The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hardcover, 2017





New York, NY : Grove Atlantic, 2017.


A collection of stories, written over a twenty-year period, examines the Vietnamese experience in America as well as questions of home, family, and identity.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
This is such an exciting time in American literature that we can enjoy the gorgeous language and careful craftsmanship of really very fine short stories and novels in English in the American tradition but from traditionally silent participants in our nation’s pageant: immigrants and people of color. These voices began speaking up some time ago, but if you looked at the award lists until recently, people of color weren’t often on them. That has changed, and right now, before cultures become indistinguishable from one another in the wealth churn, the special character and individual voice of different groups is our bounty to reap.

Nguyen just wows me with his capture of the immigrant experience from so many different directions in this collection of stories. Not only is his language clear and expressive and to the point, his stories are rounded and fulfilling. They tell us something, like dispatches from a new world.

A section called “The War Years” has a story that is not actually about the war we usually think of. We’re in L.A., in Little Saigon, in a grocery store where we breathe in the smell the dried cuttlefish and star anise in the crowded aisles. Father (Ba), mother (Ma), and Long (do I need to say?), a thirteen-year-old for whom school, even summer school, felt like a vacation, worked at the store every day, even Sundays after Mass.

Ma is the real deal: waking everyone up in the mornings, keeping house, making meals, counting cash. She owns seven pastel outfits, and with makeup and a squirt of scent (gardenia), she is ready to man the cash register. We hear the scratch of her nylons as she rubs one ankle against the other. She knows the margins on every item in the store, even the 50-lb bags of rice in the loft above kitchenware.

Mrs. Hao visits the store regularly to ask for contributions to “fight the Communists,” but Ma thinks that fight is over. She follows Mrs. Hao home one day to confront her and discovers a fight that is all too real.

The story is so richly told, its depths just keep churning up new insights. And yet it is not alone. “The Transplant” introduces us to Arthur Arellano, a man with several overlapping and reflexive problems—problems which influence each other. Despite “transplant” bringing to mind “immigrant,” in this story the word has a more literal meaning.

The characters in all these stories have complex problems, complex attachments, complex lives. In “Someone Else Besides You,” a thirty-three-year-old man lives with his father after his own divorce, but his widower father, despite his own proclivities for mistresses, is constantly urging his son to pursue the former wife. See what I mean? Complex.

One story, “The Americans,” depicts a twenty-six-year-old woman who has been teaching English in Vietnam for two years already, living in a town that also hosts a nonprofit engaged in demining. She invites her parents to visit, to meet her boyfriend, to see her housing, her life. The email inviting them is addressed to Mom and Dad, but James Carver, recently retired as a commercial airline pilot, knows it is mostly meant for her mother, who dreams about Vietnam's “bucolic” countryside. “He knew next to nothing about Vietnam except what it looked like at forty thousand feet.”

Nguyen conveys the silent, withheld anger and confusion that men can often exhibit: an inarticulateness that keeps them angry without them even knowing exactly why. James was so proud when his son graduated from Air Force Academy, but he marks his own decline from that moment: he felt he was growing stupider rather than wiser as he aged. That was just the moment that the torch passed, and it is a new world, not his own. If he could but speak his fears, he’d find he was not alone: the world could still be his, he’d just be sharing it.

His daughter Claire is just like daughters anywhere, thinking they know more than they do, speaking and acting so carelessly, so casually hurtful.
“Although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend any such feeling to him.”
Being a parent is tough stuff. One has to have the hide of a rhinoceros.

The technical skill manifest in this story is breathtaking. We are never explicitly told the man is black, married to a Japanese woman while stationed on Okinawa. Their children have grown up loved by their parents, but confused about their identities and disparaged by their schoolmates. James has endured a lifetime of confusion, including his job flying a bomber jet. Unspoken, unresolved resentment is the minefield.

