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Viet Thanh Nguyen's Brief But Spectacular take on writing and memory


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Judy Woodruff: As long as he can remember, author Viet Thanh Nguyen has been interested in how stories about his home country of Vietnam are told in America.

In his own works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Sympathizer," he centers on the voices of refugees like himself.

And, tonight, he offers his Brief But Spectacular take on writing and memory. It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Author, "The Sympathizer": I think anybody who has been touched by a war never forgets it. And that's been true for me.

I never learned anything about Vietnam, as far as I can remember, in school. It just wasn't even a subject. I got most of my education through Hollywood and through the books that I was finding in the public library, because I was very curious about where we had come from and what that history was.

And, for the most part, that history was completely American-centered. Sometimes, that was benevolent exclusion of the Vietnamese. But, oftentimes, it was also deeply racist and sexist when it came to the depiction of Vietnamese people. And that was -- that was shocking for me. And it played a big role in shaping my psyche and my determination to be a writer and a scholar who could do something different about that history.

I was 4 years old when Saigon fell, or was liberated, depending on your point of view. So, of course, my memories of that time are really undependable. I vaguely remember soldiers riding on tanks, I sort of remember sailors on our boat shooting at another boat.

We arrived in the United States in the summer of 1975. And we were resettled in a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. That's where my memories really begin. And I remember those barracks and storing those feelings and those memories away to eventually write about them.

And so the tension here, of course, is that everything eventually needs to be forgotten in some way for us to move on and survive. And with the war in Vietnam, we reached a point where those people, that generation is starting to fade away.

And that's obviously a great loss in one way, but it's also a great opportunity for other people to step in and to tell different stories, either stories about moving on or stories about that time that have the luxury of emotional distance.

And I think that's where I'm at. I think that I have been lucky that "The Sympathizer" has been read by a number of people. It's inevitable that you're -- when you're talking about a war and the tragedy and trauma, if you have anything meaningful to say, it'll probably be controversial, because people are still divided about it.

I have always thought of myself as a writer who works in conjunction with movements. When I take on that label of being an Asian American writer, what I'm saying is, I'm a writer in relationship to Asian American communities and Asian American political and social movements.

It was through writing that I could fight for my place in American society, but also in the global imagination as well.

I'm Viet Thanh Nguyen, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on writing and memory.

Judy Woodruff: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos at

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