Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Star Tribune: The Refugees

Tom Zelman reviews The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Uprooted populations, filling enclaves in First World cities or subsisting for years in refugee camps around the world. Scapegoats for joblessness and terror, people leaving scenes of violence in their home countries. Images in the media of suffering that lose their ability to shock.

With tenderness and intimacy, with softly shaded ironies, Viet Thanh Nguyen personalizes a group of Vietnamese-Americans living on the West Coast in his story collection, “The Refugees.” The older folks are exiled from their Fatherland and culture by the forces of history; the younger stranded between the ghost-ridden silence of their parents’ generation and the promise of American plenitude that they themselves can’t seem to grasp.

Nguyen’s first story, “Black-Eyed Women,” opens the door to the horror the refugees faced trying to escape the Communists by sea. Most of the story, though, is set decades later, as a murdered brother returns to the family, telling his surviving sister, “You died, too … You just don’t know it.” For this middle-aged woman, as for most of Nguyen’s characters, the act of survival is the never-ending need to forget, to transcend the ghosts.

If the past is irretrievable but haunting, the present is just confusing. Identity for all of Nguyen’s characters appears to be a flimsy thing, mutable and often accidental. In one story a character named Louis Vu (Louis Vuitton?) sells knockoff luxury goods, and in another, a professor suffering from Alzheimer’s calls his wife by another woman’s name (a former wife?). We read about a sad-sack gambler who receives a liver transplant and heaps gratitude upon a man who might possibly be the donor’s son.

Unsurprisingly, “The Refugees” is full of complicated family dynamics, cultural rifts and surprising resolutions. “The Americans” offers the reader a family vacation: a black Vietnam vet (Carver) and his Japanese wife travel to Vietnam to visit their daughter, who is teaching English to poor people, and her Vietnamese boyfriend. The concluding story, “Fatherland,” narrates a meeting between a Vietnamese girl and her identically named half-sister from Los Angeles.

Nguyen offers flashes of the ferocity and vigor that characterized the older generation before their flight from Saigon. In “Someone Else Besides You” a widowed father — an ex-military man of action — moves in with his divorced son, determined to repair his son’s marriage through violence. And in “War Years,” a young narrator helplessly watches the escalation of a feud between his iron-willed mother and another refugee, sorry for “the accumulation of everything I could do nothing about.”

Nguyen won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel “The Sympathizer,” and he is a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for his nonfiction book, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.”

The nine unpredictable and moving stories that make up “The Refugees” are a remarkable achievement, portraits of people living in a phantom zone called America. I found that I was unable to read more than one story a day — they so filled my mind.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.


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