Los Angeles (The Nation): Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer. He’s also the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and was recently selected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He teaches at the University of Southern California, where he’s University Professor of English, Comparative Literature and American Studies and Ethnicity. And he edited the new book The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.
Jon Wiener: You insist on being called a refugee and not an immigrant. Why is that?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The immigrant idea in America is very strong. We call ourselves “a nation of immigrants”; it’s a part of our mythology that immigrants come here and achieve the American dream. Even at this moment in history, where the xenophobic attitudes that have always been present are reaching another peak, even people who don’t like immigrants nevertheless believe in that immigrant idea. But refugees are different. Refugees are unwanted where they come from. They’re unwanted where they go to. They’re a different legal category. They’re a different category of feeling in terms of how the refugees experience themselves. If you call yourself an immigrant here, you fit. People will want to hear your heartwarming story about getting to this country. If you say you’re a refugee, that’s the quickest way to kill a conversation, because people can’t relate to that. It’s easy for someone like me to pass himself off as an immigrant, to pretend to be an immigrant, but if I do that, I feel like I’m not speaking the truth. I feel that it’s necessary for people like me, who have benefited from being a refugee, to acknowledge our existence as such and to advocate for the new refugees today.