Nguyen’s stories are feasts of insight, generously shared. We’re lucky folk, to have such a talent writing for us. The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel out last year, was a big novel is every sense. He shows us here he can write engaging, enduring short fiction, and his nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has likewise garnered critical attention. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has received residencies, fellowships, honors, awards, and grants from a wide range of admiring and grateful organizations.
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LibraryThing member Pet12
This is a collection of 8 short stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen. After reading these, I'm now much more inclined to pick up his winning debut The Sympathizer. I can honestly say I enjoyed all the stories in this compilation. All of them are about the experience of leaving one country for another, but each story was unique. They are about culture and identity but I really loved how they examined relationships - between parents and children, husbands and wives, between siblings - with great insight. My favorite was "I'd love you to want me", which was about a devoted wife whose husband was suffering from Alzheimer's. Some humorous, some deeply moving, all written skillfully but in a simple manner, i.e. few words and yet still managing to create a vivid sense of place and complex characters. Definitely recommended.
I received an ARC via NetGalley.
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LibraryThing member teachlz
I would like to thank NetGalley and Grove Atlantic and Grove Press for an ARC of "The Refugees" by Viet Thankh Nguyen for my honest review. The genre of this novel is fiction, possibly historical fiction. This novel is composed of eight short stories written by the author. All the stories reflect Vietnamese life in American or in the homeland. I find that it is difficult to review a book with many stories. Some of the stories had no written conclusion or seemed to be open for interpretation. The author writes of family, love, immigration, homosexuals,mistresses, feelings of identity, and cultural differences. There also seems to be a feeling of pride that seems to be important. I found that the stories were interesting and the descriptions were graphic. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy reading short descriptive cultural stories.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
Long-time readers will know I don’t love short stories. I like my books long and complicated, the more description and backstory the better (hello, Charles Dickens!). Yet one cannot ignore the stellar short stories collections out this year. I started the year with Roxanne Gay’s Difficult Women and moved into Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of short stories. I am so glad I did.

Each one of Mr. Nguyen’s short stories is a microcosm of what I love about reading. The characters are real and surprisingly well-developed in spite of the brevity of their stories. Their everyday lives are memorable in their mundanity. Their stories are equally unremarkable. Yet, they are captivating in their normalcy.

The Refugees is a collection of stories about the people who left behind their lives in a war-torn country to start fresh in a new one, sometimes at great peril, in a country that will provide them more freedoms than they ever could have had should they have stayed. These are the stories of people who represent just one more generation of people seeking refuge on our shores, who remind us all of the original settlers in this country.

Mr. Nguyen’s ability to drive to the heart of each of their stories in a few short sentences embodies each word with significance. His prose makes the entire collection immensely readable. You find yourself drawn into each story, compelled to keep reading, and highly disappointed when it ends. Yet you move on to the next story to find yourself fully engaged once again.

The Refugees puts a human face onto the political hot potato that has become immigration and asylum in recent weeks. It is a reminder that refugees are not looking to infiltrate our country but just looking to escape their own. One cannot recommend this collection highly enough not only because of the storytelling but also because of the poignant reminders for empathy each story gives us.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
I love short stories. They seem to be incredibly difficult to write, to put everything in just a few pages and connect to the reader as well. Done well, I find them incredible and that was one of the first things I noticed when I started reading this collection, the writing is fantastic. Excellent writing itself makes me want to trust the writer, puts me at ease, surely he knows what he is doing, he writes so well? Then the content, the situations presented have to draw one in, present a complete picture, make me want to continue reading. These did that too, and brilliantly.

The stories in this collection have a common theme, as the title suggests they are refugees from Vietnam whom have made their way to the United States. They are all very good but two in particular I keep thinking about. One is War Room, a young boy, twelve years old is our narrator, his parents now own a grocery store and he must work there every day after school. He tells the story of a woman coming to the store to collect money to send to those fighting the Communists in Viet Nam, how his mother reacts and how and why her viewpoint changes as the story progresses.

The second is I want you to want me, about a family with young children who escaped from Vietnam and have had a fairly successful life. The woman is our narrator, she works at her local library, a job she loves, go figure, but her husband is slowly sinking into Alzheimer disease and she is his main caretaker. What propels this story is that he begins to call her a different name, a name she has never heard of before, and the women begins to believe he had a life she knew nothing about. Taut and perceptive, this story is one that impressed itself in my mind. Don't quite know why.

I have never read the much awarded novel, The Sympathizer, by this author, but will now make it a point to do so. The last book I finished in 2016 and it was a very good one.

ARC from publisher.
Publishes February 7th.
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
I know that short story collections are usually a hard sell, but I'm going out on a limb and saying this one will. Viet Thanh Nguyen's THE REFUGEES is a sterling bunch of stories, eight of them, and not a bad one in the whole barrel. And I'm not surprised, because I've already read Nguyen's novel, THE SYMPATHIZER, which won the Pulitzer. Some of these stories were written ten or more years ago, but they already displayed the writing chops that were so evident in the prize-winning novel. And some of them, like "The War Years," with its widow sewing uniforms in a California barrio for a Vietnamese army that will rise again to defeat the Communists; or the former Vietnamese airborne officer who bullies and dominates his divorced son in "Someone Else Besides You," also show the early seeds that became THE SYMPATHIZER.

A favorite of mine is "The Americans," which gives us Carver, a black 69 year-old former B-52 pilot who once bombed North Vietnam, back in Vietnam decades later with his Japanese wife to visit their adult daughter who, Carver feels, will never understand how his life has been. In Carver, "now retired, limping out his sixties," Nguyen captures perfectly the helpless, sometimes bitter feeling of growing old, of accelerating months and years, of "time ruthlessly thinning out the once-dense herd of his memories." But Carver still can remember the wonder of his flying years, how -

"Almost everything looked more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God's eyes ... the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere."

