Viet Thanh Nguyen Explores ‘War, Fiction, and the Ethics of Memory’ in the 2017 Troy Lecture
By Shannon Chan '18 | Thursday, December 7, 2017
Shannon Chan '18
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Each year the English department welcomes an eminent writer and scholar to deliver the annual Troy Lecture. This year’s Troy Lecturer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, recently received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (a “genius grant”), won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction. On November 15th, Nguyen delivered the 2017 Troy Lecture, entitled “War, Fiction, and the Ethics of Memory,” which focused on the formative experiences in his life and how they pushed him to become a writer and examine memory itself.
Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer, was a best-selling and widely praised novel of 2015 and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among many other awards. His 2016 novel, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War became a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. Both of Nguyen’s novels utilize theories of memory and history to delve into the exploration of Asian and Asian American identities and to shine new light on the trauma of the Vietnam War.
Asha Nadkarni, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director of the Department of English, introduced Nguyen by explaining that he is, “a consistent and conscientious critical voice in the field, helping both to expand and interrogate the contours of Asian American studies, not least through addressing the less than ideal subjects of Asian America.” Nadkarni told the audience that Nguyen “argued… that as political subjects and creative writers, Asian Americans engage in national culture in complex and even contradictory ways, like a well beyond refinery of resistance or accommodation that had long set the limits for the field of Asian American studies.” She pointed out that Asian American studies and culture are important to comprehending some of the contradictions and mythologies of American domestic life. Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies reveal new perspectives of the traumas of the Vietnam War in different ways. In this way, Nadkarni explained, his novels “[argue] for a practice of just memory that recognizes the other’s humanity and inhumanity alike.”
Nguyen began his lecture recounting his experiences as a refugee, which he said greatly impacted his work. In 1975, around the time the Vietnam War ended, Nguyen and his family fled from Vietnam, arrived to the United States in Pennsylvania, and then moved to California. Nguyen described the years of 1978 through 1988 as a “really formative decade for me because it gave me the requisite emotional damage… necessary to become a writer.” His first “damage” or traumatic event came when he was around ten or eleven, and his parents had opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in the city where they lived. As he was walking on the streets near his parent’s store, he saw a sign hanging from another store’s window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” “At that age, I really didn’t understand what this sign meant,” Nguyen shared. “Of course, I knew that it was directed against people like me and my parents, but I really didn’t understand. And it stayed in my memory because at the time I thought, who is this person who put that sign in the window? Does this person know that my parents work twelve to fourteen hour days almost every day of the year? Does this person know that my parents were shot in their store on Christmas Eve?” The event branded Nguyen, but he never truly knew how to express or understand his feelings until adulthood. However, the experience had made him think, even as a child, “behind the sign there was an entire story and that story has been with us for a very long time in this country and it’s still with us today.”
The significance of the sign was embedded into Nguyen’s memory and never left. This catapulted Nguyen’s exploration of memory as a writer. “I never forgot the Vietnam War even if I never actually remembered the Vietnam War,” he explained. There was a working of “ethics of memory” behind that sign and other societal issues that were happening during that decade, and perhaps even now.
The “damages” that helped form him and the principles he developed pushed Nguyen to become a writer. “It seemed... that there was a job to be done,” he said, “to contest the implicit story behind that sign. To try to transform that story through story telling so that we wouldn’t have to see those signs again.”
Nguyen extrapolates these memories and experiences into his writing. He describes his work as “fictional and critical bookends of what is one larger creative project... [A]fter working in-between both [fiction and criticism] I came to be driven by an ideal: perhaps it would be possible to write fiction like criticism and criticism like fiction.”
Nguyen’s well-received lecture touched on many issues and concepts and how they influence the process and product of writing. The notion of the contradiction of having memories despite forgetting or numbing the actual events of trauma questions the reliability of memory itself, and how that can affect our understanding of humanity or inhumanity. Through his writing, Nguyen has opened doors to different perspectives and revealed memory’s uncertain nature, calling into question what anyone believes to be true.
The Department of English’s Troy Lecture Series has hosted many award-winning authors who have combined a sense of literature, culture, and civic responsibility through their work. These authors include Junot Diaz, Seamus Heaney, Zadie Smith, Salmon Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, and many more. The Troy Lecture honors Frederick S. Troy, who was a professor of English, an honorary professor of the University, and a former UMass trustee.