Kien Nguyen exudes confidence, arriving at the Powell Hotel lobby eager to talk about his two books, The Unwanted and The Tapestries.
With his hair falling in a tousled pile of curls, he looks casual and relaxed — a far cry from the impoverished refugee he was in 1985 when he landed in the United States.
Born in 1967 to a Vietnamese woman and an American serviceman, Nguyen was taunted as a child, growing up amidst the chaos and brutality of Communist Vietnam. His cousins tortured him, his mother’s boyfriend molested him and when he was 15, he spent two months in prison for trying to escape the country.
He chronicles his experiences in The Unwanted, his memoir published in 2001. Nguyen’s lyrical prose brings humanity and insight into that sad chapter of history, a time that exposed man’s inhumanity to man, a time when there was little reason to live, he says.
“Suffering as a family, that was happiness because at least you weren’t alone,” he says.
In contrast, Nguyen’s latest book is a celebration of life, written as a tribute to his grandfather. He couldn’t have invented a better character.
At 7, Dan Nguyen, was married to a 24-year-old woman, who served as the family’s maid. After his father was beheaded, Dan was sent to live with a rival family, where he fell in love with their granddaughter.
“It’s a love story between my grandfather and grandmother,” Nguyen says. “And I know that story is real because she’s the only one he knew all his life, she was his soul mate. That was what love in Vietnam was like, the old world that we don’t have anymore.”
Already close to finishing his third book, La Colonial, Nguyen originally started writing as a form of therapy.
For years, he suffered nightmares caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.
In one reoccurring dream, he was underwater, entrapped by corpses. In another, he was an old, haggard man still trying to get out of Vietnam.
Nguyen says, “I would wake up screaming and spook the hell out of whichever girl I was with at the time. They would think I had some deep-rooted problem.
“It was like being imprisoned. In the daytime I was free, but at night I’d go back to jail. It haunted me to the point where I was sick of being alive because I knew I would have to deal with this again and again.”
And life in America wasn’t the panacea Nguyen had hoped for, either.
Soon after his mother and siblings settled in Georgia, Nguyen headed for New York City. His mother gave him her first welfare check, and after buying a one-way bus ticket to the city, he had $2 left, just enough for one subway token.
Taking his chances on Chinatown, he found work in a soup restaurant and met a woman who offered him a place to stay. Other Vietnamese people advised him to go to the unemployment agency, and there, he met a counselor who was a Vietnam vet.
Nguyen says, “He had a huge guilt complex, I imagine because he left his Amerasian children behind. He told me, ‘This is outrageous. You’re not going to work, you’re going to go back to school.’ ”
When he asked Nguyen which school he wanted to attend, Nguyen meant to say Columbus High. But the man interpreted it as Columbia University.
Nguyen laughs, “He wrote me this glorifying recommendation for Columbia. I took it to Columbus and got accepted, anyway.”
After a year, he graduated and went to State University of New York, Buffalo, where he received a degree in chemistry. But four years later, fresh out of college, he couldn’t find work and ended up on the sidewalk, drawing portraits for passersby.
Broke and depressed, he turned to psychic Frank Andrews, who is a New York Post columnist. After hearing Nguyen’s story, Andrews asked him to be his son. He would help Nguyen go back to school, and Nguyen, in turn, would take care of him in his old age.
Nguyen says, “It was a kindred spirit kind of family that you make for yourself when you’re out in the world alone.”
Andrews, whose former clients include Princess Grace, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, let Nguyen live with him, while Nguyen earned a second degree in biology and a dental degree from New York University.
Nguyen says, “The longer you live, the more you believe in that spirituality, that interference in the mathematical order of life.”
Andrews introduced Nguyen to some friends, who were literary agents. After one man offered to represent him and a book deal was signed, Nguyen confronted his mother, warning her that he was going to tell their story exactly as he remembered it.
Nguyen says, “I wasn’t going to make mother a saint, like a good Asian son should do. I wanted to report without judgement.”
Rather than protesting, Nguyen’s mother helped him recall some early experiences. In The Unwanted, he writes candidly about his mother’s vanity, her affairs and the atrocity she inflicts on her unborn daughter after learning that her lover had been unfaithful.
Such brutal honesty earned Nguyen critical praise and garnered attention from Vietnamese Americans.
Shortly after the book came out, the Vietnamese community asked Nguyen to speak in Orange County, Calif., an invitation he accepted with ambivalence.
Nguyen recalls that a book had just come out by Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father. There was some backlash from the Cambodian community because the author is ethnically Chinese.
“I was anticipating the same from the Vietnamese community. But I went because I had said my piece, and I wanted to give other people the opportunity to say their piece.”
Instead, Nguyen found himself embraced by the community.
“Everyone was so proud of me. They looked at me as a Vietnamese, not an Amerasian, and as a Vietnamese who had broken into the literary world,” he says. “It was an amazing feeling to be accepted.”
That acceptance gave Nguyen the confidence to continue to write about Vietnam, not as an outsider but as a person from within.
He says he has enough material in his head to write for the next ten years. His latest project, La Colonial limns the lives of three French priests who come to Vietnam, just before the French Revolution.
Nguyen says, “These three people are looking for their spirituality. They reflect my three sides: the belief in God, the belief in a bigger divine, and the belief that there is no god. This is the universal conflict.”