When Viet Thanh Nguyen was a student at Bellarmine College Preparatory, from which he graduated in 1988, he found it challenging to fit in at a school whose student population at the time did not reflect much diversity. “I’m delighted that Bellarmine has transformed,” Nguyen told more than 1,600 students, as well as faculty and staff, gathered for a justice summit assembly at the school the morning of Oct. 18.
Nguyen, who came to the United States from Vietnam with his family as a refugee during the summer of 1975, attended Saint Patrick’s School and then Bellarmine. The Aerol Arnold Chair of English and professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC has authored four books. His novel, “The Sympathizer,” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His work, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” was a finalist in nonfiction for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. He was recently named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, commonly referred to as a “genius” grant recipient, with each honoree being selected for having “shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
During his remarks to the Bellarmine community, Nguyen addressed such issues as racial stereotypes and power structures. While he was a student, he considered himself to be an “other.” “We always need to be aware that there are ‘others’ to us… We should ask ourselves, are we having conversations with people who are different from us?”
In April 2017, upon being inducted into the Bellarmine Hall of Fame, Nguyen acknowledged many Bellarmine faculty members for having shaped his literary career. “I have to credit Bellarmine with so many things … to this day I credit my belief in social justice in all realms to my Jesuit education.”
Nguyen was the first of what will be several speakers as Bellarmine examines the topic of “Race Relations in the 21st Century,” its Summit on Human Dignity theme for the school year.
His concluding remarks at the assembly were words of encouragement for social action as he referenced the Jesuit motto of being men and women for and with others. “Behind that is empathy. Turn empathy into action …. Work for perpetual peace … and that’s a long campaign,” he said.