In celebrating and challenging Asia America, the Pulitzer Prize winner reflects upon his own undergraduate activism and urges Asian American Studies and Southeast Asian advocacy to center lived experiences.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)


"Every day at lunch, we would gather at a corner on campus and we would call ourselves the 'Asian Invasion'…where did we, as teenagers in the 1980’s, learn to call ourselves [that]?" asked Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen during his keynote speech for the first-ever Southeast Asian Students for OrgaNizing (SEASON) Conference for 2020, which took place on the weekend of February 21st. Roughly 250 students from university campuses across the country gathered to learn more about Southeast Asian advocacy and coalition-building.

As the keynote speaker for the 2020 David Nishida and Tina Yamano Nishida Distinguished Lecture at SEASON, Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, spoke about his formative years and experience as a student organizer at UC Berkeley, which influence his ongoing work with refugee literature and activism. Nguyen is the author of the novel, The Sympathizer (2015) and a collection of short stories, The Refugees (2017).

He began with a memory at the age of four of being torn away from his parents at a refugee camp followed by the long process to resettle in the United States. "Refugees are not the same as immigrants. And we know this without anyone having to tell us…There is something about being a refugee that many Americans consider to be antithetical to the American Dream. Americans cannot imagine that this country would be the kind of country that would produce refugees…we resist that idea – that refugees are Americans."

Recognizing Asia America

When Nguyen first attended UC Berkeley, he felt an electricity in the air that was rooted in student organizing. During an introductory Asian American studies class taught by Ronald Takaki, a Professor of Ethnic Studies at the time, Nguyen experienced a shift in understanding his identity as an Asian American and Southeast Asian refugee. "In Asian American studies, Asian American movements, Asian American literature, we affirm objective reality through our subjective experience…we should no longer be afraid to claim Asia as we have America." After joining the Asian American Political Alliance where many other students united with him in both campus and local advocacy based on personal and political interests, he said he learned to be passionate and stand up for his "inherently political" beliefs. "I remember that as an undergraduate student, I felt with great intensity. I believed deeply in my causes including being an Asian American, including the cause of literature and representation."

He encouraged students to hold onto their passion and energy. "Just because we choose a particular path out of idealism doesn’t mean that we will stay idealistic…Even if we do what we believe in, we don’t always stand up for what we believe in," he warned.

Nevertheless, Nguyen looks back fondly on his years as an undergraduate activist. "We haven’t given up the dream of our idealism."

The Pursuit of Representation

During those years, he also quickly realized that scholarship, activism, and identity are deeply intertwined. "Once we understand who we are, we start to ask questions about who is not recognized…your task is to ask: who am I not recognizing?"

For Nguyen, the answer to recognition found roots in representation and decolonization, which he addresses through his writing. Although he acknowledged that representation is not enough, he still called for narrative plenitude. "What we need is a situation where there are thousands of stories about us."

How do we attain narrative plenitude? "I was building on the work of an Asian American literary movement and of other Asian American writers that have come before me…Don’t stifle the hopes and dreams of your artistic children. Nourish them."

Embracing Challenge

Despite Nguyen’s passion for Asian American stories and activism, he maintains a critical perspective and is not afraid to challenge his own communities. "Asian American studies is not just about celebrating Asian America, but criticizing Asian America when we participate in structures of injustice and inequality…We are not just the victims of American racism; we participate in American racism."

His writing is a product of that self-reflection and criticism. The Sympathizer follows a North Vietnamese spy in the South Vietnamese army, which is a contrast from the America-centric understanding of the Vietnam War, but can be controversial in the Vietnamese community abroad because of the sharp divide between North and South. "What does it mean to speak for yourself? It means sometimes, you have to speak against your community…so that’s why I wrote The Sympathizer."

SEASON continued throughout the weekend to include panel discussions, performances, and over a dozen workshops featuring scholars, activists, and artists all under the conference theme of "Rising as One." SEASON was a collaborative effort by the coalition of Southeast Asian student organizations at UCLA and supported by many campus partners including the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Residential Life and Undergraduate Students Association Council.




Published Icon

Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2020