In a New York Times opinion column last September, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, “Many people have characterized my novel, The Sympathizer, as an immigrant story, and me as an immigrant. No. My novel is a war story and I am not an immigrant. I am a refugee who, like many others, has never ceased being a refugee in some corner of my mind.”
Nguyen’s new collection of short stories, The Refugees, considers this distinction through many lenses: refugees crammed onto boats fleeing Vietnam, a young refugee who discovers his sexuality when he moves in with a gay couple in San Francisco, a Vietnamese father with two sets of identically named children separated across the globe in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon.
Though coincidental, the timing of Nguyen’s collection could not be more important. In the wake of the immigration ban, The Refugees provides an imperative perspective on how refugees bear the onuses of war time and time again. We see this throughout Nguyen’s stories – that American fear, whether anti-communist or Islamophobic, is taken out on the innocent. We see the guise of protection being used to propagate racism and xenophobia.
Nguyen’s diction here is also crucial. To conflate immigrants and refugees happens all too often and is part of today’s misleading rhetoric. In her recent New Yorker feature on Nguyen’s work, Joyce Carol Oates noted, “The expat retains an identity as he retains his citizenship, his privileges; the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him.”
This is where Nguyen’s distinction between an immigrant story and war story becomes most important. The Refugees is not a collection about plucky immigrants seeking prosperity abroad. The stories are about characters dealing with the fallout of unspeakable violence and utter abandonment.
These stories span two decades of Nguyen’s writing and reinforce the sentiment that the author has never felt entirely at home. Many of his characters are trapped in the different echelons of American citizenship. The most defined similarities among his character are their forced assimilation and sense of being forgotten. They are discarded by their homeland and marginalized abroad. Thematically, The Refugees is interested in the trauma and transgenerational grief of people forced out of their homes, as well as what it means to feel trapped in the nowhere space between cultures.
Throughout all of these works, Nguyen is a master of hyponyms. When it comes to clothing, food, physical characteristics, and household objects, he creates clear images that are universally recognizable despite their esoteric constructions. However, he always manages to maintain balance and avoid veering too far toward either stylistic pole of prose. The stories that make up The Refugees are neither prolix and maximalist, nor terse and pared down—they are simply good stories imagined with keen attention to detail. In the opening story about a ghostwriter haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, “Black-Eyed Women,” Nguyen writes:
They were historical accounts from reliable sources, the ancient crones who chewed betel nut and spat its red juice while squatting on their haunches in the market, tending coal stoves or overseeing baskets of wares. Our land’s confirmed residents, they said, included the upper half of a Korean lieutenant, launched by a mine into the branches of a rubber tree; a scalped black American floating in the creek not far from his downed helicopter, his eyes and the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water; and a decapitated Japanese private groping through cassava shrubbery for his head. These invaders came to conquer our land and now would never go home, the old ladies said, cackling and exposing lacquered teeth, or so my brother told me. I shivered with delight in the gloom, hearing those black-eyed women with my own ears, and it seemed to me that I would never tell stories like those.
The last thought here reads with a tinge of irony, and perhaps this is one reason why Nguyen has become a literary superstar over the past few years. There’s no denying he is a deft wordsmith and purveyor of lovely diction. But he’s also just so damn readable. His most violent and scathing prose is lightened by nuanced humor. There is no moment where the reader becomes overwhelmed or upset by Nguyen’s academic gusto. The lines of pedantry are toed expertly, so that every story is approachable yet distinctly crafted. Yet, importantly, one never loses sight of the author’s examination of mass atrocity and forced alienation.
The stories themselves are expansive and well paced; each one builds steadily and confidently. For some, eight stories may seem like a spare collection, but The Refugees doesn’t dabble in flash fiction—there are no palate cleansers between courses. Instead, The Refugees serves up elegant, hearty stories full of vibrant language and memorable characters. There’s plenty of time to invest in each one, and they’re worth coming back to time and time again.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published February 7, 2017
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He is the author of The Sympathizer, which was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Edgar Award for First Novel, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the California Book Award for First Fiction. He is also the author of the nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.