Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen: from refugee to renowned author

Tucked away on the fourth floor of Taper Hall, Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s office is lined with shelves and shelves of books. For a longtime lover of literature and an English professor who has taught at USC for 20 years, the scene is not out of the ordinary — it is almost expected for a man who has dedicated his career to the written word.

Stacks of loose papers and up-ended novels create a wall between the center of his desk and the packed bookshelf, but Nguyen is not confined to classic literature in his line of work. For him, literature is alive — it is the embodiment of heritage, history, myth and culture and an inevitable product of his identity.

In April 2016, Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — a momentous event that shifted the trajectory of his writing career.

But beyond the awards and accolades, Nguyen is, at his core, a storyteller, a believer in the power of stories and how they philosophically change and enlighten people’s lives.

“My teaching is not only analytical,” Nguyen said. “I think about the larger frame of my semester: What kind of story am I trying to tell students every day when I come in to lecture, to lead discussion?”

Nguyen’s path as a writer inextricably intertwines with his work as a professor and scholar. Fresh out of a doctoral program at 26, Nguyen received a USC assistant professorship — a position that allowed him to pursue both fiction writing and academia — and has not left to teach elsewhere since.

“I’ve grown as a professor here by learning how to tell stories,” Nguyen said, reflecting on his academic tenure. “That came from writing fiction. I know that people respond to stories, including students.”

Nguyen has his own story — one that kindles his passion and dedication to his Vietnamese heritage. It’s a story he holds at the heart of his classes, academic research and published novels. At four years old, Nguyen was a refugee. Although he escaped the aftermath of the Vietnam War, he soon faced a war with his own identity as a Vietnamese American.

“The stories and art I encountered about the Vietnam War had nothing good to say about Vietnamese people of any background,” Nguyen said. “At that point, I realized that these stories are very important because they tell us about who we are.”

Nguyen’s story and struggle of cultural duality is not unique among Vietnamese Americans — generation after generation of immigrants, refugees and social newcomers to American society face these challenges.

“I wanted to write stories that would contest the American stories of the Vietnam War,” Nguyen said. “We as Vietnamese refugees are people considered [to those in Vietnam] as traitors, losers, dissidents. It’s a struggle to make our presence and our memory heard and felt.” 

Nguyen’s general education course on the Vietnam War is dubbed his personal passion project — it’s a course on the persistence of…

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