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

Public Opinion/Literary Criticism

Nguyen was an awardee for the 2016 Pulitzer Award in Fiction, 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Carnegie Medal for  Excellence in Fiction, le Prix du Meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book in France), and California Book Award. Out of all of his works Nguyen’s debut publication, The Sympathizer was widely received by the public. With Nguyen’s probing literary art, he has created a powerful and compelling work that portrays the multi-faceted reality of war. Unlike the glorification of American heroism and patriotism during the Vietnam War in media and culture, Nguyen presents its magnitude from the perspectives of various imaginary characters, influenced either directly or indirectly by the aftermath of the war. 


In remembrance of the Vietnam War, Nguyen has conscientiously reflected on and portrayed the struggles as a Vietnamese American refugee after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The refugee experience is made real with the many unforgettable and complex characters Nguyen breathed life into, whilst not asking the reader to not pity but see them. Nguyen’s stories are described as an urgent, wonderful collection that shows fiction can be more than storytelling - his masterful writing bears witness to the lives of people who we can’t afford to forget.

Viet Thanh Nguyen on "The Refugees" at the 2017 AWP Book Fair

Fiction Writer and Cultural Critic Viet Thanh Nguyen Talks About The Sympathizer and The Refugees | 2017 MacArthur Fellow

The Sympathizer(2015)

“Nguyen’s probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnam—but then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compelling—and profoundly unsettling.”

“Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America’s imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one’s personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-provoking work. It’s hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut.”

The Refugees(2017)

“The Refugees comes at a time when Americans are being forced to reckon with what our country is becoming, what values we truly hold dear. It's hard not to feel for Nguyen's characters, many of whom have been dealt an unfathomably bad hand. But Nguyen never asks the reader to pity them; he wants us only to see them as human beings. And because of his wonderful writing, it's impossible not to do so. It's an urgent, wonderful collection that proves that fiction can be more than mere storytelling — it can bear witness to the lives of people who we can't afford to forget.” 

“With anger but not despair, with reconciliation but not unrealistic hope, and with genuine humor that is not used to diminish anyone, Nguyen has breathed life into many unforgettable characters, and given us a timely book focusing, in the words of Willa Cather, on ‘the slow working out of fate in people of allied sentiment and allied blood​’.”

— The Guardian

“Nguyen's body of work not only offers insight into the experiences of refugees past and present but also poses profound questions about how we might more accurately and conscientiously portray victims and adversaries of other wars.”

The Refugees - The Black Eyed Woman

“The ensuing tale of love and loss, violence and violation, may not be unfamiliar to the reader, but the contrast between the tenacity of the brother’s ghost (he has taken decades to swim across the Pacific to reach America) and the sister’s self-willed exile into a half death – which is almost a rebellion against being alive – makes the story linger.”

Notable Awards:

2016 The Pulitzer Award in Fiction 

2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author

Dayton Literary Peace Prize

Carnegie Medal for  Excellence in Fiction

The First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction

le Prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book in France)

California Book Award

The Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association

Viet Thanh Nguyen receives the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction from Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger(left).