Uses Excel to ensure his reading is diverse
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling novel, “The Sympathizer,” the story of a Communist double agent who moves to the United States. Last year Nguyen, who emigrated with his family from Vietnam when he was four, published his first collection of short stories, “The Refugees.” Nguyen, a professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California, will speak at 7 p.m. on March 21 as part of Boston College’s Lowell Humanities Series at Gasson Hall.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits?
NGUYEN: I just started to keep an Excel sheet to remind myself to read enough women, enough books that are not by Americans, enough X, Y, Z. It’s important to have guides to let us know whether we’re giving into unconscious assumptions or prejudices.
BOOKS: Did the Excel sheet change your reading?
NGUYEN: If I read a book by a man, then the next one should be by a woman. That’s not exactly a chore. For example, I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, It’s an amazing work. I’m listening to her book on audio. I read multiple books simultaneously because I’m reading on multiple devices. On Kindle I’m reading the new translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s “The Odyssey.” I first read “The Odyssey” in college and thought it was OK, but this version reads like a best-selling novel. Also on Kindle, I’m reading Pablo Neruda poems.
BOOKS: What’s the last book that knocked you out?
NGUYEN: The Ferrante is really knocking me out. The stereotype against women’s writing is that it’s not epic and only concerned with the domestic. The Ferrante is very domestic, very microscopic in its examination of a woman’s emotions and her relationships yet it’s epic. Ferrante’s success makes it obvious that you can’t dismiss women’s writing in this way.
BOOKS: Are there books you liked more than you expected?
NGUYEN: I once taught a romance novel in a contemporary fiction course. I’d never read one before. I’m someone who loves so-called genre fiction, but of the science fiction, detective, war, in other words, masculine genres. It was quite a surprise to discover that I enjoyed reading “A Knight in Shining of Armor” by Jude Deveraux. The students, men and women, uniformly hated it, which speaks to how romance remains the most despised genre of all by the literary world.
BOOKS: Do you still read science fiction and spy thrillers?
NGUYEN: I really read science fiction and fantasy in high school, but it’s lost some of its appeal to me now. I still read a lot of detective and spy books. The only reason I don’t read more is because I will stay awake until dawn reading those. I read all of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series very quickly. Same with the Jo Nesbø Harry Hole series.
BOOKS: Have you read a lot about the Vietnam War?
NGUYEN: I was a curious kid so I read a lot about the Vietnam War in particular. I read everything I could in English, and that was mostly American perspectives. I also read whatever I could find published in English by Vietnamese writers.
BOOKS: What are some of those books that you would recommend?
NGUYEN: “The Sorrow of the War,” a classic by Bao Ninh. “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” by Le Ly Hayslip, a memoir about growing up caught in the war, which is a totally gripping read. Most recently the graphic-novel memoir, “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui. It’s a spellbinding account of a South Vietnamese family in San Diego.
BOOKS: Is it easier to find books from the Vietnamese perspective now?
NGUYEN: Now there is quite a large body of writing in English by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American writers. On the other hand people don’t read these authors with the amount of attention they deserve. Vietnam is still a preoccupation for Americans, and lots of people have a read a book or two or seen the Ken Burns documentary, but very few have read anything by a Vietnamese person. People should do their mini Excel sheets, and they might see that should read a Vietnamese author.
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