SF Chronicle Reviews The Refugees

Rayyan Al-Shawaf of the San Francisco Chronicle reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new short story collection, The Refugees.

If you’re still unconvinced that “nothing ever dies,” a chilling expression that served as the title of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 nonfiction work about the lingering effects of the Vietnam War, you should meet the characters populating “The Refugees,” his new book of short stories. Even someone such as the Alzheimer-ravaged professor in “I’d Love You to Want Me” remains in thrall to events of ages ago; he has taken to calling his wife by a long-lost paramour’s name. Given his fond memories of the past and his obliviousness to the present, the confused professor comes across as one of the least troubled characters in Nguyen’s quietly profound peek into the lives of Vietnam’s deracinated and dispossessed.

Nguyen, born in Vietnam and raised in San Jose, lives in Los Angeles, where he is a professor of English as well as American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is best known for “The Sympathizer” (2015), a novel about a Vietnamese communist spy in Los Angeles posing as a refugee. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year.

Most of the eight stories in this collection, earlier versions of which appeared (sometimes under different titles) in various literary journals and even the Chicago Tribune, are also set in California. Several of them probe, in some manner, the Vietnam War’s enduring legacy. By necessity, this means that refugees will figure prominently. Indeed, they lend their pity-inducing name to the book, whose pages absorb both the nostalgia and bitterness that have characterized so many refugees in the decades since 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the communist North and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese began streaming out of their homeland.

“The Other Man” takes place during that fateful year. Liem, formerly of Saigon, has ended up in San Francisco, sponsored by one half of a white-Asian gay couple living in the Mission District. Having escaped a country in the grips of war and uncertainty, the disoriented 18-year-old now finds himself in a safe and prosperous place. He is free in more ways than one — finally able, for instance, to explore his sexual attraction to men. Yet, as Nguyen affectingly shows, charity has shattered his pride. In the presence of his benefactors, “Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast, as if searching for pennies.”

Only in “Black-Eyed Women” does Nguyen resort to anything resembling cliche as a means of laying bare a character’s snarled state of mind. The narrator, a 38-year-old ghostwriter who lives with her widowed mother, begins to receive visits from the ghost of her brother, who died at sea years ago. Yet even this well-worn conceit frames at least one arresting image: “The stunned look on his face, the open eyes that did not flinch even with the splintered board of the boat’s deck pressing against his cheek.” In addition to not having aged, you see, the narrator’s recently resurfaced brother wears the same haunting facial expression he did the moment he perished that terrible day.

The narrator of “Black-Eyed Women” and her family were boat people, their seaborne flight from a unified but communist-run Vietnam undertaken at considerable risk. Even years later, they and many like them remain, to a degree, boat people. In another story, Nguyen employs a subtler, ghost-free touch to convey this depressing reality and illustrate the continued hold exercised by a decades-past maritime ordeal. Mrs. Khanh, the professor’s wife in the aforementioned “I’d Love You to Want Me,” will not take a bath for fear of drowning, “and even when showering kept her back to the spray.”

Of course, it isn’t just the refugees of the book’s title for whom nothing ever dies, but almost everyone who experienced the war, from U.S. military personnel to those Vietnamese (the vast majority) who stayed behind. The latter group includes Mr. Ly of “Fatherland,” the final entry in this collection and one of two set in Vietnam decades after the conflict’s end. Mr. Ly’s first wife left for the U.S. with their children many years ago. He has long since remarried and started a new family, giving his second set of children, a girl and two boys, the same names as his first. Phuong, his grown daughter with the second wife, has always wondered about this strange choice, but can never bring herself to broach the subject with her father.

Why? When it comes down to it, she doesn’t want to know his reasons, “fearing the answer she always suspected, that she and her brothers were no more than regrets born into flesh.”

 

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut. His reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. Email: books@sfchronicle.com

Category: Reviews

 

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