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Refugee narratives

Viet Thanh Nguyen on trauma, displacement, and identifying as a refugee

Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on empathy, trauma and the power of narrative.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Two years after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, amid widespread violence, unrest and displacement in Southeast Asia, Congress passed legislation paving the way for 200,000 Cambodians and Vietnamese displaced by the war to enter the U.S. Four-year-old Viet Thanh Nguyen was one of those refugees. Arriving in the United States, Nguyen was separated from his parents and brother and placed in foster care for years before his family reunited.

“I suppressed for so long that experience of being a 4-year-old refugee being taken away from my parents. I don't want to feel that,” Nguyen tells Grant and Ravi on this week's episode of Displaced. “But that was where the authenticity lay, in trying to keep drilling into that emotion, trying to understand it. in order to write genuine drama, genuine characters, I would have to sort of look inwardly into myself and my own experiences.”

Nguyen, a MacArthur Fellow, has illuminated the experiences of refugees in the United States in The Displaced, an edited collection of refugee writers; the 2017 short story collection The Refugees; and his 2018 novel The Sympathizer, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Explicit in his work is the argument that the American narrative has little room for people disenfranchised by conflict. “People who come here as refugees know very soon that they shouldn't call themselves refugees,” he tells Grant and Ravi. Emotions of victimization, flight and self-doubt are antithetical to a bootstrapped positivity that he describes as the dominant American ethos. And historically, Americans haven’t welcomed refugees with open arms: 66% of Americans opposed the refugee bill that brought Nguyen to the States.

But Nguyen persists in describing himself as a refugee, something he says is important to nurturing his own sense of empathy and challenging populist narratives about migration. That’s not far from the findings of a recent study by Chris Blattman and others that people who have experienced violence are more willing to help outsiders than people who have grown up in peacetime. Out of trauma may come a keener sense of empathy.

"People who come [to the U.S.] as refugees know very soon that they shouldn't call themselves refugees."

This episode, the last of Season 1, is a stirring reflection on the place of refugees in America right now.

Season 2 begins in early January. Don't miss the launch, subscribe to Displaced on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Related Resources

The Sympathizer and The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry – The New York Times, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Refugees in America – The New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives – Viet Thanh Nguyen, ed.

Can War Foster Cooperation? – National Bureau of Economic Research, Bauer, Blattman, Chytilova, Henrich, Miguel and Mitts

Sweetness – The New Yorker, Toni Morrison

Letter from a region in my mind – The New Yorker, James Baldwin

Letter to My Son – The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.