How This Pulitzer-Prize Winner Was Inspired by Filipino Writer Carlos Bulosan
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer prize in 2016 for his debut novel The Sympathizers. Telling a genre-spanning story that’s part-mystery, comedy and history, the book has been praised for giving a fresh and compelling new perspective to the Vietnam War.
Nguyen, who is the son of war refugees, moved to the United States with his family in 1975, soon after the fall of Saigon. He completed a bachelor’s degree in English and Ethnic Studies from the University of California in Berkeley and subsequently received his Ph.D. in English, also in Berkeley.
In addition to writing, Nguyen is also an English professor at the University of Southern California. He was one of the guest speakers at this year’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, alongside acclaimed U.S.-based Filipino author Gina Apostol.
Esquire Philippines chatted with Nguyen about his career as a writer, how he deals with criticism and which writers he would love to invite to an intimate dinner party.
Esquire Philippines: How do you like this part of being a published author—the interviews with journalists and the speaking in front of a crowd? I know some authors prefer solitude and being cooped up inside their homes.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Generally, I prefer that, too. But like the narrator of my novel, I'm a man of two minds. So part of me wants to sit in a room, write my books, be by myself, and another part of me enjoys being out talking to people, and engaging with with people. So this part is fabulous. Except, of course, getting here is always hard. Because I tear myself away from my family, from my writing, take a long trip to come out here. And then once once I get here, then it's all a lot of fun.
Esquire Philippines: So obviously, you've done a few of these interviews, and your life is pretty much an open book. But at what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a writer as a career? That you were serious enough about it to have that to be your career?
Well, you know, I come from a refugee family that has high expectations for its children to be successful. And so being a writer was not a part of that. My idea of becoming successful to get a day job was to become a professor. Become an academic. But when I did that, when I started graduate school to get my Ph.D, I also swore to myself that I would still continue to be a writer, and that I would try to do both things. So the writing was always my passion and academia was my profession. Even in my 20s, I had that goal in mind. Once I was secure as an academic in my 30s, that's when I started to fulfill my promise to myself and focus much more my attention on writing. And it would take another decade, though, before my writing really culminated in books getting published.
Esquire Philippines: Did you ever feel like you had a deadline for yourself? You know how some authors, they hit it big when they're like, I don't know, some in their teens or in their 20s.
Of course, I remember when I was 18, I told my college freshman roommate that I want to have my first novel published by the time I’m 25. Of course, that was just my ambition. I couldn't do it. Yeah. So I missed my deadline by 20 years, which was obviously very disappointing, as I realized I did not have the talent to be this young genius.
But in the long run, I think it was actually good for me. Because the 20-year-gap between saying I wanted to be published at 25 and actually having The Sympathizer my first fiction book, published at 45, what that taught me was suffering—how to suffer, how to endure. And I think that those are very, very crucial traits for a writer. I think those are as important as talent or the ability to write.
Most writers have to confront that. And I think for writers who don't confront that, when they're younger, they have their early success, it can be very dispiriting to have that early success, and then to have disappointment. So for me, I got the disappointment out of the way, I hope. (Laughs)
By the time I got successful with The Sympathizer, obviously, it was great. But I was also able to put that success into context, that the success was very different from art. Art is what I learned over that 20-year period.
Esquire Philippines: I also read some of the pieces that you wrote for The New York Times, and one in particular really got me, that piece called Don’t Call Me a Genius, because you mentioned some of the Asian writers that you admire, especially the Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan. How did you discover Bulosan?
In college, I went to school at UC Berkeley, I took a class an Introduction to Asian American studies with Ronald Takaki, who wrote the first major (book) on Asian-American history, Strangers from a Different Shore. And in his class, we read Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart. I'd read very few Asian-American authors at that point; no Filipino authors. And it made a big impact on me, partly because it was completely new history for me, but also because of Bulosan’s model as a radical writer who was committed not just to art, but also to politics, and especially labor, politics and decolonization and Marxism. He was a radical in the 30s and 40s, and he’s still a radical today, because there are still are not that many writers who want to do what he did in America is in the Heart and his other books as well.
