Professor nominated for major literary award
ASSISTANT MOSAIC EDITOR
English professor and fiction writer Viet Dinh said he “was shocked” when he received an email from the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. They told him they had important information and not to discuss it for a few days until the official press release. When it was released, the secret was out — Dinh was a PEN/Faulkner finalist, an annual award for the four best works of fiction by living American citizens.
His novel, “After Disasters,” received the nomination. The book centers on the 2001 earthquakes in India from the perspective of four narrators: an American member of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, his colleague, an Asian doctor and a British firefighter. Its main theme is trauma, including physical, social and emotional, and how people handle it. Dinh says it wasn’t his goal to become a finalist when he wrote the book but he obviously is happy it happened.
“Even though it only happens to one in five million writers, we always hope we are going to be that one — it’s sort of like playing the lottery,” Dinh says.
Dinh started writing as early as elementary school, crafting short horror stories in his hometown of Denver up until high school. When he went to college, he and his parents didn’t think he would be able to make a living writing, so he switched his major a few times. Eventually, Dinh graduated and received his MFA in Creative Writing.
“With a huge-ass clunky computer, I would write these stories, until I used up the five bits of memory it had, it would clunk out at 8 pages, ” Dinh says.
“After Disasters,” was inspired by another book, “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje, a story that also uses multiple narrators. Vinh says this gave him permission to do it in his own work and write about these other cultures.
“Seeing that it could be done, that this white Canadian was able to write from a WWII bomb diffuser, I was like, ‘okay I can handle this,’” Dinh says.
To write the story, Dinh traveled to India, a place he always wanted to write about, where he says he “drank lots of tea” and also interviewed people who witnessed the earthquake.
As for 2001, he wanted to pick an event that occurred before 9/11 because the event, he says, it changed the way Americans thought about disasters. Dinh chose to write about the topic because he believes the disaster narrative works well with fiction.
“Fiction — especially good, strong, and compelling fiction — has to do with change, and there is no better agent of change, that forces you to change, than to encounter a disaster,” Dinh says.
Next, Dinh will be traveling to Washington D.C. at the beginning of May to attend the PEN/Faulkner Gala where he will read for six to eight minutes from his book. He says he looks forward to this and, of course, the free food. As for writing, he says he is going back to his roots — he is working on short stories based off of famous horror stories.
“There won’t be any cherry blossoms, but you can’t have it all,” Dinh says.