Features & Columns
Pulitzer Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen Puts San Jose in Literary Spotlight
which recalls the bustling market his parents ran in San Jose
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the V.S. Naipaul of San Jose's underbelly. Or maybe the Vietnamese Nelson Algren of Santa Clara Street. His short story "War Years" conjures up exactly the right inner and outer conflicts that characterize the East-West clash of San Jose's most prominent thoroughfare. San Jose is on the literary map once again.
But first some background. Twenty-five years ago, when I'd regularly haunt the notorious Charlie's Liquors at Fourth and Santa Clara streets, right where City Hall now sits, I'd gaze in everyday wonderment at the glorious downmarket legends across the street: Lenny's Cocktails, the Quality Cafe, and New Saigon Market. In the latter case, the always-bustling mom 'n' pop grocery store was one of many Vietnamese-owned places I came to know along those several blocks of Santa Clara Street, including ABC Liquors and F&P Liquors. There were also Vietnamese hair salons and cleaners, but I didn't go to any of those.
Little did I know that, a quarter-century later, the New Saigon Market owner's offspring would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, came out in 2015 and won just about every award. It is truly one of the most intense books I've read in years.
Viet escaped San Jose about the time I was first discovering Charlie's Liquors. He eventually wound up with a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and started teaching at the University of Southern California, where he remains to this day. At USC, he is the Aerol Arnold chair of English and professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, pumping out scholarship left and right, in addition to winning awards.
In 2016, Viet seemed to have a good year. The Sympathizer came out in paperback, and his nonfiction work Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,' was a finalist for the National Book Award. Viet's fiction and nonfiction, ingested together or separately, will redefine everything you think you know about the conflict Vietnamese people call "The American War."
On the local front, New Saigon Market unfortunately went by the wayside in the early 2000s. With a shiny new City Hall coming in, San Jose didn't want any downmarket riffraff across the street, so they slaughtered the entire northern side of Santa Clara Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. Gone was the glorious bottom-of-the-barrel dive Lenny's Cocktails. Gone was the $1.99 breakfast at Quality Cafe. And of course, gone was New Saigon Market. In textbook San Jose fashion, the city transformed all of it into an empty parking lot, which is still there, soon to be transformed into a Chinese-financed skyscraper.
So, just last year, in one of those classic face-palm scenarios where the city of San Jose tries to vindicate its own bumbling ineptitude, the politicians brought Viet back to town and gave him a city commendation for winning the Pulitzer Prize. Meaning, Viet Thanh Nguyen—a formidable new voice in American letters and now famous the world over—received an award in City Hall, directly across the street from where the city demolished the very market his parents built by working 12 hours a day for 20 years. Vamping on the delicious irony of it all, Viet gave a powerful speech that spoke to the loneliness and alienation of growing up as a war refugee in San Jose, seeing American businesses that didn't want his family here, always feeling out of place, never truly at home, and longing to escape the disenchantment of such a town. But thankfully, the psychological scars that San Jose left on Viet helped carve him into a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. It's one of the most heroic coming-of-age tales in local history.
Which brings us right back to the story "War Years," included in Viet's new book of short stories, The Refugees, which drops in a few weeks. The stories explore the effects of the refugee experience on family dynamics and relationships across the Vietnamese diaspora. In particular, War Years brings New Saigon Market to life, in all its bustling glory, like no other literary work about San Jose ever has. No matter how tall may be the skyscraper that will rise on that empty parking lot, it will always be haunted by the ghosts of New Saigon Market.