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This refugee’s stories relatable to all Americans

April 8, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen earned a Pulitzer Prize for “The Sympathizers,” his debut novel. His second book “The Refugees,” a collection of short stories, also was critically acclaimed.

These books not only reflect his experiences as a refugee from Vietnam — he came to the U.S. in 1975 when he was 4 — but are also works of the imagination. As editor of “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives” Nguyen wrote in the introduction, “I do not remember many things, and for those things I do not remember I am grateful, because the things I do remember hurt me enough.”

“There’s no doubt that part of what I had to do as a writer was not just imaging events, but remembering things in my own life that I would much rather forget, or had forgotten, in order to evoke feelings in myself that I could use in my work,” says Nguyen, who appears April 9 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Ten Evenings series.

When Nguyen arrived in the U.S., his family was sent to a camp at Fort Indiantown Gap in Central Pennsylvania before moving to Harrisburg. He lived there until 1978, when his parents moved to San Jose, Calif., long before it became one of the centers of Silicon Valley.

The short stories in “The Refugees,” are set across that time and space. While being a refugee is a unique experience, Nguyen believes the stories are not inaccessible.

“I have to believe that the people who are not refugees can read the experiences of refugees,” he says, “and find it within themselves to imagine how they would feel if they were to lose their homes and were forced to flee, or be separated from their loved ones. Those human emotions, I think, are definitely universal no matter what circumstances have happened to you.”

Most of Nguyen’s stories are culled from his imagination or observations. But “War Years,” a story about a young boy whose parents (grocery store owners) are asked to make donations to men fighting the Communists in Vietnam, is autobiographical.

“It was a very difficult experience to write,” Nguyen says, “because while it was mostly about my own family and me, I didn’t want to write about me. … There were two things: Having to go into a period of my life that was quite painful, and the other was acknowledging that what had happened to my family, which seemed very pedestrian, could actually be significant. That is the challenge, I think, that most writers face – not simply to elicit great drama from events that are obviously historically significant, but to evoke great drama from events that don’t seem to be historically events.”

“The Refugees” is particularly timely in that its stories reflect current ongoing struggles in refugee and immigrant communities. Nguyen is cognizant that some of the same prejudices and biases his family experienced 40 years ago are now being felt by other groups.

But Nguyen points out this isn’t unique to America.

“You see these tensions being played out in many other countries,” he says, noting that there’s a paradox between cultural affinities for hospitality and xenophobia. “We’re living in a time when the United States is undergoing a lot of disruption and inequality and poverty and suffering due to various complicated factors. It’s easier to say it’s all because of this particular group of people, refugees or immigrants or foreigners. It easier to blame them because they’re outsiders,

“We have to find hope in the tradition of hospitality and love, which again is not only American. It’s found everywhere and we have to cultivate that, fight for that, defend that.”

Nguyen will speak at 7:30 p.m., April 9, at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. Sold out. Details: 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org.

Literary events

April 4 — Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and author of the memoir “Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.” Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted. $35. 7 p.m., Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland.

April 4 — Dialogues: Writers on Disability and Access in the Literary Community, featuring Sonya Huber, Sally Alexander, Christopher Jon Heuer. 7 p.m., Chatham University

April 6 — After Hours: Wonderland. Alice in Wonderland themed activities for adults 21 and over. $30 --$45. 7 p.m., Carnegie Library of Pittsbugh, Oakland. 412-622-3114, carnegielibrary.org.

April 6 — Carnegie Nexus Series featuring Jad Abumirad of Radiolab, talk on animal migration. $25-$20. 7:30 p.m., Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland. 412-622-3131, nexus.carnegiemuseums.org.

April 7 — Queer Caribbean Literature Series featuring Staceyann Chin, author of the memoir “The Other Side of Paradise.” $20. 6 p.m., Carnegie Library, Homewood. 412-731-3080, carnegielibrary.org

April 7 — Spoken Word Poetry Night, featuring Christian Welch, Joey Berkey, Makayla Montarti, Maya Berardi. $5. 7 p.m., Mr. Roboto Project, Wilkinsburg, therobotoproject.com.

April 8 — Rebecca Kightlinger, author of “Megge of Bury Down,” book signing and reading. 2 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless. 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com.

April 9 — Nguyen also will appear at 1 p.m. Alphabet City, North Side, as a guest of the Carnegie Nexus series, for Border Passages, a reading and workshop with Divya Heffley of the Carnegie Museum of Art, and Patrick McShea of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Registration for this free event: nexus.carnegiemuseums.org/event/border-passages-with-viet-thanh-nguyen/

April 11 — Zachariah Ohora, children’s author and illustrator, will talk about his new book “Read the Book, Lemmings.” 6:30 p.m. Ross Township Community Center. Registration requested. 412-366-8100 ext. 123., ross.pa.us.

April 12 — Alexandra Rowan Festival, featuring a reading by Allison Amend, author of “Enchanted Islands.” 8:30 p.m., Frick Fine Arts Building, Oakland. pitt.english.edu.

April 12 — Sharon Dilworth, author of “Two Sides, Three Rivers,” reading and book signing. 7 p.m., Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com.

April 12 —Steel City Slam Grand Slam, Pittsburgh’s annual slam poetry championship. Four winners will represent the city at National Poetry Slam in Chicago in August. 7 p.m., City of Asylum, North Side. 412-435-1110, cityofasylum.org.

April 16 — An Evening with Lisa See, author of “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane,” Mt. Lebanon Public Library Speakers Series. $20. 7 p.m., Mellon Middle School Auditorium, Mt. Lebanon. 412-531-1912, mtlebanonlibrary.org.

April 17 — Sara Shepard book launch for “The Elizas.” 7 p.m. Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com.

April 21 — Jesse Andrews, author of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” reading for his new YA novel, “Munmun.” Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 1 p.m. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com.

April 25 —Jessica Merchant, author of “The Pretty Dish: More Than 150 Everyday Recipes and 50 Beauty DIYs to Nourish Your Body Inside and Out.” Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 7 p.m., 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com.

The Fantastic 5

“Cave of Bones,” (Harper), Anne Hillerman

The daughter of the revered mystery writer Tony Hillerman continues her father’s legacy in a story that features the characters Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

“First Person,” (Knopf), Richard Flanagan

A ghost writer’s attempt to write the biography of a con man in six weeks becomes fraught with moral ambiguity. By the Man Booker Prize-winning author of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

“The Female Persuasion,” (Riverhead), Meg Wolitzer

When a college freshman meets a central figure in the feminist movement, her life dramatically changes course as she gets caught up in world of unexpected excitement.

“The Cutting Edge,” (Grand Central), Jeffrey Deaver

Disabled detective Lincoln Rhymes and police office Amelia Sachs track The Promisor, a killer who executes couples on the verge of being engaged in Manhattan.

“God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” (Penguin) Lawrence Wright

Wright, the author of “The Looming Towers,” psyche of the Lone Star state, examining the disparities between its rich economy and shocking poverty.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.