Book Review – The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Corsair 2017, £12.99, 209 pages

In this era of Syrian and Libyan refugees flooding Southern and Eastern Europe to escape war, millions of Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and threats to deport child immigrants in the United States (US), escaping into fiction about refugees seems counterintuitive. However, I am able to report that The Refugees, from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, is just the ticket.

Nguyen, himself a Vietnamese refugee and a professor at the University of Southern California, gives us eight short stories that will grab you in the moment and leave you thinking long after. Knowing there were only eight stories made me want to parcel them out, like a box of fine chocolates.

The recurring theme running throughout most of the stories is the suppression and resurfacing of memory. Much like this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, Nguyen’s stories are about our need to come to terms with our past, with unpleasant memories of events we tend to suppress or trick ourselves into forgetting to cope with the present – until, of course, they surface from a familiar scent, a reunion with an acquaintance, or just a fleeting thought that comes to an idle mind. Or, as in I’d Love You to Want Me, out of the blue.

Nguyen opens with Black-Eyed Woman, a riveting story that traces the characters back to the Vietnamese flight from Vietnam after the war, seeking a brighter future, very much like what we see on the news today with the Syrian refugees and economic migrants – making their way across the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean and the unwelcoming paths in Eastern and Central Europe. Those old enough to have been following the news in the late 1970s may recall the Vietnamese boat people: the deplorable images of Vietnamese families, in overcrowded boats, being subjected to inhumane treatment on their way to or upon arrival in places such as British Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Getting to the promised land could take years of waiting in refugee camps (detention centers), hoping for a sponsor. The instinct to survive and to cope has a way of suppressing unpleasantries. And once arrived, with the overwhelming need to get on, to adjust, to assimilate, to rebuild, and to succeed (usually an unquenchable motivating desire that can be just as overwhelming), looking back and reflecting is the last thing on their mind. But the past, being also what shapes the present and influences the future, is just beneath the surface – lurking, waiting, foreshadowing. In due time, the past confronts; there is no escaping. As someone recently put it: better to deal with the past, before the past deals with you.

In War Years, Nguyen takes us back to a theme he explored in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer (a definite must read). Having barely escaped Saigon as North Vietnamese forces were bringing the Vietnam war to an end, no sooner than some of these refugees landed to safety to begin their new life, they began plotting how to return to pick up where they left off, only this time to a victorious end. As a novel, The Sympathizer explores this theme from various angles while also treating us to Vietnamese culture in Vietnam and the US. In War Years, we see a sliver of this, primarily from the point of view of two matriarchs. One has come to terms with her past life in Vietnam and day-to-day struggles in the new life in the US, while the other clings to the memories of her departed loved ones who she feels must be avenged, hence the exigency of galvanizing support for those training in the jungles in Southeast Asia who will lead the charge in toppling the Vietnamese communist regime. In pitting a dour pragmatist against an incessant fanatic, Nguyen serves us a slice of what it must have been like in the Vietnamese communities in the US, especially immediately after the fall of South Vietnam. Some, though nostalgic for what they had left behind, were able to suppress their memories and feelings as they moved on, while others, trapped by the past and what was lost, saw their new life as only a transitory station, a place from which to bide time until they return to the place where things will one day be as they were.

In Fatherland, the last story in The Refugees, Nguyen explores the all too familiar theme of the grass is always greener on the other side. Those left behind often think that they have lost out on the promises of the new country; that those who have left will become successful, rich, important, etc. Those of us who come from families who have immigrated to places like the US know that this is to a large extent a myth. Some who arrive in the new country merely eke out a living, never finding success and riches, though some do manage to reach surprising heights. Sometimes those left behind in the old country do just fine – even if it may not always be so obvious. In Fatherland, Nguyen explores envy, pride, shame, anger, and much more, as a father left behind by his wife at the end of the war welcomes his visiting daughter from the US into his home with his new family.

Not all stories feature Vietnamese refugees, though the undertone of all of them is about refugees and, of course, the force of memories. In the mix we are treated to culture-shock, dementia, disillusionment, and more.

Having spent time in the Vietnamese community in Northern California and having lived and worked in Vietnam, it was a special pleasure to read these stories. I found myself chuckling at some of the scenes as they brought back memories of my interactions with Vietnamese clients, their family members, and friends. His description of familiar Vietnamese dishes and of the scent of the spices used made me want to rush to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant.

Nguyen is an exceptional writer, a formidable storyteller. All eight stories in The Refugees are gems full of nuances, twists, and surprises. Savor them.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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