Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Brown Refo, White Nasho

Stephen Pham reflects on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees and Australian immigration policies and attitudes for the Sydney Review of Books.

Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country. A truly multicultural country can never be strong or united.

– Pauline Hanson, maiden speech to Parliament, 1996

Last week at Vy Vy Garden Café in Canley Heights, my refugee cousin Tuan and I were watching the news when a segment on the Manus Island crisis came up. ‘Leave those fucken queue jumpers, mang,’ he said. How could Tuan speak against refugees when he himself is a refugee? Moreover, he is Vietnamese-Australian, like me. We were the first non-European people to migrate en masse to settler-colonial Australia. Our appearance, culture, and language were alien and threatening. And then there was the fact of Cabramatta and Bankstown in the nineties, the Sydney suburbs of Vietnamese immigrants where crime rates spiked following the introduction of cheap heroin from Vietnamese gangs. We were boat people, foreigners, gangsters, and ingrates. So how does someone look like Tuan but sound like Pauline Hanson? How do the words of a White nationalist come from a refugee body?

I’d heard of Pauline Hanson before I could understand what she was saying. I was kneeling on the living room floor, my bowl of cải muỗng and mincemeat on the seat of an Ab-Doer exercise machine in front of the TV. Mum was a little in front of me ironing clothes. Hanson was on the TV, her eyes flat like those painted clown statues at the circus. Against a green background her hair was red and reminded me of the paper littering the ground after New Year firecrackers. Mum hissed, stood the iron on its base, and tutted four times. ‘Something’s wrong with that lady,’ she said.

I asked her what was happening.

‘It’s nonsense. You tell them you were born in this country. Not Vietnam.’

That didn’t mean much to me.

I didn’t know what was in Vietnam. I still don’t. But watching Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech today, it doesn’t seem so foreign anymore:

I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.

Pauline Hanson was right: Asians don’t assimilate. That’s why I spoke Vietnamese in primary school. That’s why I worried about colouring outside the lines and cutting inside them. That’s why I divided the world into two: here, where I was, and there.

Hanson’s concern with Asians who ‘do not assimilate’ centred her as an embodiment of White Australia. She used  the pronoun ‘they’ to homogenise Vietnamese-Australians to better position us in relation to White Australia, a tactic she now uses to position Muslims. People living within marginalised communities can resist such positioning by recentring ourselves in new narratives. Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugeespresents one possibility of such a recentring as it highlights the heterogeneity of Vietnamese-American communities. With eight stories set between post-American War Vietnam and the United States of America, Nguyen highlights the contradictions contained within the labels ‘Vietnamese-American’ and ‘refugee’, complicating both of them. In The Refugees Nguyen defines refugees by their experiences of loss and memory, as people oriented towards the past; for Nguyen displacement is made legible through the refugee body.

In ‘The Black-Eyed Women’, for example, the unnamed narrator reflects on the trauma of fleeing with her family from Vietnam by boat. At thirteen years old, she witnesses pirates killing her older brother before they rape her, with the sun being the most vivid marker of that day:

[W]hat pained me the most was… the light shining into my dark eyes as I looked to the sky and saw the smoldering tip of God’s cigarette, poised in the heavens the moment before it was pressed against my skin.

Her brother visits her as a ghost when she is an adult, prompting her to consider her unhealed psychological wounds:

Since then I avoid day and sun. Even he noticed, holding up his forearm against mine to show me I was whiter than he was.

The narrator becomes metaphorically and literally paler than a ghost. Her trauma shows itself on her body. The sexual violence enacted on the narrator occurs after her family’s loss of homeland in South Vietnam, linking the two. In this way Nguyen shows how the refugee body signals an orientation towards the past, how refugees are spatially and temporally displaced.

An orientation towards the past doesn’t necessarily indicate the existence of trauma, however. In ‘The Other Man’, Liem’s bodily reaction to learning that he is staying with a gay couple in the USA helps him realise he is gay:

The small hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck stiffened as they’d done before whenever another boy, deliberately or by chance, had brushed his elbow, sometimes his knee, while they walked hand in hand or sat on park benches with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders, watching traffic and girls pass by.

