A “Prize” Dinner With Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen
Breaking bread with novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen proves to be a most delightful experience; as he’s open, friendly, and a more than astute conversationalist
It isn’t every day that you get a chance to sit down for dinner, and share the table with a Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction; but that was exactly the opportunity afforded me when my brother, investment banker Stevie Cu-Unjieng and his wife Maitoni, hosted a small dinner at their home for good friend and author Viet Thanh Nguyen. As a lifestyle writer and avid follower of contemporary fiction, this was a rare chance to meet the author of a novel I had relished reading just a few years ago.
A Vietnamese-American novelist, born in Ban Me Thuot, Vietnam on the 3rd of March, 1971; as a child, Nguyen fled with his family to the United States in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. First they settled in a Pennsylvania refugee camp, before moving to San Jose, California. His debut novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Carnegie Media for Excellence in Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from an American Author, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2017, he is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Presently, Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). Besides the much-acclaimed The Sympathizer, Nguyen released a book of short stories, The Refugees, in 2017. And as he disclosed during the course of the dinner, his new novel, a sequel to The Sympathizer, set this time in Paris, should be completed early next year—just in time to coincide with the birth of his second child.
Among the guests Stevie had invited to the intimate dinner were Tessie Sy-Coson with writer/daughter Mara, Hans and Regina Sicat, Jonjon Rufino and Rony Fortich, Luis and Libet Virata with son Alonzo, Issa Litton, JM Araneta, and Jun Pacheco. All were visibly charmed by Nguyen, who was affable, down-to-earth, and loved Filipino food—especially the lechon and the callos. He even brought the special “book” cake that the Raffles/Fairmont had given him to share with Stevie and the guests. Stevie and Maitoni’s daughter, Nicole C. Aboitiz was there with husband Carlos, to help entertain the guests.
Without necessarily meaning to be, Nguyen has become one of the go-to personalities the US news programs turn to when they need experts to talk about Race, Displacement, Migrant Family Separations, and Refugee situations. And as Stevie mentioned during the small toast he tendered in the course of the dinner, it should be a welcome sight for immigrants to the US to see a face like Nguyen weighing on these issues. Whereas in the past, some WASP pundit would talk and make like he understood or empathized with the point of view of these refugees or migrants; at least now, we had someone who actually lived the scenario, and could intelligently discourse about the experience.
Here in Manila for a book-signing event organized by National Bookstore, where Nguyen shared the limelight with Filipina author Gina Apostol of Insurrecto fame; Nguyen shared that this was his first time to the Philippines—other than the time they transited while heading to the USA back in 1975. He had heard so much about the country over the years from the likes of Stevie and fellow-authors like Gina; so it was special to finally make it, and meet new friends here.
Without a doubt, the feeling was mutual—and I know, I’ll be looking forward to his second novel.