Cowell College students explore themes of justice and identity with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

January 17, 2024

From left to right: Alan Christy, Provost of Cowell College; Laurel Peacock, Lecturer of Cowell and Porter Colleges; Catherine Carlstroem, former Cowell Core Course Coordinator; Shelly Grabe, Associate Provost of Cowell College; Ginny Troyer, Lecturer; Viet Thanh Nguyen; Eireene Nealand, Lecturer; Steven Levinson, Lecturer; Richard Mahon, Lecturer; Todd Thorpe, Lecturer and current Cowell Core Course Coordinator in front of the Never Again is Now exhibit on display at the Cowell Provost House.

On December 6, 2023, Cowell College's final plenary session culminated in a thought-provoking event with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. The gathering, held at UC Santa Cruz, brought together students who had explored Nguyen's work as part of Cowell College's core course, "Imagining Justice."

"Viet Thanh Nguyen is an author with extraordinary accomplishments, not only in awards but in the impact of his work," said Cowell College's Provost, Dr. Alan Christy. "His work evokes questions on justice and identity. We saw our students respond passionately to the relevance of these themes throughout the course and during the event."

Viet Thanh Nguyen's book, "The Refugees," served as a cornerstone for the Cowell College first-year seminar course in 2023. The collection of eight stories offers diverse perspectives on what it means to be American, Vietnamese, or both, and provides insight into the Vietnamese refugee experience.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a USC professor and Los Angeles Times critic, received a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship for his work as a writer and cultural critic, notably challenging prevailing depictions of the Vietnam War. In 2016, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, "The Sympathizer," and his nonfiction book, "Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War," was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Born in Vietnam, Nguyen immigrated to the United States in 1975, initially settling in a Pennsylvania camp for Vietnamese refugees, then in San Jose, where his family opened a Vietnamese grocery store. "The Refugees," published in 2017, draws from his experiences.

Selected for the course by Lecturer Todd Thorpe, who believed that the stories within “The Refugees,” depicting individuals trying to find a home, find themselves, and come to terms with who they are, would strongly resonate with students.

The plenary session at Cowell College gave students an opportunity to reflect on their experience with Nguyen's work throughout the course, demonstrating how literature can spark meaningful conversations that bridge academic discourse with real-world issues.

viet_newsletter.jpg viet_2.jpg