Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Bill Ruehlmann: In “The Displaced,” we see immigrants, see ourselves

Bill Ruehlmann reviews The Displaced by Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Virginian-Pilot

Sometimes a true story by a complete stranger can hit you like a stomach punch.

There are 18 of them in “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives” (Abrams Press, 190 pp., $25), edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, also recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”

He begins with a riveting introduction about a measure of his own harshly illuminating experience:

“I remember moving to San Jose, California, in 1978 and my parents opening the second Vietnamese grocery store in the city and I remember the phone call on Christmas Eve that my brother took, informing him that my parents had been shot in an armed robbery, and I remember that it was not that bad, just flesh wounds, they were back at work not long after, and I remember that the only people who wanted to open businesses in depressed downtown San Jose were the Vietnamese refugees, and I remember walking down the street from my parents’ store and seeing a sign in a store window that said ANOTHER AMERICAN DRIVEN OUT OF BUSINESS BY THE VIETNAMESE, and I remember the gunman who followed us to our home and knocked on our door and pointed a gun in all our faces and how my mother saved us by running past him and out onto the sidewalk, but I do not remember the two policemen shot to death in front of my parents’ store because I had gone away to college by that time and my parents did not want to call me and worry me.”

OK, breathe. He’s grabbed you, but he’s not done. And you may be very sure Nguyen and the candid, eyewitness testimony of his peers will not let you go.

These true personal experience accounts of contemporary life for immigrants of many backgrounds and cultures should be required reading for students growing up in arrogant times when our iconic Land of the Free and Home of the Brave is in danger of becoming neither one. We once welcomed, even invited, the citizens of the world. Now too many of us want to wall them off.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

That wants it down: We are, so many of us, immigrants or the heirs of immigrants. One of the values of “The Displaced” is to provide an intimate acquaintance with the so-called “Other” – who turns out to be a lot like ourselves. And the culminating truth in our overheated, climate-changing, flood-prone world is that we don’t need more conflicts.

Brothers and sisters, it’s a jungle out there.

What we, all of us, really need is each other.


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