When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen kicked off Colgate’s 2018 Living Writers series on Sept. 13, his talk in Memorial Chapel focused less on the specifics of his award-winning short story collection, The Refugees, and more on its implications.
“I didn’t want to portray these people as victims — as objects of pity,” he told an audience of students, faculty, and staff. “I wanted to portray them as humans.”
The Refugees, required first-year reading for the 2018–2019 academic year, addresses the experience of Vietnamese-American refugees as modeled on Nguyen’s personal history.
Too young to remember much of his parents’ emigration from Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Nguyen grew up in a small grocery store they had opened in San Jose. One event he does vividly recall is seeing a sign on a recently closed store in town. It read, “Another American Driven out of Business by the Vietnamese.” In his speech, Nguyen emphasized that the sign represented, in his mind, a certain kind of story, too, a “very old story that’s been told for as long as we’ve been around.”
Just as The Refugees expands its scope to include wider issues of immigrant identity and exploitation of Latino immigrants in the contemporary American landscape, so did Nguyen’s speech. Particularly, Nguyen spoke out against the concept of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrant, which he believes is being used even by those within Vietnamese-American communities to accept prior waves of immigration but dismiss the current issues of refugees from Central America and the Middle East.
In addition to addressing the content of his work, the author was also able to talk about the mechanics of writing during a pre-speech craft talk with undergraduates in Lathrop Hall. Those present for the Q&A session are enrolled in English 360A (Living Writers), taught by series organizer Jennifer Brice, associate professor of English.
Nguyen noted that scope often serves as a problem for topical anthologies, where “every other story would be a reiteration of the first. I didn’t want to do that.”
Later, on the Memorial Chapel stage, Nguyen ended his campus visit with a call for everyone in the audience to act as storytellers, whether professional or not, to ensure that their voices are heard as individuals.
Ahmaud Gabriele ’22 described Nguyen’s speech as evocative and powerful. “My mom is an immigrant,” Gabriele said. “I’m definitely going to need to talk to her about that. It didn’t even dawn on me how meaningful that is.”