A Reader Reviews: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Refugees’

'The Refugees'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel The Sympathizer in 2016. The Refugees comprises short stories written and published over a number of years before this win, now gathered together with some changes in a collection that gives expression to the experiences of refugees caught between Vietnam and the USA.

Each of the stories in this collection features immigrants whose lives are in a state of great upheaval and Nguyen lays bare the many hardships they have suffered. Black-Eyed Women, the first story in the collection, recounts the experiences of a writer who confronts the ghost of a brother murdered during an attempt to escape Vietnam by boat and in doing so sets the tone of the entire anthology. In The Other Man, young refugee Liem arrives in San Francisco and starts living with his sponsor Parrish Coyne and his lover Marcus Chan, while War Years narrates the persistent attempts of Mrs Hoa to secure a donation from the owners of a convenience store to help fight Communism back in Vietnam. The Transplant sees Arthur Arellano storing counterfeit goods for Louis Vu after a successful transplant of a liver from Louis’s father, and in I’d Love You to Want Me, a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s disease confuses his wife with another woman. In The Americans, a father clashes with his daughter, who is trying to right the wrongs committed by her father in the Vietnam War, and Thomas reconnects with his ex-wife Sam in Someone Else Besides You. The final story in the collection, Fatherland, charts the relationship between two doppelgänger half-sisters and dismantles in the process the idea of the American Dream.

Throughout the collection, Nguyen shows that geographical displacement is not the only dislocation to be experienced by refugees. Familial displacement is ubiquitous in many of the stories and is frequently configured as conflict in relationships between parents and their children. In The Other Man, for example, we are told that Marcus’s father disowned him after a spiteful ex sent him one of Marcus’s love letters with some ‘candid pictures’, while in The Americans, Claire tells her father that she has a Vietnamese soul and that by teaching English to poor Vietnamese children she thinks she can ‘“…make up…”’ for his bombing of Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Geographical displacement in Nguyen’s stories leads to familial displacement simply by the separation of physical borders, but Nguyen demonstrates that this physical distance goes hand in hand with emotional alienation, whether out of necessity or because of irreconcilable lifestyles and perspectives.

Repressed memories also feature prominently in The Refugees, from the unnamed writer’s initial reluctance to remember the story of her brother’s death in Black-Eyed Women to Phuong’s burning of photographs to eradicate the memory of her identically named half-sister and her visit in Fatherland. For many of the refugees in this collection, remembering the past is a source of pain, and though suppressing it may bring temporary relief, it is only by expressing memories and telling tales that the characters begin to deal with the trauma they are experiencing. This is especially encapsulated in Black-Eyed Women, in which the act of storytelling is presented as a form of exorcism. As the writer narrator of Black-Eyed Women tells us, ‘[s]tories 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.’

Written with compassion and an eye for mental turmoil, Nguyen’s collection suggests that the only way for us to understand the lives of refugees is for their stories to be told and disseminated. Although Nguyen’s stories were written years before they were published together in The Refugees and focus on Vietnam and the USA, their resonance can still be keenly heard in recent reports of migrants desperately trying to find sanctuary from war-torn countries such as Syria. Stories like those of Nguyen are needed now more than ever, for they give humanity and personality to refugees and are an effective antidote to depictions of migrants in the media as faceless and unknown.