Pulitzer-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen Makes ‘The Refugees’ Human

May-lee Chai reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees for Dallas News.

At a time when paranoia about refugees and migrants has reached a new high in America and perhaps the world, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s first collection of short stories, The Refugees, adds a necessary voice humanizing this group of demonized people. In this case, they are largely refugees from Vietnam, those who fled after the Communist victory and American withdrawal.

These are not stories about the war per se but rather what came afterward in America —  stories of rebuilding, of bicultural lives, of pain and anguish over loss as well as excitement and even befuddlement over new opportunities.

Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, The Sympathizer, writes empathetically about the emotional wounds his characters carry, whether as first-generation refugees or as their American-born children. Parents confound children, children perplex parents, and together they must find a way to co-exist.

In one story, a son is frustrated by his mother’s tightfisted and unwavering habits. “Her routine was as predictable as the rotation of the earth,” the son notes, “beginning with how she rapped on my door every morning, at six, six fifteen, and six thirty, until at last I was awake.”

The mother, who owns and operates a Vietnamese grocery alongside the boy’s father, refuses the son’s suggestions to vary the merchandise to include TV dinners and berates him for his lack of fiscal restraint. She complains, “Are you going to be the kind of person who always pays the asking price?”

But as the story goes along, Nguyen avoids easy stereotypes about thrifty immigrants and their freer American-raised children. Instead, as another character is introduced — a pushy woman who campaigns tirelessly for donations to re-fight the Communists in Vietnam — the story becomes a meditation on loss after war and mothers’ love for their sons.

Sometimes Nguyen takes the point of view of non-Vietnamese affected by the war or by their encounters with the titular refugees. In “The Americans,” a black veteran confronts the psychic wounds of war when he visits Vietnam. There he discovers that his mixed-race daughter has fallen in love with a Vietnamese-American man and that both intend to stay in the country he once fought against. In “The Transplant,” an American man seeks the family of a Vietnamese man whose liver has been transplanted into his body. He ends up getting involved in a racket to sell counterfeit goods.

The men in the stories are the most vividly rendered characters, and the ones who are allowed the most foibles. The women are long-suffering and defined by their relationships to the men in their lives: as wives, mothers, daughters or even mistresses. It is more often the men’s journey that interests Nguyen, who makes their pain and frustration vivid on the page whether they are fathers who struggle against multiple cultural expectations or the many Vietnamese-American sons perplexed by their parents’ choices.

Ultimately, however, these eight works celebrate the art of telling stories as an act of resilience and survival.

For example, in “Black-eyed Woman,” a mother tells her son “stories of terror” about ghosts, about life back in Vietnam, including the story of reporter tortured by the government, even about violent thieves in America waiting just outside the door.

“My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here,” the son recalls. “In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”

Fortunately, Nguyen as a writer recognizes just how valuable these stories are. The Refugees is a beautifully written collection, filled with empathy and insight into the lives of people who have too often been erased from the larger American media landscape.

 

May-lee Chai is author, most recently, of the novel “Tiger Girl” and is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Category: Reviews

 

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