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Authors consider own backgrounds in portrayals of refugee and immigrant experiences

Authors Viet Thanh Nguyen, a refugee from Vietnam, and Luís Alberto Urrea, an immigrant from Mexico, will discuss their writing and personal backgrounds in Royce Hall on Thursday. (Courtesy of BeBe Jacobs and Joe Mazza)

Viet Thanh Nguyen & Luís Alberto Urrea in Conversation

Thursday, Jan. 17

Royce Hall

Prices vary

By Cameron Vernali

Jan. 15, 2019 11:05 p.m.

In the early 1990s, writer Viet Thanh Nguyen read a book about the Mexican-American border he found timely: “Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border,” by Luís Alberto Urrea. Twenty years later, the two authors will join forces to discuss refugees and immigrants.

The two hail from drastically different cultural backgrounds – Nguyen is a refugee from Vietnam while Urrea, who grew up in Tijuana, has an American mother and Mexican father. Their conversation Thursday in Royce Hall will detail both their personal histories and the influences behind their writing. They are both known for writing about these topics, from Urrea’s “Into the Beautiful North” and Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer;” they also know each other, as they first met when they were finalists for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Their desire to humanize the immigrant and refugee experiences grounds both writers, though the contrasting pathways that preceded their works lead to different writing styles, Urrea said.

“We both have a serious intent and we are always representing (immigrants and refugees),” Urrea said. “It’s important for us to make a stand for our people, particularly in this environment now.”

Urrea saw the arts as a way of understanding where he fit in. His background made him feel isolated at times from both Latinos and Americans, he said, so he pursued poetry, songwriting, drawing and theater. During his senior year of college, his father died violently in Mexico. Urrea didn’t have any way to process it other than writing about it, he said. His bilingual skills and firsthand understanding of the American-Mexican border gave him an opportunity to share new stories of immigrants.

Meanwhile, Nguyen’s family life also impacted how he interacted with the world. His family became refugees in America after they had to leave Vietnam, when Nguyen was just a child; the experience sparked his deep curiosity about his family and Vietnam’s history, as well as concern about what it meant to be an American, he said.

“I spent most of my life trying to make sense of all of that,” Nguyen said. “That’s what the storytelling is about – trying to connect both the emotional self and the political histories I want to draw attention to.”

With his ongoing interest in politics, Nguyen said he wants his writing to have a political impact. However, he said the emotional experiences of refugees are equally important as the history and politics of his Vietnamese background, and marrying fact and emotion is important in creating a compelling story.

“I wouldn’t be in this country if it wasn’t for (the) war that the United States fought in Vietnam, so my personal existence is shaped by politics,” Nguyen said. “In turn, I take my personal experience and inject it back into the world of politics through what I write.”

Urrea’s writing is also impacted by his upbringing and how he wants to interact with people through storytelling. He said he writes humor into his novels because he finds that laughter can be a strong way to bring people together, which is especially important when trying to humanize the immigrant experience to those who understand immigrants through harmful rhetoric in the news, he said.

“When you laugh together, it’s very hard to get up from that table and say, ‘Boy, those people are animals,’” Urrea said. “If you laugh together, it’s very possible that you will be able to cry together.”

The immigrant experience is particularly applicable to a large portion of UCLA’s student body. Jessica Ho, a third-year sociology student, first became interested in the conversation because of her personal background as an immigrant from Hong Kong. She had not been to a talk on immigration and refugees before, which is why she is looking forward to the event, she said.

Both have written multiple books and have received negative backlash, which is one manifestation of their different cultural backgrounds. While Urrea has received death threats to himself and his family over their strong opinions about Chicano/a people, he said, Nguyen hasn’t received as strong a negative response. This could be the result of harmful rhetoric that is being used particularly against Latinos and Mexicans because of the current border issue in America, Nguyen said.

Regardless of their different cultural and career backgrounds, both authors view their ability to represent the immigrant and refugee experience important, especially since it gives them the opportunity to bear witness to what is really occurring for those individuals throughout America, Urrea said.

“What you have to do is continually show people the humanity of other people in a way that is so compelling that they cannot resist any longer,” Urrea said.

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Cameron Vernali
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