Just pages into Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen's new book, he writes about his parents being shot at their grocery store in San Jose, Calif. Nguyen was 9, and he recalls laughing uncontrollably when his older brother told him what happened. He was so traumatized that his emotions went haywire.
That terrible event is not the beginning of "A Man of Two Faces," subtitled "A Memoir, A History, A Memorial." Ngyuen's life story — and that of millions of other immigrants to the U.S. — starts with the desperation of the displaced and the global tendency to dehumanize refugees.
An artfully intertwined medley of Nguyen's essays, lectures and interviews, "A Man of Two Faces" — recently longlisted for the National Book Award for nonfiction — is an innovative expose of the racism that shackles refugee populations of color to harmful stereotypes.
He discusses how Hollywood loved the idea of making movies about World War II's refugees. Recent refugees, he writes with brutal honesty, might also be desirable fodder for movies: "Divided families! Impossible odds! Heartwarming stories of reunion and success!" The only thing many current refugees lack that Hollywood desires, he writes: "You. Are. Not. White."
Through the lens of the history of Vietnam, where Ngyuen was born, he uses his family's story to explain why refugees flee their homelands and how they're forced to carry the burden of being "model minorities," always struggling with how to blend their native cultures with life in their new home.
Nguyen recalls at age 11 viewing "Apocalypse Now" and watching as American soldiers randomly murder "jabbering, incomprehensible Vietnamese." After one scene in which yet another innocent woman was murdered, Nguyen says he felt split in two and asked himself: "Are you the Americans killing? Or the Vietnamese being killed?"
Not everything in the book is dire and grim. He writes about his loving, hardworking parents, about his Harvard-educated brother and his own journey to winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for "The Sympathizer," a novel about a half-French, half-Vietnamese double agent living in Los Angeles. He writes with heart about his children, return visits to Vietnam and his parents' legacy.
Nguyen further embeds us in his life and history by sprinkling throughout the book touching black-and white photos of him with his parents and brother, reminding us further that his family is as real and deserving of respect as anyone's. "A Man of Two Faces" is a provocative and dynamic family portrait of America's immigrants, shining a light on the humanity too few of us see.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin, Texas.
A Man of Two Faces
By: Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Publisher: Grove Press, 400 pages, $28.
Event: Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul, $28-$30.