Writer's Digest

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Persistence. It’s the theme that runs throughout Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing career, and it has paid off. Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, an Edgar Award, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, among many others. Although it was his debut, it wasn’t the first book he wrote. Nguyen worked on a short story collection, The Refugees, for 20 years before it found a home. “Twenty years of rejection and misery and isolation was a terrible experience,” he said. “But on the positive side of that, I came out focused on the writing, thinking that the writing was what mattered.”

With that focus in mind, Nguyen writes books that he would like to read, without worrying what others will think of them, saying, “Write this book for yourself, not for anybody else …” Because of that approach, these novels from a literature professor and avid reader are multi-layered, genre-breaking works of art that do as much to critique culture as they do to entertain readers.

The Sympathizer follows an unnamed narrator on his escape to the U.S. during the Fall of Saigon, to a movie set, and ultimately to a Vietnamese reeducation camp where he writes his confession—the very book we’re reading. In the 2021 sequel, The Committed (set to be released in early March), the narrator finds himself in Paris, still reeling from his experiences at the camp and the fallout from his time as a double-agent. Just as absurd and comical and sharp as The Sympathizer, The Committed is a modernist experiment disguised as a thriller.

Between writing the novels, the publication of the first delayed to better time with the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the second delayed due to COVID-19, Nguyen found a home for the short stories he’d worked on, edited a collection of essays by refugee writers, and co-wrote a picture book, , with his son, Ellison. He also wrote the nonfiction book, , which considers the many ways history is remembered, misremembered, and erased. We began our conversation by considering how the idea of memories influenced the form of his novels.

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