Esquire Philippines: Whether they care to admit it or not, winning the Pulitzer Prize is a dream or goal for a lot of writers. Now that it's been a few years since that happened, does it feel any different to have that, honorific—Pulitzer Prize-winner—in front of your name?
Absolutely. I think, initially, when it happened, it was a complete shock. And it took about a year for the reality to sink in. It changed my life and made things like this trip possible. Yeah. But it still seems a little unreal. But also now, it is a fact, now it is a part of my life. And it has various ramifications from knowing that there's a lot of expectation placed on my writing now.
But also this idea that this is a huge opportunity and responsibility. I think of myself as someone who works in a genealogy that comes from writers like Bulosan, who saw himself as a public intellectual. He was writing fiction, but also, you know, he was engaged with politics, and engaged in contesting America, but also representing Filipinos.
So in a similar way, I feel some of the same challenges as an Asian-American writer and as an American writer. And so to be given a Pulitzer Prize means it's not just for me, it gives me the opportunity to talk about so many other things that are important for people of color, for Asian-Americans, for Vietnamese people, which is why I do things like write for The New York Times.
Esquire Philippines: You’re also a teacher and professor. I'm curious if you've ever encountered students who, you know, fancy themselves as writers, but who you thought don’t quite have that gift? Are you encouraging? How do you handle that?
It's very hard, because, when you're looking at someone who's young, or even when they're not young, anybody who's writing whatever age they happen to be, you can't guess what they're going to turn into 10 or 20 years down the line. So you can have a good writer, someone who writes very well and has a lot of talent, but you can't predict if that writer will ever get published. Because, like I said, writing and talent, are only one component of what makes a writer. The ability to suffer and to endure is also crucial.
So a very talented writer who can write a good story when they're young, if they can't sit down and write an entire book, and suffer through rejection, they'll never get a book published. Or another writer who may not show that much talent on the page could surprise you, because they persist.
And I know this from experience, because when I was at Berkeley, I was one of those young writers who was not very impressive. I took writing classes, I had famous writers as my teachers. I don't think any of them would have thought that I would have mattered to anything. And so I think myself as an example of that, that you can't discourage people just based on your predictions about who they're going to be.
Esquire Philippines: What about yourself? How do you handle criticism? You’re an award-winning writer, but you probably still get not-so-nice critiques of your work.
So I'm a critic as well, so I criticize as a writer. When my fiction came out, I thought, I can't be a hypocrite about this, and not deal well with criticisms that’s directed at me. And I was actually very fortunate that almost all the reviews of my fiction, whether it's The Sympathizer or The Refugees, almost all the reviews have been very positive.
But what I did is I went and I read almost all the reviews that have been written about my work on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com. And they're not all positive. These are a cross-section of consumer ceports. And there's some hard criticism there! And I thought, well, it's my job to read these…to show that I can deal with them. Of course, some of them sting and all that, and you have to supress the urge to write back to these people.
I did that for a couple of years but I think that I stopped doing that. Dealing with the criticism is part of being a writer. The danger is how to determine what criticism you're going to take. Critics play an important role. I've learned a lot from critics. So on one hand, I want to be able to be open enough to listen to valid criticism. On the other hand, the danger is that you can become afraid. Because you think, well, what if they don't like my book? What if they don't like this risk I'm going to take? There's no easy solution to that.
The book that I'm writing now is actually going to be probably a little bit more challenging than The Sympathizer. And I think, will everybody get it? What if the critics don’t like it? You don't want to start second-guessing yourself. I think it's perfectly okay to worry about how people are going to receive your work, but you can't let that control how you write.
Esquire Philippines: So one last thing, If you were to organize an intimate dinner with three living authors, who would you want to be there?
Okay, well, Haruki Murakami. I think about I've admired his work for for a long time. Let me see. Well, Elena Ferrante. It’s not like I can meet her anyway. So why not drag her into this. And I already had dinner with Gina Apostol. But you know what? Put Gina. I don't want to name like someone who's like a completely American writer. And she's a really fascinating person.
Have you guys met before?
Yeah. I think we're kindred spirits.