Advice for Artists Whose Parents Want Them to Be Engineers

July 8, 2021

Viet Thanh Nguyen

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Mr. Nguyen is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer” and its sequel, “The Committed.” He is a professor of English, American studies and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.

“When I give lectures on college campuses, the most difficult question I am asked is this: “I want to pursue my dream, but my parents want me to do something different. What should I do?”

I can relate. What would have made me happy as a young person was to be a writer and study literature. What would have made my parents happy was for me to become a doctor like my brother, who went to Harvard and Stanford. How could I come home to my refugee parents, who worked seven days a week in their grocery store, and tell them that I wanted to read Jane Austen and the Romantic poets, and major in English, a language they didn’t speak in their own home?

Eventually I did tell my parents I was majoring in English, but I wasn’t ready at first to tell them that I wanted to be a writer. That would have been going too far. My day job was being a professor, and my dream job was being a writer, which consumed my nights, weekends and summers. It was exhausting, but so were the sacrifices that my parents made for us.

I did not expect my parents to read my books. Their acceptance of my choice to become a professor was enough for me. And then one day I presented them with what they had not been expecting: a novel. Surprise!”