Nguyen also artfully conveys the uglier aspects of poverty too, as Carver travels through the Vietnamese countryside and observes -

"... tin-roofed shacks with dirt floors, a man pulling up the leg of his shorts to urinate on a wall... the air thick with blasts of soot from passing trucks, the rot of buffalo dung, the fermentation of the local cuisine that he found briny and nauseating."

This is wonderful writing. And Nguyen understands, I think, that writing itself is a kind of reaching for immortality, an idea he expresses perfectly in the closing lines of his opening story of refugee ghosts and ghost writers, "Black-eyed Women" -

"Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts."

These are hauntingly beautiful, wise stories, made to be read and remembered. My highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
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LibraryThing member charl08
Fascinating short stories exploring the experiences of Vietnamese migrants. Some are haunted by those they left behind, others successfully negotiating real estate to claim the American dream. My favourite story is the last where a young woman travels to Vietnam to meet her father and his new family, who he has named after the three children who fled to America with his first wife.… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
The eight stories collected here were published over a twenty year period. So there is an understandable variance in style, subtlety, and impact. The initial story, “Black Eyed Women,” is both the most recent and by far the best. That bodes well since it suggests that Nguyen is developing as a writer, but it means that the remainder of the book can come across as a slight disappointment after that first story. Better would be to see these more straight up, less challenging stories, as necessary stepping stones to something almost startling. And to be fair, none of the earlier stories are poor. Just weaker by comparison.

Each of the stories involves Vietnamese refugees at some point. Nguyen moves easily between male and female protagonists as well as young and old. He appears to be a writer testing his craft. Again, this is something that improves over time. In some stories, the reader doesn’t realized the gender of the protagonist until a few pages in. And there is a sameness of tone across the stories, with the possible exception of the opening story. In all, this is a useful collection in order to get a view on where Nguyen has been the past twenty years. But I think the next twenty years will be much more exciting.

Gently recommended.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
I read this book while in Viet Nam. The short stories gave me a glimpse of what life is like for people who have had to leave their homeland. I enjoyed the humor as well as the emotions so clearly expressed in the actions and words of the characters. I liked this book even more than The Sympathizes.
LibraryThing member wildrequiem
Wonderful introduction to Viet Thanh Nguyen's writing. His slice-of-life writing style is plain, as I've heard many people say, but still manages to evoke powerful emotions. Every story in this collection is top-notch quality, and they're all incredibly diverse in their own ways. I've found myself reading more and more Vietnamese fiction this year, and all these short stories succeed in giving me an even more multi-faceted look at Vietnamese history and its people.… (more)
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This collection of short stories highlights the various struggles faced by those who settle in a foreign land. The barriers of culture loom large in this book - the culture shock one man experiences when living with a gay couple, the man who becomes embroiled in a scheme to sell counterfeit luxury goods, the mother who lies about her achievements to convince the family back home that everything is better where she is. Thought-provoking reading and very worthwhile.… (more)
LibraryThing member alanteder
A Wide Swath of Stories

Nguyen covers a wide terrain of the Vietnamese immigrant/refugee experience with this collection of stories written over a 10-year period. There are stories looking back at escape ("Black-Eyed Woman"), stories of arrival ("The Other Man"), stories of childhood in a new land ("War Years"), stories of work and experience ("The Transplant"), stories of love & aging ("I'd Love You To Want Me" & "Someone Else Besides You") and stories of return to the homeland ("The Americans" & "Fatherland"). They are roughly arranged in that sort of logical order as well, making an appropriate complete cycle. A very well-done short-story selection.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jan.Coco.Day
Refugees have existed as long as people have formed communities of "insiders" and "outsiders" and created conflict. By their very nature, refugee stories--huge swaths of history--don't get recorded. So every time we see a heavy period of refugee activity, we have to redefine the word "refugee." This is almost Nguyen's life's work. He explores all the different ways in which people can be physical, global, economic, political, emotional, and spiritual refugees. Thoughts characters have in one story form the theme of another story. These stories are absolutely essential to defining "refugee" in our cultural lexicon.… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
[Viet Thanh Nguyen has written a collection of short stories called The Refugees and it's really good. While each of the stories touches on being a refugee or outsider, each is completely different from the others. And they are all really good. It's a slender book, and Nguyen clearly chose to only publish his very best.

This is a much more accessible book than The Sympathizer, with Nguyen's emphasis remaining on the flawed humanity of each character. A woman is frustrated by her son's insistence that she give up the part-time library job she loves to be home with her ailing husband, a young man arrives in San Francisco to discover that his sponsor is an older gay man, a man receives an organ transplant and feels a sense of obligation to the donor's son, the young son of shop owners watches as his mother refuses to give into to blackmail.
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