In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.
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.
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.
I received an ARC via NetGalley.
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
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.
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.
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.
Viet Thanh Nguyen has been on my "to read" list for quite some time after hearing about the success of The Sympathizer (winner of several awards including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). This beautifully written compilation left me amazed and anxious to read The Sympathizer.
This collection of stories explores immigration, family, love, and identity while straddling two worlds
– the homeland, and the adopted homeland. These stories explore the hardships of immigration, of the aspirations and dreams of those that immigrate, and of the relationships and desires that define us all. Filled with figurative and literal ghosts of the past, each story stands alone, yet is tied to the others thematically, and through the strength of the writing.
“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.”
“I came to understand that in the United States, land of the fabled dream, it is un-American to be a refugee.”
This is an excellent story collection, that deals with the Vietnamese refugee experience, loosely based on the author's own life. It also focuses on parent-child relationships. I read and enjoyed his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer and I am glad to see, he is equally adept at short fiction.
However Nguyen has created something significantly more layered than my initial expectations. The relationships he has created between his characters are deep and complex and effectively present not only a different lens to view the challenges facing his characters as they create a new sense of identify which reflects both Vietnamese and American experiences. The distance and tension between generations is also a reoccurring theme. In “the Other Man” a newly arrived refugee , grappling with a cavalcade of new experiences in 1970s San Francisco struggles to write to his father, in “Someone else besides you” the narrator struggles to build a relationship with his newly widowed father.
Whilst not my favourite stories I particularly valued the inclusion of “The Americans” and “Fatherland”. In the former we hear about the story of a young American woman who is teaching English in Vietnam, who struggles to explain to her father her connection to the country and her recognition of his involvement there during the war. In the latter a Vietnamese family are visited by the patriarch’s daughter from his first marriage who has grown up in the States. Both offer a different perspective of being a stranger in another country and I think add an extra depth to the collection.
My absolute favourite however was “I’d love you to want me” which is a heartbreaking story of a woman whose faith in her marriage is rocked as her husband’s dementia worsens and he starts to refer to her by another woman’s name.
I will certainly be looking for more of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s work in the future.
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.