Viet Thanh Nguyen: Refugee writers on refugee lives

In an event co-sponsored by Ithaca City of Asylum, Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, spoke at Buffalo Street Books on May 18. He shared his own experience as a refugee and the importance of making many refugee voices heard. Jack Wang, chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, interviewed Nguyen about The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which Nguyen edited.

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaking, seated at a table with Jack Wang.

Viet Thanh Nguyen (right) in conversation with Jack Wang, chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College

In The Displaced,  Nguyen gathers a collection of essays by nineteen prominent refugee writers from around the world. His conversation with Wang addressed questions of identity, agency, and voice of displaced people.

“Refugees lose their own voice,” Nguyen said to the audience.

According to the United Nations, there are 65.5 million displaced persons in the world today, a population that could, as Nguyen points out in his introduction to The Displaced, be their own country, “smaller than Thailand but bigger than France.”

Nguyen counts himself a citizen of this country of displaced persons. Forced to flee Vietnam with his family in 1975, when he was four, he intentionally holds on to his identity as a refugee, although, he says, it would be easier to call himself an immigrant by this point.

“Refugees lose their own voice.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen

“‘Immigrant’ indicates a strategic, voluntary choice made over time, technically welcomed,” he said during the talk. “‘Refugee’ is different, not voluntary. Moving as a mass of many people.”

The term “refugee” causes fear, particularly in America because “refugees indicate broken countries, failed states,” said Nguyen. “We Americans can never come from a failed state–or so the mythology goes.”

The Displaced illuminates the humanity of the individual refugee and underscoring the important role writers play in upholding human rights for 65.5 million refugees–the world’s displaced nation.

Ithaca City of Asylum board members Harriet Malinowitz (left) and Barbara Adams

Ithaca City of Asylum board members Harriet Malinowitz (left) and Barbara Adams wait for Viet Thanh Nguyen’s reading to begin.

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