For Liem the body allows him to surpass language and to access the past in order to realise his present identity. Here, Nguyen shows that the refugee body can be a source of truth and not only a site of trauma. Across the collection, bodily experiences offer an entry to an interiority shaped largely by the past. Sometimes this approach can border on universalisation. In ‘The Transplant’, for example, Arthur Arellano is a ‘refugee’ in the sense that he dwells in the past:

This, Arthur realised, was the difference between them. Arthur thought of what he had done, what he was doing, or what he should have done, but Louis thought only of what he would do.

Nguyen sets Arthur, a naturalised American citizen, as a ‘refugee’, in opposition to Louis Vu, a Vietnamese-American businessman, an immigrant, who instead faces the future. This inversion suggests that anyone can be considered a refugee and it may prove to be a humanising tactic. It may also, however, be a form of abstraction that erases specific socio-political standings.

The Refugees, of course, speaks to Vietnamese-American rather than Vietnamese-Australian experiences. His representations of Vietnamese-Americans and refugees are focused almost entirely on interiority to the point of erasing the historical and political circumstances that gave rise to them. As Nguyen says in an interview with The Rumpus following the publication of The Refugees:

I was also a writer who wanted to say a lot about politics and history, and I did not know how to do that in the context of a short story or a short story collection.

This is perhaps the result of the way in which the American writers’ workshop as an institution impressed upon him the short story as an apolitical form. Nguyen reflects upon this in his Critic’s Take on writers’ workshops in the New York Times:

As a young aspiring writer, I was troubled by how these workshops, aside from the ‘art’ of writing, did not have anything to say about the matters that concerned me: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology… I did not realise at the time that such issues were often beyond the horizon of concern of the workshop because they threatened its very origins.

These origins lie in American anti-Communism, promoting what Nguyen calls ‘creative writing as a defense of the individual and his humanistic expression’. In other words, the American writers’ workshop creates a dichotomy between politics and art. Even as Nguyen makes this critique, The Refugees is a product of this institution.

Nguyen navigates between sexualities, genders, and races, seemingly to highlight the diversity of Vietnamese-Americans and refugees – but many of his characters are socio-economically mobile, and a majority of the stories involve middlebrow meditations upon what it means to be human (notable exceptions being the compelling ‘War Years’ and ‘Fatherland’). The collection does little to engage with the socio-political ramifications of what being a refugee entails, in particular the primacy of their relationship to the state—specifically, their relationship to a state  that criminalises and subjugates non-White peoples for their movement. In the United States, the term ‘illegal aliens’ both denies immigrants their humanity and defines them by their status in relation to immigration law. In Australia, today’s outlawing of arrivals by boat was foreshadowed by the criminalisation of Vietnamese refugees after they’d become a part of Australian society.

One way to engage with the contemporary Australian politics of refugees is to examine the relationship between migration, crime, xenophobia, and citizenship in Australia. Hanson’s maiden speech in 1996 demonstrates how Vietnamese-Australians were criminalised for existing within Australian society. To Hanson, South-East Asians, particularly Vietnamese-Australians in the ‘ghetto’ that was Cabramatta, were only ever predators on White Australia – and never the victims. Crime is attributed to the foreigners who Hanson claims keep ‘their own culture and religion’, to ‘Third World-looking’ Vietnamese refugees—a term coined by Ghassan Hage that encapsulates how migrants are categorised and othered by the White Australian gaze. As Collins and his colleagues put it in Kebab, Kids Cops & Crime, this is an ‘ideological linking of aliens with criminality’. Crime is imagined as a foreign import in Hanson’s utopia, as if it had never existed in Australia before certain waves of immigrants. When they first arrived, chinks were lechers, Greeks were welfare cheats, Italians were mobsters, Lebs were gangsters who could dial up and order a gun as easily as a pizza, and young Sudanese men existing in public space were all members of the Apex gang. White Australia’s xenophobia is cyclical, scapegoating ‘foreigners’ for crime.

