Set in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese communities of California, this accomplished collection from Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen sees characters face up to the ghosts of the past. This review by Yiyun Lee was originally published by The Guardian.
About 15 years ago, I taught A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power’s book on genocides, to a group of 18- and 19-year-olds in a midwest university in the US. In my class there was a young man who had spent his boyhood in Bosnia as Nato bombed his hometown. My other students, awed by his connection to the genocide in the textbook, asked him what it was like to grow up in a warzone. “A pretty normal childhood as you had here,” he said. “We played poker inside a lot, and when there was no bombing we kicked a ball in the street.”
In the past few years the world has seen a rapid increase in refugees, with the number hitting 60 million. The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story collection following his Pulitzer-winning novel The Sympathizer, reminds us that “literature is news that stays news”, as Ezra Pound put it. Set in the Vietnamese communities in California as well as in Vietnam, the stories do not aim to surprise us with new twists or shock us with sensational details, as war and refugee stories could easily choose to do. Rather, like the young man from Bosnia, Nguyen’s characters tell these stories because they are the only ones known to them.
Two of the most touching pieces, both about siblings separated by geography and history, bookend the collection. In “Black-Eyed Women”, a Vietnamese-American woman works as a ghostwriter. (“At least your name’s not on anything,” is the only approval that the narrator’s mother gives, reflecting a fear carried from the time when writers in their home country would meet unspeakable fates.) As befits her profession, the narrator is visited by the ghost of her elder brother, who died young on the boat when the family took flight from the war. The ensuing tale of love and loss, violence and violation, may not be unfamiliar to the reader, but the contrast between the tenacity of the brother’s ghost (he has taken decades to swim across the Pacific to reach America) and the sister’s self-willed exile into a half death – which is almost a rebellion against being alive – makes the story linger.
As an echo, the closing story, “Fatherland”, explores a more complex situation between two siblings. The narrator, a young Vietnamese woman, meets her half-sister, visiting from the US for the first time. Adding to the tension is the fact that her father has named the narrator and her siblings after his first set of children. Two sisters, one American and one Vietnamese, yet named the same by the father – it may sound strange, but isn’t it the fate many refugees have to face: a life left behind, that could have been theirs; and a life in an adopted country, the veneer of newness easily dinted by the ghost of the past?
The theme of doubleness – choice and inevitability, home and homelessness, starting afresh and being stuck – is present not only in the stories of Vietnamese refugees, but also of those who have become refugees from their own homes and loved ones. “Smiling at your relatives never got you very far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances sometimes did.” So a pilot, who fought in the Vietnam war and is now revisiting the country for the first time, thinks while waving at the locals from a tour bus. He’s estranged from his daughter, just as a Mexican American in the collection is estranged from his wife, or a young man from Hong Kong is estranged from his father. The collection is full of refugees, whether from external turmoil – natural or manmade disasters – or from a deeper, more internal conflict between even those who are closest to each other. With anger but not despair, with reconciliation but not unrealistic hope, and with genuine humour that is not used to diminish anyone, Nguyen has breathed life into many unforgettable characters, and given us a timely book focusing, in the words of Willa Cather, on “the slow working out of fate in people of allied sentiment and allied blood”.
Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants is published by Fourth Estate.