Known for his incisive explorations of identity, displacement, and the Vietnamese diaspora, Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as not only a powerful force in contemporary literature, but a dedicated advocate for marginalized voices worldwide. Born in 1971 to North Vietnamese refugees living in South Vietnam, his family fled to the United States four years later, following the fall of Saigon.

After studying English and Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, Nguyen began working as an English professor at USC before publishing his celebrated debut, The Sympathizer, in 2015. A New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer, the novel – told from the perspective of a conflicted protagonist – offers a blistering examination of identity and America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s second novel,  The Committed, a sequel to the The Sympathizer that delves into the life of the unnamed narrator as a refugee in 1970s Paris, was released to widespread acclaim in 2021.

In honor of its publication, Nguyen was asked to name 6 of his favorite books that interrogate commitment in a reading list for The Week. From Sylvia Plath’s iconic chronicle of mental illness and societal pressure to Frantz Fanon’s classic account of race, colonialism, and revolutionary struggle, explore his recommendations below – and dive into the bookshelves of other great writers here.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Reading List

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (also rec’d by Erica Jong, Lisa Simpson & Richey Edwards)

“I read Plath’s novel as a student in an all-boys Jesuit high school and was suitably disturbed by its story of an ambitious young woman who suffers a mental-health crisis and is committed to a psychiatric hospital.” -VTN

Red Comet by Heather Clark (also rec’d by Sufjan Stevens)

The Bell Jar returned to my thought after I read Heather Clark’s new biography of Plath, a compelling reminder of how committed Plath was to her writing. At 1,118 pages, the biography is itself an example of commitment, both on the part of the author who wrote it and for the reader who picks it up. I enjoyed its very detailed examinations of everything from Plath’s great poetry to her love life. I hope no one ever writes such a book about me.” -VTN

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (also rec’d by The Black Panther Party, Colin KaepernickNipsey Hussle, Noname & Rage Against The Machine)

The Committed refers to numerous literary and political works of commitment, most of all to The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s classic account of the Algerian revolt against the French and passionate call for violent revolution by subjugated peoples. The Martinique-born political philosopher himself became a committed revolutionary and died young, leaving a remarkable body of work.” -VTN

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

“Eka Kurniawan’s brutal, funny, wildly imaginative novel is about many things, and among them are the crimes committed in Indonesia during colonialism and afterward.” -VTN

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (also rec’d by Anya Taylor-Joy)

“I’m drawn to writers who relentlessly dig up the past that most other people would rather leave untouched. W.G. Sebald, a German writer, made it his life’s work to deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath. I particularly love this magisterial and melancholic novel about an orphan who learns he is Jewish and embarks on a quest to find out what happened to his parents.” -VTN

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

“This is Karen Tei Yamashita’s masterpiece, an epic and expansive novel about San Francisco’s revolutionary Asian-American movement of the 1960s and ’70s, from which I, as an Asian-American writer, am descended.” -VTN

(via The Week; photo by Joyce Kim)

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Categories: Writers