Pulitzer Prize winners Natasha Trethewey and Viet Thanh Nguyen visit SMU
It’s not often that college students get to hear from two Pulitzer Prize winners, but SMU students were lucky enough to hear from authors Natasha Trethewey and Viet Thanh Nguyen this past week.
Pulitzer Prize winners Natasha Trethewey and Viet Thanh Nguyen visited SMU on Feb. 21 for “A Conversation on Creativity,” cosponsored by the English Department, the Dallas Literary Festival and the Department of World Languages and Literature.
Natasha Trethewey, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time poet laureate, inspired students with her collection of poems and a discussion of the inspiration behind them. Born in Mississippi to an African American mother and a white father, Trethewey grew up in the deep south of the early seventies, in which her family and Trethewey herself was considered controversial. Trethewey was encouraged at a young age to express herself in poems, as her father was a poet. Later, after her parents had separated, her violent stepfather murdered her mother when Trethewey was just nineteen. Both the death of her mother and Trethewey’s hometown have immensely influenced her work as a poet.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, likewise opened up about his journey to becoming a writer. Nguyen came to the United States at just four years old, a refugee of the Vietnam War. Though Nguyen wasn’t old enough to remember refugee camps or the war in Vietnam itself, watching his parents work in a new country always reminded him of the home he had fled. His first and Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, aims to demonstrate both the perspective and perception refugees struggled with after coming to the US during a highly controversial war.
Trethewey and Nguyen spoke in front of a full audience in McCord Auditorium in Dallas Hall. Dr. David Caplan, Daisy Deane Frensley Chair in English Literature, led the conversation and then asked for questions from the audience.
“I think it’s important for college students to meet and hear the greatest authors of the culture and to gain from the writing that these authors have achieved and to gain a greater appreciation of literature in general,” said Dr. Caplan.
Nguyen and Trethewey spoke about their writing processes, their inspirations and their struggles with writing. Both authors recalled challenges when studying writing in college. Nguyen shared an anecdote about falling asleep in every class with his professor, famous author Maxine Hong Kingston.
“I felt like what I was learning was killing literature,” said Trethewey about her Ph.D. classes. For the English professors reading this, don’t worry—Nguyen is now an English professor at the University of Southern California and Trethewey is grateful that she got to hone her craft throughout her graduate education.
Both authors discussed how writing has helped them process trauma and grief.
Reflecting on writing soon after her mother’s murder, Trethewey said, “that grief was so immense, and the only thing that could retain it was a poem.”
More than two decades later, Trethewey turned to non-fiction in order to reclaim the narrative around her mother and published “Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir.” With this memoir, Trethewey hopes to bring awareness to domestic violence in all communities, end victim-blaming and reduce stereotypes around domestic violence victims.
Nguyen believes that time is an important part of the writing process regarding trauma.
“Writing is also about dealing with these sometimes psychological, emotional, cultural, historical issues that can take decades to process,” said Nguyen about how it can take him decades to write a single short story. For those present, Nguyen and Trethewey offered valuable insight and advice for aspiring writers.
Both Trethewey and Nguyen’s stories of their college years and doubts about entering academia especially resonated with college students, including Brynn Price, a senior English major.
“Natasha Trethewey and Viet Thanh Nguyen are using their gifts and platforms to share important stories, and I’m glad to have been able to hear them share these stories on SMU’s campus,” Price said.
Audience members were eager to hear about the seemingly extraterrestrial creativity Trethewey and Nguyen possess. When discussing their creativity, Nguyen opened up about the harsh reality of his overflowing, creative mind: his lack of presence for his family. It seems part of having the gift to tell such powerful stories is the burden of having a mind constantly constantly crowded with ideas, revealing the difficult and often unnoticed sacrifice of the story-makers in our world.
Trethewey and Nguyen, though professionally distinguished and accomplished, hope that without these accolades, they would still write the truth behind their lives and lives of their stories’ characters–something all writers aspire to retain.
Trethewey and Nguyen’s readings are just the beginning of the Dallas Literary Festival hosted by SMU, which will contain more of literature’s best authors. Click here to get more details about this upcoming event.