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Mission College Speaker Viet Thanh Nguyen Inspires Summer Reading

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with local ties who spoke at the Mission College library in April. He was the college’s featured Asian American and Pacific Islander speaker of the year.

“The Refugee” and “The Sympathizer,” Nguyen’s two recent works of fiction, are well-crafted and engaging summer reads that open one’s eyes to the Vietnamese immigrant/refugee experience that continues even decades after the Vietnam War officially ended in April of 1975, followed by the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1976.

Nguyen has roots both in Vietnam — where he was born in 1971 — and in San Jose — where his family eventually settled — opening one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city. He attended St. Patrick School and Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. He earned a Ph.D. in English at UC Berkeley and now teaches English at the University of Southern California.

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Published in 2017, “The Refugees,” is a collection of short stories written over 20 years. One sees in it reflections of Nguyen’s experience living in San Jose as well as insights into Vietnamese culture. Reflecting life and the Vietnamese-American experience in particular, the stories and endings are neither pat nor predictable.

“War Years,” for example, is about a Vietnamese boy who helps out at his parents’ convenience store in San Jose. It includes the experience of a home invasion and the dilemma of whether to pay a bribe to an unlikely extortionist to protect the family business.

“The Sympathizer,” published in 2015, is a spy novel set both in Vietnam and the United States. It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, among other awards. Nguyen has written many works of nonfiction as well as his recent fiction releases. His books are available at Santa Clara libraries.

In a CNN interview on Memorial Day May 28 (www.vietnguyen.info/2018/4643), Nguyen speaks to the issue of separating refugee children from their families. He himself was separated from his parents when they came to the U.S. in 1975. He was four and still remembers the trauma of that separation.

Nguyen concludes the interview by saying that — instead of “Make America great again” — we should “Make America love again.”

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