#AWP17 Featured Presenter Q&A with Viet Thanh Nguyen
AWP | February 2017
Event Title: Distant Lands, Intimate Voices, with Patricia Engel, Sabina Murray, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, Sponsored by Grove Atlantic
Description: Award-winning authors discuss bringing the global into their deeply personal new works: The Sympathizer, Valiant Gentleman, and The Veins of the Ocean. Writing from three different cultural backgrounds about countries as near and far from their own lives as Vietnam, Ireland, Colombia, and Cuba, each writer brings a new perspective to the meaning of writing from experience.
Participants: Patricia Engel, Sabina Murray, Viet Thanh Nguyen
Location: Ballroom C, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Level Three
Date & Time: Friday, February 10 from 8:30 p.m.–10:00 p.m.
Q: What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
A: Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is an outstanding graphic memoir about Vietnamese refugees in California. Sharp storytelling at the level of word and image. Kia Corthron’s The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is an ambitious novel and devastating history of twentieth century America. You won’t ever forget it. This book won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, which I helped to judge, and I can honestly recommend any of the finalists as well: Emma Cline’s The Girls, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes The Sun, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You Charlie Freeman, and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. All are strong and remarkable books.
Q: When AWP was founded in 1967, there were a dozen creative writing programs. Now there are approximately 1,800 undergraduate and graduate programs. What do you think has changed for readers and writers since creative writing became ascendant as an academic discipline?
A: On the positive side, these programs offer time and space for writers to develop, which can only be good. Of course they offer some writers jobs as well, which is also quite nice. On the negative side, my guess is that the majority of these programs participate in, or lean toward, an apolitical and ahistorical treatment of aesthetics. Aesthetic standards that are historically produced and contingent are elevated to the universal, and as a result, writers with backgrounds and concerns that don’t resonate with these standards may feel marginalized and must struggle to find their own way.
Q: What advice can you offer to writers who must navigate between the solitude of artistic work and our nation’s politics and culture at this moment?
A: It’s necessary to find the balance that is appropriate for you. I can only speak for myself in saying that I’ve always been a writer who sees himself as politically and socially committed. I need solitude to write, but I recognize that my solitude is a privilege. I want to work for a world in which everyone has that privilege. This means two things. The first is that my writing is oriented in a certain direction, the intersection of art and politics. The second is that I devote a great degree of time to the work of teaching, administering, mentoring, and organizing, all of it aimed in one way or another towards a vision of social justice, which includes a role for art and writing. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but most of the time it provides me with a sense of community and solidarity that complements the solitude of writing.
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the California Book Award for First Fiction. He is also the author of the nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.