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Voice of a refugee's pain

Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen draws on his early years as a refugee in the US to write his short story collection

Growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in California, author Viet Thanh Nguyen saw a sign in a shop window opposite the grocery store his parents set up. It read: "Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese".

Nguyen, 45, says: "That sign meant to say we were alien, unwanted and unhealthy competition for Americans. And that sentiment was completely false."

His earliest memories are of being forced to flee Vietnam in 1975, after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. He draws on the trauma of the refugee experience for his books - both his debut novel, The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year, and his latest short-story collection, The Refugees.

While its stories centre on the Vietnamese refugee community, The Refugees is dedicated to "all refugees, everywhere".

It is a timely sentiment, given United States President Donald Trump's controversial executive order last month, which temporarily banned all refugees, among other travellers, from entering the US.

"People use excuses like religion or nationality or other differences to throw up walls, to say 'these refugees are unassimilable'," says Nguyen, a professor at the University of Southern California, over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "When we have examples of successful refugees, like the Vietnamese, the tendency is to say that they were different from the refugees we have today, like the Syrians or other Muslim populations. And that's fundamentally false."

He has a son, Ellison, with fellow professor and Vietnamese refugee Lan Duong. The boy is nearly four, the age he was when he became a refugee.

Nguyen fled his hometown Buon Me Thuot - the first to be seized by the invading communist army - with his mother and brother, 10.

They walked more than 160km to the nearest port town and caught a boat to Saigon, where his father was. When Saigon, too, fell, the family sailed to Guam, and were then flown to the US.

His adopted sister, 16, stayed behind to look after their house. It would be 28 years before he saw her again. "I had one picture of her," he says. "Our family was haunted by her absence. That sense of a missing person, of things that were left behind, was very important in my life and it saturates many of my short stories emotionally."

After arriving in the US, the family lived in a Pennsylvanian refugee camp. They were separated for a few months, during which he was sent to live with various American sponsors. After being reunited, they moved to San Jose, California, to set up one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the area.

"It was one of the most difficult times of my life," he says of his childhood, which was spent helping to stock and clean the store. At age 10, he was doing the shop's accounts over dinner.

His parents worked a gruelling 10 to 12 hours every day and were at one point shot and wounded in an armed robbery at the store.

This experience was later echoed when the family were the victims of a home invasion. This time, his mother ran out of the house screaming, distracting the gunman. In the confusion, his father pushed the man out and locked the door.

Nguyen had to draw on these memories, which he had buried, to write his short story, War Years.

"Having that gunman break into our house and point a gun at my face - it took a long time for me to get in touch with the emotional significance of these events," he says.

"My way of coping with them as a child was to suppress them in my memory. Unfortunately, much of our fictional material has to come out of things in our lives that cause us to feel greatly - in many cases, great pain."

The characters of The Refugees are haunted by memories of pain - literally. In the opening story, Black-Eyed Women, a refugee is visited in America by the ghost of her brother, years after the fateful crossing that she survived and he did not.

This story, the oldest in the collection, took Nguyen 20 years to finish, most of which was spent "isolating its core and throwing the rest away". He wrote 50 drafts of it, completing the last in Singapore in 2014 while on a fellowship with the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore.

Asked if Singapore had anything to do with the story's fruition, he laughs and says: "It was mostly serendipity." He did read some local fiction - Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry Of Moral Panic, Ming Cher's Spider Boys and Ann Ang's Bang My Car - which he says was "helpful".

He was able to get his short stories published only after the runaway success of The Sympathizer, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since it won the Pulitzer. In it, an unnamed Vietnamese spy flees war-torn Saigon for Los Angeles, where he becomes a consultant to a Hollywood film clearly inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 cinematic classic Apocalypse Now.

The Sympathizer has been hailed as giving a "voice to the voiceless", which Nguyen finds ironic.

"The Vietnamese have been speaking out loudly for quite a long time, actually," he points out, citing authors such as Bao Ninh and Duong Thu Huong.

"It's just very hard to hear them on the global stage because they don't have the same access to the industry of memory that Hollywood and the publishing industry have."

While he is in negotiations to turn The Sympathizer into a television series, he has his reservations about casting. "So much of the novel is about telling the story of people who have been excluded. The ultimate irony would be if we turned it into a movie or TV series and the central character was blatantly played by someone who was not Vietnamese."

He is working on a sequel called The Committed. It will be set in 1980s Paris and pick up where readers last saw the Sympathizer, a broken and disillusioned man adrift at sea. "His ideals were destroyed," he says. "But I wanted to tell the story that happens after that, how he tries to rebuild himself and put together his ideals again in a world that is so much more complex."

Now that the Trump administration has taken power, he feels a great deal of work lies ahead for writers like him.

"Everything Trump represents is a repetition of things we have seen before in history - the rise of capitalism, of a society that is complicit with inequality, and the fear of others that leads to borders and, in the worst scenario, to fascism.

"But I find optimism in the fact that we've made progress against this before. This simply means that we have to focus and believe that we can continue to build a more progressive and equitable society."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Voice of a refugee's pain'. Print Edition | Subscribe