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Author Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses how history and humanity is remembered

(Collegian file photo)

Author and Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen delivered the annual Troy Lecture hosted by the University of Massachusetts English Department, joining the ranks of other prominent authors who have given the lecture such as J.M. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie.

Nguyen read excerpts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Sympathizer” as well as from his new collection of shorts stories “The Refugees” in the Student Union Ballroom on Wednesday. Nguyen also talked about the struggle of being a minority writer, a writer in general as well as the memory of war.

“Every war is fought twice, once in battle, once in the mind,” Nguyen said. His lecture was centered around the way in which American society, as a whole, remembers or misremembers. He gave the example of the Vietnam War.

“When Americans say, ‘the Vietnam War,’ they really mean the American War,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen discussed how past presidents have mischaracterized the Vietnam War as “noble but flawed.” He quoted President Jimmy Carter, saying that the Vietnam War was a war of mutual destruction. According to Nguyen, around 60,000 American civilians died in Vietnam, which he described as a human tragedy. He also said that the war can’t be seen as “mutual destruction” when three million Vietnamese people died, and not a single bomb was dropped on the United States.

The misremembering, according to Nguyen, is a result of what he called the “ethics of memory.” Nguyen discussed how he believes there are two common models of remembering. The first is remembering the self, and the second is remembering others. Nguyen said remembering the self is a model of remembering that often leads to remembering others. According to Nguyen, people will remember their group—be it ethnic, religious or anything else—as human and the other group as inhuman.

He also said that remembering others comes in two categories: radical and liberal. The liberal category is the belief that everyone is human; this often leads to concepts such as ethnic literature and Black History Month or ideas that work to “validate people’s humanity.” Nguyen said that the radical category means remembering oneself as inhuman, and the other as human. Accordingly, this paints a picture in which the self is inhuman yet complex, while the other is human but one-sided and simple.

“He has really insightful opinions about memory,” said UMass freshman Maximilian Ehrbar.

Nguyen said that his goal in writing “The Sympathizer” was to depict a more accurate picture of human life in which no person is one dimensional—be it purely evil or purely good.

“We need to recognize our humanity and our inhumanity,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen also discussed his struggle when writing “The Sympathizer” as a Vietnamese writer in the U.S. and his struggle not to conform to what he described as traditional ethnic writing. According to Nguyen, with traditional ethnic writing, the author will often translate their work to cater to the majority white audience.

Nguyen gave the example that a writer in the U.S. would never have to explain what a sandwich is because everyone knows what a sandwich is. Yet, a Vietnamese writer would have to explain what pho is, because it is expected he will translate his work for the majority white audience.

“Ethnic writers should not translate their work,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen tried to move away from traditional ethnic writing, but he said he had a hard time getting “The Sympathizer” published, as his book deals with the memory many Americans associate with the Vietnam War.

“Thirteen out of 14 publishers turned down the book, and the one that ended up buying it was English.”

Peter Fath, a junior studio arts major, said that as a writer, he appreciated that Nguyen writes his own way. Fath said he especially related with Nguyen when he said that he hated writing 99 percent of his new collection of short stories.

“It is really difficult, but really rewarding,” said Fath.

Mack Cooper can be reached at

One Response to “Author Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses how history and humanity is remembered”
  1. Rita Asheer says:

    Interesting article.

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