Amid Era of Trumpism, Immigrant Tales of People not Politics

Anthony Domestico, a correspondent of the Boston Globe, reviews The Refugees.

Illustration by Michael Hirshon

We’re in a moment of political turmoil. Whatever Trumpism is, it has tapped into a troubling strand of American nativism, and its rise has led critics and writers to call for more politically engaged literature.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s first collection of short stories, “The Refugees,’’ arrives right on time. In the eight stories gathered here, Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “The Sympathizer,’’ doesn’t explicitly address large-scale political questions. Many stories focus on those who fled South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 to come to the United States — as Nguyen did himself as a child. But the collection tends to approach this catastrophic history indirectly, as an experience of trauma that flits in and out of view but rarely occupies center stage. The stories don’t dramatize refugee policy, nor do they stage debates about the role of the immigrant in American culture.

Nguyen instead is interested in the lived texture of refugee experience — in how it feels to be, as one character puts it, “never where he was supposed to be”; in what it’s like to live alienated from one’s home and language, to speak English “as if instead of coming from inside her, the language was outside, squeezing her by the throat.”

We’ve heard a lot of rhetoric demonizing refugees. Nguyen humanizes them. Suffering doesn’t necessarily ennoble; Nguyen’s refugees can be petty, blinkered, and self-deceiving. But, in “The Refugees,’’ such figures aren’t, contra Trump, an undifferentiated, threatening mass. They are complicatedly human and deserving our care and empathy.

“The Refugees’’ opens with two epigraphs, one about ghosts from Roberto Bolaño (“I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.”), one about hauntings from the poet James Fenton: “It is not your memories which haunt you. / It is not what you have written down. / It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. / What you must go on forgetting all your life.”

In this book, refugees are constantly, doggedly haunted by a traumatic past. Sometimes, this spectral haunting is metaphorical. In “War Years,” Mrs. Hoa, a Vietnamese refugee living in San Jose, Calif., in the 1980s, refuses to accept that her husband is dead. Though she hasn’t seen or spoken to him in decades — the “CIA parachuted him into the north in 1963” and he hasn’t been heard from since — Mrs. Hoa won’t admit the obvious truth, and so her husband lives on in the borderland between worlds, not quite living but not quite dead.

Sometimes, the book’s hauntings are more literal. In “Black-Eyed Women,” for instance, the narrator, herself a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs, is visited by her brother’s ghost — a spectral reminder of the narrator’s escape from South Vietnam on a “nameless blue boat” and the terrors such an escape involved.

Just as often, however, the refugee experience is ghostly in that the refugee becomes herself a ghost — unhoused, wandering, separated from the landscape and culture that gave her substance and meaning. To be a refugee, Nguyen suggests, is to constantly yearn for a self that can never be recovered, that must be, as best it can be, forgotten: “His habit of forgetting was too deeply ingrained, as if he passed his life perpetually walking backward through a desert, sweeping away his footprints, leaving him with only scattered recollections.”

One of the book’s best stories is titled, again in a spectrally suggestive manner, “Someone Else Besides You.” This story, like several others in the collection, takes on Vietnamese notions of masculinity. The narrator’s father is tough and laconic, a proudly muscular man who “didn’t think anyone was a man until he fathered children.”

Toward the end of the story, while tending to his father’s sore neck, the narrator sees “the six-inch scar on his chest that I’d sometimes seen as a child”: “The scar was a vivid bolt of red lightning in my memory, angled between his sternum and his heart, but in the dim light of his bedroom, it was only a pink zipper holding the rumpled, loose skin of his chest together.”

In our moment, to look faithfully and empathetically at the scars made by dislocation, to bear witness to the past pain and present vulnerability such scars speak of, is itself a political act. So, too, is Nguyen’s dedication: “For all refugees, everywhere.”


Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Category: Reviews


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