Students Share Reflections on Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Visit to Polytechnic School
Poly’s Global Initiatives Program recently hosted a program featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who spoke about his novel, “The Sympathizer,” which the sophomore class has been reading. Two Upper School students share their reflections on the evening.
Beverly S. ’17 (contributor):
Last Wednesday evening, Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed his novel, “The Sympathizer,” which is told through the lens of a half-Vietnamese, half-French, communist spy who struggles to reconcile his conflicting relationships and beliefs amidst the post-Vietnam War stereotypes in America. By writing the novel as a confession from one Vietnamese person to another, Nguyen hoped to reveal a different facet of the war that is usually not touched upon and to evoke a sense of exclusion in the reader, contrasting how people often treated the Vietnamese as the “other” when studying the war.
Nguyen chose to make Poly his first high school audience when he learned that the sophomore class would be reading his novel in English class and that a number of Poly students had traveled to Vietnam last June to learn about the Vietnam War. Speaking before a packed Garland Auditorium, he shared various excerpts from his novel, ranging from a cultural piece on the forced formation of ethnic enclaves outside of the American bubble, to the harsh realities of confronting a predominately white Hollywood industry, both of which were amplified by the effects of war.
Following his presentation, the students engaged Nguyen in a lively question-and-answer session that allowed them to ask probing questions about the book and his views on race and voice. His answers ranged from sharing his thoughts on the importance of empathy to offering insights into his writing style and the specific choices he made in the novel. Following the program, attendees enthusiastically lined up to speak individually with Nguyen and to have him sign their copies of “The Sympathizer.”
Nguyen is currently an associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He also promotes Vietnamese arts and culture in the diaspora through The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN) and diaCRITICS. Among his other works is “Nothing Ever Dies,” a non-fiction piece that explores how the Vietnam War is remembered by not only Americans and Vietnamese but also Laotians, Cambodians, South Koreans, and Southeast Asian Americans.
Isabel M. ’19:
Having spent the past month reading and analyzing “The Sympathizer,” the sophomore class was thrilled to welcome Dr. Nguyen to Garland. He began by sharing a bit about his background as the son of Vietnamese refugees who immigrated while he was a young child. He spoke about the pivotal moment in his own high school career when he watched “Apocalypse Now” and how he was struck by the ease with which the Americans in the film slaughtered Vietnamese civilians. The cultural insensitivity and misrepresentation of that film plays a big part in “The Sympathizer.”
Speaking to an audience that filled Garland to capacity, Nguyen discussed his writing process and read a few key passages from “The Sympathizer,” keeping the audience engaged with his enthusiasm and rapid turns of phrase. Poly is proud to have had the privilege of being the first high school that he has visited, and because he was most interested in interacting with students, the 75-minute event ended with a question-and-answer session moderated and organized by members of the sophomore class. Afterward, Nguyen stayed for an hour signing copies of his book and chatting with students, teachers, and parents.
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