He Writes Unreliable Narrators Because He Is One, Too
In “The Committed,” the narrator — who calls himself Vo Danh, or “Nameless” — has escaped his Communist interrogators. He heads to Paris and joins a gang of drug dealers, the ultimate act of capitalist rebellion. He’s no longer sure who he is or what he believes in. His identity, mission and even his consciousness — he sometimes refers to himself in the second person — have been fractured by displacement, disillusionment and torture.
To the French natives he meets, he is among “les boat-people,” a label he rejects. “I was not a boat person unless the English Pilgrims who fled religious persecution to come to America on the Mayflower were also boat people,” the narrator thinks.
Nguyen, who is 49 and teaches at the University of Southern California, now lives in Pasadena with his wife, Lan Duong, and their two children, Ellison, 7, and Simone, 1. Though he’s lived in California for most of his life — he was 4 when his family left Vietnam — he is still unsettled by the feeling that he would have become a very different person if his family hadn’t escaped.
“That idea of an alternative life, parallel life, alternate universes, has always haunted me,” he said. “It haunts a lot of us who are refugees from Vietnam, what our lives could’ve been, and so I think that sense saturates my fiction and my nonfiction.”
After they fled Vietnam, Nguyen and his family ended up in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. Nguyen was separated from his parents and brother for several months and placed with an American family. He remembers screaming when his host family took him to visit his parents, then took him away again.
A few years later, his family moved to San Jose, Calif., where his parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store. One Christmas Eve, when Nguyen and his brother were home watching “Scooby-Doo,” his parents were shot during a robbery. When he was 16, an armed intruder tried to rob their home.
Nguyen began writing fiction in high school (he got an early taste of literary fame in the third grade, when he wrote a book called “Lester the Cat” that received a prize from the San Jose Public Library). At the University of California, Berkeley, where he got degrees in English and ethnic studies, he devoured literature by Asian-American and Black writers, developing a particular affinity for Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”