By Benjamin Pontz
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen received Phi Beta Kappa’s Sidney Hook Memorial Award at the 2021 triennial council to celebrate his scholarship, undergraduate teaching, and leadership in the cause of liberal arts education.
The Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, Nguyen has written numerous books, including The Sympathizer (which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) and its sequel, The Committed, released earlier this year. His other works include Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America, and a short story collection called The Refugees. He also edited The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives and co-edited Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field.
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen spent much of his childhood in central Pennsylvania, first at Fort Indiantown Gap and later in Harrisburg before his family moved to San Jose, California. He earned undergraduate degrees in English and ethnic studies at University of California, Berkeley before staying to complete his Ph.D. and moving to Los Angeles to teach at USC.
“My path has shaped my perspectives as a storyteller, my take on American culture, and my perspective on my place in this culture—the place of Vietnamese Americans, Vietnamese refugees,” he said in a recent conversation hosted by Phi Beta Kappa, describing how he channeled his voice into a form that departed from what his formal education had trained him to do and allowed him to speak to a broader audience in Nothing Ever Dies, while still producing a work of rigorous scholarship.
Nguyen said that speaking to broader audiences is an urgent task for academics hoping to promulgate the value of the liberal arts and sciences.
“There’s really an onus on us who have spent decades in academia and built up a wealth of expertise and done what we had to do for our specialization to think about how we speak to larger audiences who are concerned about these topics … that are definitely related to the life and health of our democracy,” he said.
ΦBK member Benjamin Pontz is a 2020 graduate of Gettysburg College who double majored in political science and public policy with a minor in music. He is currently a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Manchester. Gettysburg College is home to the Iota of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.