Equating migrants with immigrants with refugees with asylum seekers is reductive, and does little to show how different communities are positioned within Australia. In White Nation, Hage conceptualises Whiteness as a hierarchy of national belonging rooted in settler-colonialism. Within this are citizens whose national belonging is unquestioned—White Australians—while others are granted a lesser quotient of belonging, but feel it nonetheless through traits possessed or adapted. The accent and English language skills of second-generation Vietnamese-Australians, for example, allow people like me to feel a greater sense of national belonging in Australia than someone like my mother, who possesses both to a smaller degree. The socio-economic mobility of Vietnamese-Australians enabled by the genocide of Aboriginal peoples and theft of Aboriginal lands further fuels our sense of national belonging. My self-hating refo cousin Tuan’s xenophobia also allowed him to buy into Australian Whiteness, insofar as it leverages one non-White person’s citizenship against another’s.

This is all to say that the majority of Vietnamese-Australians whether now or then occupy a radically different position to refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Australia today. There may be similarities between South Vietnamese experiences of imprisonment in re-education camps and asylum seekers’ mandatory detention in offshore detention centres, between the newly independent Vietnamese government’s surveillance of its people and new Australians on 785 visas threatened with deportation at the sign of any bad behaviour, and between their experiences of statelessness. The major difference, however, is that Vietnamese-Australians are considered citizens, a category of belonging against which refugees are negatively defined. This is illuminated by Viet Thanh Nguyen in an 2012 article titled, ‘Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique’:

Without rights, the refugee depends on state power to protect her, but while state power holds the refugee’s life in its hands, that power has no obligations to the refugee in the way that it owes rights to its citizens. Thus the refugee and the refugee camp make visible what the nation-state masks: what ultimately counts is sovereign power and its monopoly upon violence, to which the citizen has agreed.

Nguyen creates a distinction between the citizen and the refugee, with the former having all the rights and privileges offered by the nation-state, and the latter having none. Furthermore, the citizen agrees with state violence so long as it is used against non-citizens, in this case refugees. The fundamental difference between Vietnamese-Australians and asylum seekers today is that between the citizen and the refugee. It is not that Vietnamese-Australians’ citizenship nullifies their refugee memories but that they become complicit in Australia’s offshore torture and abandonment of asylum seekers.

Recentring Vietnamese diasporas in our own narratives, as Viet Thanh Nguyen does, emphasises our diversity with regard to class, gender, and sexuality. Other factors such as historical migration status, ethnicity, political affiliation, geopolitical position, relationship to the past, and age further undermine ideas of a static ‘Vietnamese-ness’. Vietnamese-Australians, however, may strategically essentialise ‘Vietnamese-ness’ as a means of leveraging national belonging and gatekeeping via refugee respectability against current asylum seekers. Xenophobia, here, is integral to expressing citizenship in White Australia. This ties Vietnamese-Australian histories in to narratives of settler-colonial Australia, which is treated as inevitable and complete.

Another narrative exists. Structural failures led to rising crime rates in Cabramatta and Bankstown in the nineties, to the othering of Vietnamese-Australians as criminals, and to the compromised sense of belonging that my mum, Tuan, and I will always feel within White Australia as ‘perpetual foreigners-within’ who are ‘white-but-not-white-enough’, to borrow Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos’s terms. Vietnamese-Australian history is an ongoing site of struggle. This Vietnamese-Australian narrative continues alongside those of immigrants and asylum seekers who were and continue to be criminalised today. Vietnamese-Australians cannot speak for asylum seekers today. Until we examine our relationships to settler-colonial Australia, until we draw connections between our histories rooted in statelessness and those of contemporary refugees, until we scrutinise where their voices comes from, Vietnamese-Australians do not only speak as refugees against refugees: we also speak as White nationalists.

Works Cited

Jock Collins, Greg Noble, Scott Poynting, and Paul Tabar. Kebabs, Kids, Cops & Crime.Pluto Press, 2000.
Ghassan Hage. White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society. Routledge, 2000.
Viet Thanh Nguyen. ‘Critic’s Take: Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile’The New York Times, 26 April 2017.
– The Refugees. Corsair, 2017.
– ‘Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique’. positions: east asia culturescritique 20, vol. 3 (Summer 2012): 911-942.
Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos. ‘Racism, foreigner communities and the onto-pathology of white Australian subjectivity.’ Whitening Race, ed Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004, pp 32-47.
Beverly Parayno. ‘The Rumpus Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen’The Rumpus, 8 March 2017.


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