USC Dornsife’s Viet Thanh Nguyen wins prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award
Viet Thanh Nguyen has been named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

USC Dornsife’s Viet Thanh Nguyen wins prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award

The “genius grant” honors the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature, whose groundbreaking work has enabled Americans and others to view the Vietnam War from more balanced perspectives.
BySusan Bell

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature, has been selected as a 2017 fellow of the MacArthur Foundation.

The prestigious program recognizes “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” the foundation said.

“Through his exceptional skills as an academic and a writer, Viet brings new insight and context to our recent history, and he does so in a way that is deeply compelling and relevant,” USC Provost Michael Quick said. “His scholarship embodies USC’s mission of using creative, artistic works to extend the arts to a wider, global audience and to bring positive change to society. We are honored to have him on our faculty and proud of this remarkable achievement. “

The fellowship, known informally as the “genius grant,” provides each recipient with a $625,000, “no strings attached” award. Nguyen is one of 24 fellows selected this year by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“Professor Nguyen’s writing takes us into deeply personal experiences and explores nuanced points of connection across humanity,” said USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller. “The genius of his work is that he sheds new light on issues of the past, while at the same time adding important perspective to complex issues of the moment. USC Dornsife is proud to join in celebrating his prestigious MacArthur award.”

Nguyen said that learning of the award had been such a shock he had to sit down for the duration of his phone call with the MacArthur Foundation.

“I have been following the results of the MacArthur Fellowships for years and have seen many writers that I admire get it — writers whose work I think is vitally important to the arts and to American culture. I also think it’s humbling because I think about all the other writers today who are also deserving of this award and may not have gotten it and all the writers in the past whose work has made my own possible that haven’t gotten this either. That puts this award into context for me.”

Nguyen said he will be using part of the fellowship money to support a blog he started seven years ago called diaCRITICS, which focuses on Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic arts, culture and politics. “There are such limited opportunities to spotlight these kinds of issues and the writers who work on them,” Nguyen said. “I think much of the MacArthur award for me has gone toward recognizing my work in that area but I always recognize that there’s been a need to have to that space for diversity of Vietnamese voices and that is what I will use some of the money for.”

Nguyen is the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, one of America’s most prestigious literary honors, for his first novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015), a New York Times bestseller which explores the Vietnam War through the lens of his conflicted protagonist, an American-educated spy for the Viet Cong.

Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize win put him in the illustrious company of such doyens of American literature as John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, all previous Pulitzer recipients.

The Sympathizer also won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Literary Excellence from the American Library Association, a California Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. A finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the PEN Faulkner Award, and an LA Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller category, The Sympathizer made it to over thirty best of the year lists for 2015.

Nguyen’s next book, a nonfiction cultural companion to his novel titled Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016) was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, and the winner of the John G. Cawelti Award for Best Textbook/Primer from the Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association.

His current book is the short story collection The Refugees (Grove Press, 2017).

Nguyen is also the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and the co-editor of Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (University of Hawaii Press, 2014).

Nguyen is the sixth USC faculty member to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, joining Josh Kun, professor of communication and American studies and ethnicity; Jacob Soll, professor of history and accounting; Maggie Nelson, professor of English; Elyn Saks, Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences; and Luis Alfaro of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.