Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Author Study: Viet Thanh Nguyen Curated by David Liu : Biography

The Life of Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh..What?

People not familiar with Vietnamese and Vietnamese culture often find it difficult to pronounce his surname. Viet said he prefers the southern pronunciation of his name, which spells Việt Thanh Nguyễn when the full diacritical marks. But in the United States, Vietnamese American readers have favored the pronunciation of “Win” for his surname, which is closer to Vietnamese with less complication from its Anglicization. Putting them together, the pronunciation of Việt Thanh Nguyễn is “Vee-uht Taan Nwin”. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Ban Mê Thuôt, Vietnam. At the age of four, Nguyen fled to America with his family in the April of 1975, and initially settled in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, one of the four camps for Vietnamese refugees. Despite managing to successfully escape from war-torn Southern Vietnam in 1975, Nguyen and his family faced hardships and anguish as soon as they set foot on the land of the United States. In an interview with Scott Simon, Nguyen revealed the painful past of his family being separated at refugee camps. Due to the inability of any American sponsor to take his entire family, 4-year-old Nguyen was separated from his 10-year-old brother and his parents, who were all taken by other sponsors. Nguyen recalled “howling and screaming” as he was taken away from his family – the first and most painful memory from his earliest childhood. 


Viet, then 2, with brother Tung Thanh Nguyen, age 9

Growing up in the 1980s, Nguyen consumed the American media as a moviegoer and absorbed themes and images from popular culture. Under the historical influence of the Vietnam War, Nguyen was exposed to popular movies including Rambo, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now, in which he identified as both the Hollywood soldier-heroes as an American and the Vietnamese that were relentlessly slaughtered on screen. Specifically, Nguyen recalled being traumatized by which Apocalypse Now glorifies the massacre of Vietnamese civilians, as he explained in an All Things Considered interview with National Public Radio. In the grip of the American mass media, Nguyen became avid for the history of the Vietnam War since about age 12, beginning to explore the issues of war and memory, diaspora culture, identity within multiculturalism, and critical analysis of the Vietnam War.



In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Nguyen felt like, as a refugee, he was never truly accepted by the U.S. The xenophobia associated with the refugee population made it especially difficult for Nguyen and his family to find a fine balance within the duplicity of identities. Growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in San Jose, Nguyen was able to see how his family and himself wore a different face when interacting with the larger American communication. Yet Nguyen had still struggled under the shadow and trauma and politics that was brought over with him as many Americans, subjected to fear, considered them as communist infiltrators. And so, Nguyen had a life of privation – deprived of his country, family, culture, and, inevitably, his identity.  

After attending St. Patrick School and Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Nguyen briefly attended UC Riverside and UCLA before finally settling on UC Berkley, where he earned his degrees in English and Ethnic Studies and A Ph.D. in English. Nguyen eventually moved to Los Angeles for a teaching position at the University of Southern California and has stayed there ever since. Nguyen is now a professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature, as well as a renowned author of various novels and books, including the best-selling novel The Sympathizer, published in 2015.

Viet Thanh Nguyen elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences at the University of California.