John Mitchinson and Matt Alagiah discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees, along with new releases from Clover Stroud and Jacob Polley on the Monocle Arts Review. Click here to listen to the full podcast on Monocle, or read the transcript excerpt below.
Matt Alagiah: Let’s move on now to a collection of eight short stories dedicated to refugees everywhere, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Simply called The Refugees, this is the eagerly awaited second work by Nguyen. His first novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year. John, first of all, tell us what you loved about this collection.
John Mitchinson: What I loved about it was it’s a very simple idea. You take eight stories, each of which inspired by refugees, each of them, I guess, from Vietnam, but without the pyrotechnics which sort of I mean were pretty glorious in The Sympathizer. This is an incredibly quiet, but devastating collection, about what the experience of being forcibly removed or rejected from home and having to rebuild one’s life in a completely different country entails. So the stories are all quite quiet, there’s not really verbal dynamics, but they’re all in their own way like a prism. You’re getting each different view—and they’re not all from the point of view from the refugees. There’s a particularly moving one where the point of view is a black American former Air Force officer who has dropped bombs in Vietnam, who’s going back to Vietnam, with his Japanese wife, and his daughter, and her Vietnamese boyfriend. It just has absolute pitch perfect emotional tone. Each story adds to the next, and by the end of it you are, I guess on one level, devastated, but like all the best fiction you’re also uplifted by it, the quiet heroism of the narrators in the stories. He doesn’t dwell on the horror, it’s alluded to. The things that people have survived, you know, the evacuation from Saigon, the horrors of being on a boat and watching your brother drown. The first story, in a way, sets the tone, where a woman is visited by the ghost of her dead brother, brilliantly realized. I mean not at all supernatural. She has become a ghost writer, that’s what she does, she ghost writes the memoirs of people who’ve lived through traumatic experiences. But she is herself almost a ghost herself. She was what we gather from the story, raped and very badly treated, watched her brother die in front of her, but the return of her brother is very moving. It’s at a moment when we’re trying to recover. It did for me very much the same thing that The Good Immigrant [did]. It has taken the experience of otherness, again, connects back to the last book (The Sympathizer) and makes it into something very approachable and humanly intelligible—put it this way, anybody who reads this book is going to find it a lot more difficult to blithely write off the recent ruling on not allowing refugee children into the country. There are lots of classic Wordsworthian, small unremembered acts of kindness from the people who work with them… There’s a fabulous story about a young Vietnamese entrepreneur who ends up forming a relationship with an elderly Spanish Hispanic American businessman because his father has died and donated the Spanish businessman his liver, so the Spanish businessman’s almost got a bit of Vietnamese inside him. And that brilliantly done, quite unexpected. There is humor in the book, it’s not unremittingly grim at all. I just thought it was a pitch perfect bit of writing. He’s a really exciting writer, I think, and doing things with fiction that you would hope it’s not all just coming from academics in universities, he’s playful, but also can write these classic, in a way, American short stories.
MA: These stories were written over a period of 20 years which seems astonishing.
JM: Yes, given the kind of evenness of tone.
MA: How does he achieve that? It’s almost like in his The Sympathizer there were more, as you say, verbal dynamics there. Some people talked about syntaxical virtuosity in that work—how does he, how do you do that? Over a period of 20 years, keep the same voice?
JM: I think it’s a little of that thing when you look at Picasso’s drawings, “Hey the guy can really draw,” and I feel like these are each beautifully finished almost like left hand exercises: where he started with a character, and he’s almost broken down the refugee experience from inside and outside. One suspects that he probably winnowed this down from a lot of other stories to get this. It feels like a very balanced collection. You kind of sense when you get to the end of it, the final stories are particularly moving and beautiful. You’ve got youth, you’ve got age, you’ve got kind of the seven ages. It’s a very satisfying collection. And, again, without being one even remotely knowledgeable about the Vietnam War or the status of Vietnamese community, you learn a tremendous amount about it in the pages of the book.