Hours After Winning Pulitzer, Nguyen Reads in Cambridge

Photo by Webb ChappellPhoto by Webb Chappell
The Boston Globe
April 19, 2016
By James Sullivan

In May, the last time Viet Thanh Nguyen read from his work in Cambridge, he chose a section of his 2015 debut novel that required him to raise his voice in character.

On Monday, he promised not to do it again. “No screaming this time,” he told his audience at the Harvard Book Store. But he could have indulged himself a celebratory whoop: Just a few hours earlier, Nguyen learned he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for that novel, “The Sympathizers.”

While not unheard of, it is uncommon for a first-time novelist to win the coveted prize. “No one is more surprised than I am,” he said at an appearance to coincide with the paperback publication of the book.

The last debut writer to pull off the feat was Paul Harding of Topsfield who won the 2010 award for his book, “Tinkers.’’

“The Sympathizers,” which imagines the story of a Vietnamese army captain acting as a sleeper agent in America after the Vietnam War, builds on Nguyen’s own personal experience as a Vietnamese immigrant who grew up in America. The book is a meditation on 100 years of American imperialism and the various ways the Americans and the Vietnamese have chosen to remember their war, he told his audience.

“There’s something in this book to offend everyone,” he said with a smile.

Finalists for the literary prize included Margaret Verble for her novel “Maud’s Line’’ and Kelly Link of Northampton for a collection of stories, “Get in Trouble.’’

Over the long course of writing his book, Nguyen was awarded fellowships from two local institutions. A decade ago, he spent several months at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which has produced several previous Pulitzer winners, including Harding and Jhumpa Lahiri. From 2008-’09, Nguyen was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

“He was extremely dedicated,” recalled Salvatore Scibona, who was a program administrator during Nguyen’s fellowship in Provincetown. Nguyen’s apartment was upstairs from Scibona’s office.

Scibona, who now teaches at Wesleyan University, said that Nguyen is fully deserving of the Pulitzer: “He’s a brilliant writer.”

Nguyen, who earned his PhD at UC Berkeley, is a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His latest work, published earlier this month, is “Nothing Ever Dies,” a nonfiction exploration of the same cultural forces that shaped his novel.

“He’s very interested in figuring out how different versions of memory have emerged from the Vietnam War,” said Judith Vichniac, associate dean of the fellowship program at Radcliffe.

“It’s not often that a scholar can write such wonderful fiction, and a fiction writer can be such an important scholar,” she said. “He combines both. And he’s a lovely young man.”

At the bookstore, the Pulitzer winner answered one reader’s question about the preponderance of philosophical ideas in the novel. It’s an issue he has with a lot of contemporary literary fiction, he said — intellectualism is often frowned upon.

At the same time, he amused himself in writing one satirical section of the book that involves the making of a movie about Vietnam. That section has a direct connection to his own conflicted emotions as a boy, he explained. He was an avid watcher of war movies, until he saw “Apocalypse Now” at an impressionable age. Suddenly he realized he was cheering for soldiers “who were killing people who looked like me.”

That part of the book, he said, was his revenge on Hollywood.

“It was so much fun to write.”

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