“The immigrant has always been an ambivalent figure in the United States,” writer Viet Thanh Nguyen told the Los Angeles Times last year. “The immigrant has always served as a source of rejuvenation for the country and a source of fear.” Examining that ambivalence is central to his work, across forms and genres.
Nguyen received the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his first novel, “The Sympathizer”; his nonfiction book “Nothing Ever Dies” was named a finalist for the National Book Award later that year. This week, Nguyen receives another honor: a MacArthur Fellowship, often called the “genius grant.”
An L.A. Times critic at large and a USC professor, Nguyen’s work has been recognized for its powerful exploration of the immigrant experience. He tackles the particular tensions of being both of a place and outside of it.
“Nothing Ever Dies,” probes the conflict that Americans call the Vietnam War and that Vietnamese call the American War, and his nameless protagonist in “The Sympathizer,” a sharp political satire of American involvement in Vietnam, calls himself “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” In an essay for The Times, Nguyen explained that “often the outsiders see us better than we on the inside can see ourselves.”
Nguyen came to the United States at age 4. His family settled in San Jose, where his parents opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city, a setting which he fictionalized in his most recent book, 2017’s “The Refugees.” In a review for The Times, Karen Long wrote that the short-story collection “casts a formidable spell, especially at this political moment when refugees are both a lightning rod and an abstraction.”
Nguyen has said he went through 50 drafts of a single story in “The Refugees,” and over a decade of research went into “Nothing Ever Dies.” As a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, he will receive a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant to help free him to develop future writing. He is currently working on a sequel to “The Sympathizer.”
“I feel a deep sense of humility; because I know there are many other writers in the contemporary moment who deserve this award, and many writers in the past who should have gotten it who didn’t,” Nguyen told The Times’ Deb Vankin after learning of the MacArthur Fellowship. “And I think about those writers who came at a time when the award didn’t exist whose work made my own possible. It makes me appreciate this even more.”