Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel THE SYMPATHIZER and recently released his follow-up novel, THE REFUGEES. He also received the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017 and shared his thoughts in the New York Times about what being a “genius” means:
This makes me think — have people who used this term ever actually met any Vietnamese people? Been to a Vietnamese restaurant, much less a Vietnamese household or Vietnam itself? We’re really, really loud.
The situation, now and in the past, is that the minority and marginalized communities of this or any other country are often not voiceless. They’re simply not heard.
That’s the problem with being called a voice for the voiceless, whose exceptional status is related to what we call genius. We would rather deal with a solo voice than a chorus, or a cacophony, of voices. And in praising today’s voice for the voiceless, we would just as soon forget, or not even know about, all the other voices for the voiceless that came before.
I think back to Edith Maude Eaton, half-Chinese and half-white, who adopted a Chinese pen name and wrote as Sui Sin Far. She advocated for Chinese immigrants and chose to be Chinese in the early years of the 20th century, at a time when to be Chinese was to be despised in North America. She published one book of short stories, “Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” and died in poverty and obscurity at an early age in 1914.
I think back to Carlos Bulosan, who migrated from the Philippines in the 1930s as a colonial ward of the United States. He worked as a journalist and a labor organizer and became a nationally celebrated writer. His fame peaked with his book “America Is in the Heart” in 1946. By 1954, however, suspected of having Communist sympathies, he was a target of McCarthyism. He died poor and alone, of pneumonia.
I think back to John Okada, who fought in World War II even though his Japanese-American family was in an internment camp. Okada came back from the war and published “No No Boy” in 1957, the first novel dealing with the little-known story of Japanese-American draft resisters. America did not want to think about the internment, and the Japanese-American community, intent on being patriotic, did not want to acknowledge draft resisters. “No No Boy” immediately disappeared. Okada died relatively young and his widow, in despair at his rejection, burned his second manuscript.
Those are three of the most iconic Asian-American writers, and I wish genius grants were retroactive. It took genius to decide to write about Asian-Americans at a time when there was no market for Asian-American literature, no recognition for Asian-American writers, and when there weren’t even any Asian-Americans. (Until the 1960s, we were collectively Orientals.)
To read the full piece, go to NYT: Don’t Call Me a Genius