Pulitzer Prize winner talked on writing for marginalized group

Lauryn Haas

There is a clear distinction between refugees and immigrants.

Immigrants choose to look forward into their futures, while refugees are forced to leave behind their past, Viet Thanh Nguyen said during his speech Singletary Center.

The Gaines Center for the Humanities and the English department’s MFA in Creative Writing hosted this year’s Bale Boone Symposium in the Humanities: An Evening with Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen spoke before 380 members of the UK community on Wednesday night.

Nguyen is an award-winning author, editor, critic and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.

Nguyen started his speech by taking a photo of the audience and said, “I can’t help myself, I’m Asian!”

Nguyen’s sense of humor proved to be one of the main elements of his speech, but underneath his jokes was an important message. 

“We’re only expected to be human, as if that was a reward when actually it’s common sense. We’re only expected to be victims, so that people can pity us,” Nguyen said. “Humanity is part of the privilege that is never acknowledged as being part of the majority.”

Nguyen’s New York Times best-selling novel “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. The novel made it to over 30 book-of-the-year lists after being rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers.

“It is important for me to assert constantly that I am a refugee because when ‘The Sympathizer’ came out, many of the reviews spoke about it as an immigrant’s story,” Nguyen said. “Refugees and immigrants [are] actually quite different, and Americans as well as people all over the world tend to see refugees and immigrants in a very different way.”

Although Nguyen has been called “the voice for the voiceless,” he clarified that Vietnamese refugees have their own, very strong voice. Nguyen was recently awarded a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, a no-strings-attached $625,000 award to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential. 

“I thought it was really interesting to hear about writing from the perspective of someone of a marginalized identity because that’s something I struggle with, so I thought it was interesting to hear about it from someone who was very successful doing it,” sophomore English major Laura McAllister said  

UK Alumna Mary Lou Friesen heard of the event through email and decided to attend because she had read and enjoyed “The Sympathizer,” she said.  

“This was a good way for me to reconnect with UK,” Friesen said. “As a former English major, it was very exciting for me to hear that a writer of his caliber and who is so down-to-earth was coming to UK.” 

The Bale Boone Symposium events are a testament to the influence and memory of Joy Bale Boone and George Street Boone, who were committed to the betterment of the humanities. They are supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.