream. After settling in San Jose and working at a friend’s grocery store, Nguyen’s parents opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city and flourished. On the other hand, Nguyen’s parents worked 12-14 hour days at the store in a very dangerous environment — one in which they were both shot and wounded during an armed robbery — and many members of the family, including Nguyen himself, still bear traumatic scars from their shared experiences of war and dislocation.
In a similar vein, even though their local community was relatively diverse, it was still predominantly white, and Nguyen still felt an acute sense of otherness.
“Regardless of how multicultural the neighborhood was, I was still an American,” Nguyen said. “And like all Americans, I was attuned into popular culture, which meant I was exposed to radio and TV and movies in which Asians and Asian Americans were cast as ‘the other.’ They were either racially stigmatized or silenced or not even present.”
That sense of otherness extended to Nguyen’s high school experience. In a predominantly white school with predominantly white teachers and a euro-centric curriculum, Nguyen and his fellow Asian American classmates would gather in a corner of campus every day out of an instinct for self-protection and belonging. Ultimately, it would be at Berkeley where Nguyen would finally find the language to understand and articulate his otherness.
While an undergraduate at Berkeley, Nguyen took courses in Asian American studies and Asian American literature that revealed to him an American history of systemic anti-Asian oppression. In Nguyen’s words, it was a radicalizing experience.
“To be radicalized really meant to understand simply what had happened to Asians and Asian Americans,” Nguyen said. “And if that is radicalization, then I hope everybody becomes radicalized because if you don’t know these things, in fact, what has happened is that you have been deprived of the knowledge of your own existence. So that’s what happened at Berkeley.”
Nguyen went on to earn his Ph.D. in English from Berkeley. The rest is history.
Six books and 23 years later, it’s clear that the radicalization he underwent at Berkeley didn’t just end with him but has rubbed off on some of his students as well.
Christine Nguyen is a junior at USC majoring in political science and business law. She was introduced to Nguyen by a fellow student and now manages the professor’s social media accounts.
“I would definitely say that working for professor Viet has changed my identity one thousand percent — like a total change,” Christine said. “I grew up very ignorant of my identity because I went to a predominantly white high school and had a predominantly white group of friends and so it was hard for me to identify and be proud of my culture … so working for professor Viet [provided me] with a lot of academic, historical and political background to why I am the way I am and it has allowed me to take power and ownership of my identity.”
It is no secret that academia is a predominantly white institution. So when Nguyen lectured as a guest speaker during one of Christine’s classes, the effect was profound.
“You don’t realize the nuances of individual identity until you see people that struggle similarly to you; in my own upbringing I didn’t see anyone in academia like Professor Nguyen before,” Christine said. “When he came to speak in one of my classes he was talking about his struggle of success and how memory politics played into his own individual career and I was like ‘Wait, that kind of sounds a little bit familiar to me’ … it causes you to reevaluate the trajectory of your career goals and it’s more nuanced than the one-size-fits-all standard that we see in popular culture.”
Tommy Nguyen, a junior majoring in History and International Relations, took Nguyen’s class, AMST 150: The American War in Vietnam, after reading the professor’s 2018 Time Magazine cover story, ‘I Love America. That’s Why I Have to Tell the Truth About It.’ At the end of the semester, Tommy was recommended by the class TA to become Nguyen’s research assistant.
“Professor Viet Nguyen taught me to be angry at different things and to change my anger in different ways,” Tommy said. “Reading The Sympathizer and learning from him has shown me things from different perspectives to help me realize who caused the [Vietnam] War and who were the real villains and who were the real heroes … a lot of the history that we learn [with Nguyen] isn’t just a Vietnamese history, American history or Cambodian history, it’s a human history of us.”
With his highly anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer set to hit shelves next year, Nguyen shared some advice for aspiring writers.
“If you are coming from a background outside of [the majority] as some kind of disempowered, marginalized, minority population, you may feel the pressure to explain yourself and your culture, to translate yourself, your languages, your customs, and so on and so forth — this is something that must be absolutely resisted by any writer,” Nguyen said. “When I say write like a majority, I don’t mean like a white person, I mean write as if we ourselves are speaking to ourselves, and let everyone else catch up. That’s where you get interesting art, and even hopefully, great art, to come from.”
Given Nguyen’s literary stature, it is likely that much will continue to be made about his significance to the Asian American community. However, Nguyen wants his readers to remember that he is no spokesperson.
“Every time I go and say something in public, I usually try to include some kind of statement to the effect of which ‘I’m not a voice for the voiceless, I’m not a spokesperson,’” Nguyen said.
“I think it’s crucial for all of us to speak out and to be heard, and then if we are somehow successful at it, it’s absolutely crucial for us to say that we are not the spokespeople and not the voices for the voiceless. Our real commitment should not be to be voices for the voiceless, our real commitment should be to abolish the conditions of voicelessness. That’s the true act of justice.”