A large group of Penn students and teaching assistants — about 50 people in total — applauded when the author of their latest reading assignment, "The Sympathizer," stepped to the front of the classroom.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, who just recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, spoke to students in Penn professor Amy Kaplan's class “Vietnam War in Literature and Film” on April 18. Kaplan said she was “thrilled, of course” when she learned of his win.
“His novel will revitalize the memory of the Vietnam War and not allow new generations to forget it,” she said. “I am proud that a professor of American and Ethnic Studies wrote a novel that received such recognition.”
Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, wrote a novel based on the concept that “all wars are fought twice: the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
Nguyen’s family fled from their home in Ben Me Thuot, Vietnam for the United States in 1975, eventually settling in San Jose, California in 1978.
“I knew at four years old that I was a refugee,” he said. “And so I grew up always interested in the history of the Vietnam War, which had so dramatically affected my life and those of my parents.”
"The Sympathizer" opens in 1975 during the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong, but its narrator — who remains unnamed throughout the book — is acting as a double agent, serving a Republican General in the U.S. while sending reports back to his fellow communists back home.
Nguyen said that, as a man identifying as both Vietnamese and American, he was always interested in depicting the duality of self.
“We are not the own masters of our consciousness,” he said. “We compartmentalize certain parts of ourselves without realizing it, and that’s what I wanted to touch on in describing the narrator as so internally divided.”
Nguyen’s sense of sarcastic humor, which is prevalent in "The Sympathizer," earned several laughs during his talk.
“I’m done," he responded to a question about whether he would return to Vietnam. "Part of me doesn’t want to go back because it’s just way too hot. You’re just constantly drenched in sweat."
The students in the class, who have to write a paper on the text for their final exam, reacted positively to Nguyen's talk.
“He was so funny, honest and sincere,” said College freshman Alix Steerman. “He made me see how the layered messages conveyed in the book are all the more important.”
College freshman and Daily Pennsylvanian Copy Associate Harry Trustman was taken aback by how approachable Nguyen was. “It was no surprise that such an original work would win the Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “But I was surprised by how humble Nguyen came off only two days after winning it. He didn't claim to change the world or any other clichés which was so refreshing. The insight into his writing process definitely enriched the course for me.”
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