The British writer Ian McEwan told us a year ago that literature offers the unique possibility of walking in another person’s shoes. We tried this exercise in our interview with the Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen—winner of the 2016 Pulitzer prize for The Sympathizer—who came to Italy for the awarding of the Bottari Lattes Grinzane prize, for which he was one of the five finalists this year.
We asked him what it feels like to decide to get on a boat to escape war. His latest work The Refugees (published in Italy as “I rifugiati” by Neri Pozza, like his previous book) is a collection of short stories on this theme, the author himself having been one of the so-called “boat people,” though he dislikes the term.
What is the difference between a refugee in the ‘70s and one nowadays in the United States?
I have a certain familiarity with this condition. I am one of those hundreds of thousands of people who fled on boats. It was 1975, I was just 4 years old, and my parents were in their 40s. They had had a comfortable life in Vietnam, and they left behind everything they had built, their whole past. It was traumatic for them because they had to start again and at the same time think of their children, myself and my brother. They found themselves in a military camp, in a place they didn’t know, where they didn’t speak the language, and where they were given food that they found strange. [They spent three years there before settling down again, going through Fort Indiantown Gap and ending up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.]
From my point of view, however, everything was different. Children are very resilient, and they are able to withstand pain. I suffered when I was taken away from my parents and given to a sponsor. Then, when I was returned to my family, I was happy. I was in a new country, where there was snow, and I made new friends. Children know nothing of the world, and as long as they are with their parents, everything is new and beautiful to them. I cannot help thinking about Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents. The merits of any policy can be debated, but not one depriving a child of their family.
You wrote that, in a country where property was the only thing that mattered, your family had nothing that belonged to them—except for the stories. How did you manage?
My parents had to leave the refugee camp and find jobs, and take care of us at the same time. Even today, I don’t know how they managed to survive, but in the end they managed to rebuild their lives so that they were even better than their previous ones. It’s probably the case that when you have no other choice, you will just do it. But I know about many people who didn’t manage. Such a situation causes severe damage at the personal and family level—it brings powerful emotional abuse.
“I am not a refugee,” a trader from Aleppo who landed in Greece told journalist Agus Morales, the founder of the Spanish magazine 5W. He chose this statement for the title of his recent book (published in Italy by Einaudi). The Syrian in question is technically a refugee but doesn’t see himself as such. You, however, openly lay claim to having been one.
I say this publicly whenever I get the chance. There is an objective definition of the term, the one provided by the United Nations. There are 68 million stateless people in the world, and 22 million are technically refugees. Then there is a subjective definition: how one sees themselves, how they feel, how they are being treated. In any case, these are people who are not welcome in the country from which they left, and are not accepted at their destination. I have great solidarity with them, because I was a refugee myself.
Can a person feel they are a refugee even when they don’t meet the formal definition?
The legal definition of ‘refugee’ is one based on strict criteria. My work focuses on the condition of people who lived through war and were forced to make extreme choices in very difficult conditions. It is obvious that, going beyond the formal definitions, each of us can feel unwanted at particular points in our lives. I think there are common features between what a state does, which can expel or keep out particular people, and what an individual human being does in some situations, like when cutting off people from their lives. To prevent such things from happening, I think we have a lot of work to do, starting particularly from childhood.
In recent months, there has been a surge of racist acts in Italy against immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
I do not know the Italian situation in detail, but it doesn’t seem very different from what is happening in the United States. We also have migration flows, from Mexico and Central America. On account of this, a strong anti-immigrant sentiment has built up, and a border wall is being built. There is a division in society between those who feel compassion for migrants and those who are scared of them. I see the same thing in your country.
You have said you don’t like the term “boat people.” Why not?
I always avoided using the term “boat people,” which was very fashionable at the time, because I find it dehumanizing. We should not forget that half of the Vietnamese who fled died. They all knew that they were setting off on a desperate journey, and at the same time a heroic one. We need to ask ourselves why they decided to do it. In the US, we see astronauts as heroes, but we don’t realize that their likelihood of survival during space flight is much higher than for refugees getting on a raft. We must try to imagine what it’s like, what it feels like to get on a boat and risk your own life. Writers should talk about what refugees do in heroic terms: this experience is like an Odyssey for the modern day.
You call yourself a Vietnamese “made in the USA.” What relationship do you have with your country of origin?
I left in 1975, and returned for the first time in 2002. I went there five or six times until 2012, as a student, writer and university professor. Then I stopped going because The Refugees came out censored. They canceled the publishing of an autobiographical work in which I spoke about my story and my parents. The Sympathizer will probably be published, but it is very critical of the Communist Party, and we have been waiting for them to give us an answer since April. I will go back only when my books are published in full.