COEUR d’ALENE — The memory of being separated from his parents and brother at the age of 4 is something that still haunts Viet Thanh Nguyen.
"That’s where my memories begin," he said, "being taken away from my parents as I was howling and screaming."
In order to be in a Vietnamese refugee camp toward the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, refugees needed sponsors. Nguyen's parents were taken by one sponsor, his brother taken by a different sponsor and he was taken by yet another sponsor. It was meant to be a benevolent experience to help his parents get on their feet.
"I’ve never been able to forget this experience," Nguyen said. "I’ve tried to forget it, but it’s remained stamped between my shoulder blades like an invisible brand.
"This is how I know that when we take children away from their parents at our border, regardless of our stance on immigration policies, this is an inhumane policy," he said, his words greeted with applause.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nguyen was the honored speaker Friday during the Idaho Humanities Council's 16th annual North Idaho Distinguished Humanities Lecture and Dinner in The Coeur d'Alene Resort.
More than 500 guests enjoyed an evening meal as they listened to Nguyen's compelling speech, which was poignant, inspiring and sprinkled with humor at just the right places.
“I’m going to do something I always do,” he said, panning his phone camera to capture his audience. “I’m going to take your picture. It’s going to take a while because there’s so many of you in this room. Thank you! I can’t help it, I’m Asian.”
On the serious side, he shared how a sign in a shop window haunted him and left a heavy imprint on his psyche. His parents had opened a Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose, which didn't sit well with others.
"It was kind of a surprise to me, when I was about 10 years old or so, to walk down the street from my parents' store and to see a sign in another store window that said, 'Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese,'" he said.
"And I thought, 'Does this person who put the sign in that window know anything about my parents? Does this person know that my parents work 12- to 14-hour days in this grocery store, almost every day of the year? Does this person know that my parents were shot in this store on Christmas Eve? Does this person know anything about my parents?' And of course, this person did not know anything about my parents, did not care to know anything about my parents or the people like them. To this person who put that sign in the store window, my parents were simply 'other.' They were less than human."
Nguyen discussed how much it affected him as a youth that people who looked like him were not represented anywhere, especially in film. He was traumatized by the murders of Vietnamese civilians in "Apocalypse Now." He said it's a great work of cinema, but it's also, "from the perspective of someone like me, a Vietnamese person, a racist movie."
"This idea that a great work of art could also be racist at the same time is exactly the contradiction that we engage with in the humanities, that is an important problem to think through," he said.
He loved American war movies as a kid, and even identified with the American soldiers in "Apocalypse Now," but was split when the civilians were killed.
"Was I the American doing the killing, or was I the Vietnamese being killed?" he said. "That to me was a traumatic experience."
A sense of urgency for representation has grown in Nguyen and motivated him to write books including "The Refugees," "Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War" and the Pulitzer-nabbing "The Sympathizer."
He has been called "a voice for the voiceless," but he doesn't see it that way.
"The problem is not that we're voiceless. The problem is that we're not heard," he said. "Like some of the other minority marginalized populations in this country, we are structurally silenced.
"The desire to hear the 'voice for the voiceless' is itself a symptom of colonization," he continued. "If you would rather hear a voice of the voiceless than abolish the conditions of voicelessness, we've resigned ourselves to, or we agree with, colonization's persistence. So representation matters, but it's not enough."
Nguyen said he is here to fight to change the refugee story.
“That’s my obligation because I’m a professional storyteller,” he said. “You’re all storytellers too. Every time we say ‘the American Dream,’ we’re telling a story about ourselves and our country and who we believe we are. When we say ‘make America great again,’ we’re telling a story as well, a story in four words that’s enormously powerful. A story that I completely disagree with. My story is different.
“My story is that America’s greatness lies in the future.”