Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen grabbed the attention of the 1,200 audience members right away.
“For those of you who haven’t read ‘The Sympathizer,’ shame on you,” he joked before reading an excerpt from the book.
Nguyen’s speech opened the seventh annual Unbound Book Festival on Friday evening at the Missouri Theater.
“The Sympathizer,” Nguyen’s debut novel, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel tells the story of a French and Vietnamese spy for the Communist forces during the Vietnam War. Nguyen has written several other pieces, the most recent being “The Committed,” a sequel to “The Sympathizer” that came out last year.
Nguyen was a refugee during the Vietnam War, settling in the United States with his family in 1975. Although the book is not an autobiography, he said he had to use his own feelings and extremely vague memories of the war to help create the story.
He was raised in San Jose, California, in the 1980s. Nguyen said when he made it to the University of California, Berkeley, he was immediately radicalized.
“I realized my education had been a complete whitewash,” Nguyen said. He did not discover any Asian American authors until he found Amy Tan when he was 18.
Nguyen said 98% of the stories in the San Jose library that he frequently used were written by white authors. When he read stories about the Vietnam War, he saw a skewed version of the story, one that he couldn’t relate to. There was a narrative scarcity and a narrative surplus.
He explained narrative scarcity by using the film “Crazy Rich Asians.” The film was exciting for Asian Americans because it was rare to see in Hollywood. He said that it should be able to just be a romantic comedy and not hold the weight of scarcity that it does.
Nguyen spoke about having to “translate” in his stories as a non-white person. He said that authors who are part of the so-called majority don’t need to translate, and he recommended that minority writers should not translate and readers of those stories should not expect translations.
He made an example of this sort of translation by explaining that if he were to write about enjoying pho, he would explain it as a “delicious beef and noodle dish.” He said this would be the same as Jonathan Franzen, an American novelist, writing about enjoying a sandwich and explaining it as “two pieces of bread filled with something inside.”
There are trends in writing, just like trends in fashion. Nguyen thinks that “The Sympathizer” was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers because it did not fit trends in literature. According to him, stories about refugees of war often end up in America, and his did not. The novel is a critique of the Vietnamese government and is still not allowed to be published in his home country.
When Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize, he didn’t tell his parents. They found out from villagers in Vietnam. It was big news in the village, but because the story criticized the government, the official state media did not name him. They only shared that “someone” won a Pulitzer Prize.
The audience cheered when Nguyen discussed the television adaptation of “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen joked that “everyone wants to watch the TV series and not read the book — got it.” The crew for the series wasn’t able to get permission to film in Vietnam because of continued backlash for the critique of the country.
Nguyen finished his presentation by taking questions from the audience, including explaining the importance of his story “Chicken of the Sea.” This book was co-written by his then 6-year-old son, Ellison.
“Kids are expensive,” Nguyen said. His son of him was creative and began creating his own stories. Nguyen said he thought, “He’s cute, here’s an opportunity to make some money.”
He also emphasized that parents should encourage their children to be artists and authors. Ellison does n’t get everything he wants, but Nguyen provides any book he asks for and says that his son has his own library.
The event kicked off the return of in-person events for the Unbound Book Festival, which continues through the weekend. More than 30 authors participated in Saturday panels focused on topics such as graphic memoirs, banned books, the culture of letter-writing and more.
For the first time, Unbound will hold workshops and events designed for writers. The event will take place Sunday. For $50, attendees will select two workshops and will be provided with lunch.