Professors Viet Thanh Nguyen and Josh Kun discuss refugees, ethnic studies

On Wednesday, professors Josh Kun (left) and Viet Thanh Nguyen (right) sat down to discuss important topics such as their respective experiences in academia. (Hyeonmi Shin | Daily Trojan)

Professors Viet Thanh Nguyen and Josh Kun conversed with colleagues, board members and a handful of students about their respective experiences in the world of academia.

The event was co-sponsored by “Race, Arts and Placemaking,” a collaborative project supported by the USC Provost Research Collaboration Fund, of which Nguyen and Kun are both members Wednesday at the University Club.

Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American novelist, known for his 2015 book “The Sympathizer.” Professionally, Nguyen primarily focuses on the experience of Vietnamese refugees and their navigation through American culture and politics. As a Vietnamese refugee himself, Nguyen’s work is very personal.

Kun, a MacArthur Fellow, is regarded for his critiques of popular music in an academic format. Kun studies music’s relationship with power and identity, particularly in relation to race and ethnicity.

Nguyen and Kun’s conversation covered a wide range of topics, chiefly their shared beliefs on ethnic studies, and how the two navigate the world of academia with strong interdisciplinary interests and refugees.

Establishing their shared passion for ethnic studies, Nguyen stated that both he and Kun got their starts in ethnic studies, a genealogy that he thinks has substantially informed the work they do today.

According to Nguyen, ethnic studies started picking up around the 1960s. Although decades have passed since this starting point, Kun states that the discipline is a history that has maintained its urgency over the years, a sentiment that Nguyen agrees with. Ethnic studies, to both men, is essential to our understanding of the cultural and political world we live in.

“It is really hard to write about popular music without foregrounding issues of identity and specific liaisons of racism, especially in this U.S. context,” Kun said.

After discussing their accomplished careers to date, the conversation turned toward the topic of refugees.

“It is increasingly urgent to address refugees as a local, a national, a global phenomenon because the problem is not going to go away,” Nguyen said.

Through their respective independent research, Nguyen and Kun have discovered that refugees are exceedingly ill-disposed to identifying or being labeled as such. In his work with Syrian refugees in Berlin, Kun recalled that people who he conversed with said, “We will only talk to you if you agree to refuse that category with us.”

Similarly, while talking to high school students at a public school that has a refugee program in Boise, Idaho, Nguyen found that students were more prone to identify as immigrants than  refugees.

“There is a stigma attached to being a refugee, even if there are benefits attached to it as well,” Nguyen said.

Despite the wide range of  topics covered during the hour, Nguyen and Kun’s conversation ended on a friendly note. Kun fittingly gifted Nguyen a vinyl record from The Refugees, a band comprising Vietnamese refugees.