Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Refugees’. Originally published by ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco Journal of Arts and Letters.
The Refugees (224 pages; Grove), the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, consists of eight stories circling around the displacement caused by the Vietnam War. Though reviewers of the collection have tied the narratives of these stories to some kind of universal “immigrant experience,” the title of the book, as well as the historical context of the stories, refuses this oversimplified categorization. The Refugees gently but firmly reminds the reader of the difference, which lies largely in the ways one group has had some kind of choice in leaving their place of origin, while the other has been pushed out by a violent external force. The way Nguyen makes this distinction throughout The Refugees is elegant, even if it is not explicit. The opening story, “Black-Eyed Woman,” does this by discussing how a woman’s girlhood and innocence were stripped away as part of her experience as a boat person. By opening the collection with a story that depicts this familiar (but somehow still unacknowledged) narrative, Nguyen situates the rest of the pieces within a context of trauma and forced migration, of pain and loss.
It is important to note Nguyen does not write the kind of voyeuristic narrative we might come to expect when learning of horrifying experiences, such as that of the boat people who fled Vietnam. We see this penchant for “tragedy porn” today in regard to another group of refugees: Reports on the numbers of Syrians fleeing their home are largely abstracted from the suffering each has gone through; at the same time, human interest stories focusing solely on the brutalization of, for example, a child can become an exercise in horror tourism for the more fortunate. Holding space for and acknowledging the physical and emotional toll of forced migration, while also refusing to languish in that pain is a fine line to manage, but Nguyen does it masterfully. He evokes empathy for his characters by rendering them fully. In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” an aging professor forgets the name of his wife and begins calling her by a different name, possibly that of an old mistress. The wife, Mrs. Khanh, wonders what else her husband has forgotten, worried if “he remembered their escape from Vung Tau on a rickety fishing trawler, overloaded with his five siblings and sixty strangers, three years after the war’s end. After the fourth day at sea, he and the rest of the children, bleached by the sun, were crying for water, even though there was none to offer but the sea’s. Nevertheless, she had washed their faces and combed their hair every morning, using salt water and spit. She was teaching them that decorum mattered even now, and that their mother’s fear wasn’t so strong that it could prevent her from loving them.”
This is, of course, an explicit retelling of Mrs. Khanh’s traumatic migration. Later, however, in an almost throwaway sentence, Nguyen writes, “The only form of transport Mrs. Khanh had ruled out was the ocean cruise. Open expanses of water prompted fears of drowning, a phobia so strong that she no longer took baths, and even when showering kept her back to the spray.”
When read against Mrs. Khanh’s desperate attempt to care and protect her children on the boat, this detail about her stands as an example of the lasting consequence of her experience. However, Nguyen doesn’t describe this trigger, or even what kind of reaction this trigger causes—it is simply stated that she doesn’t want to go on an ocean cruise because of her phobia of drowning. The focus is not on the traumatic experience, but on how Mrs. Khanh copes with it.
The Refugees offers a nuanced understanding of what comes after the cruelty and hardship of fleeing. Building a regular life in a new country—such as in America or, in the case of one character, Australia—is the often overlooked part of the refugee experience. The stories “War Years,” which tells of a widow looking to organize troops to take back to Vietnam and overthrow the Communists, and “Someone Else Besides You,” about a second-generation Vietnamese American who struggles with his father’s infidelities and his own broken marriage, address this especially well. Nguyen’s follow-up to his novel The Sympathizer is a powerful examination of the effects of war, displacement, and assimilation, reminding us how these things continue to be felt throughout generations and throughout communities here and abroad.