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'The Refugees' Honest and Imaginative

The Refugees
Refugees cover
The most concise summary of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s excellent new short story collection, “The Refugees,” is offered by one of its narrators: “[W]hile some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” In “The Refugees,” memories are tactile and the shadows of interrupted lives ever-present; even the smallest details in Nguyen’s stories are imbued with the bittersweetness of unspoken what-might-have-beens. As he did in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sympathizer”—itself also a story of the Vietnamese diaspora—Nguyen conveys the trauma and lingering melancholy of displacement in a way that feels deeply honest yet still wonderfully imaginative.

Memory is the defining theme of “The Refugees.” Sometimes the memories are painfully physical: In “Black-Eyed Women,” the ghost of the narrator’s long-dead brother shows up on her doorstep, still wearing the clothes in which he boarded a rickety refugee vessel. The connection between memories and ghosts is repeated several times; dead or missing loved ones flit endlessly on the peripheries of Nguyen’s characters’ lives, occasionally stepping forward into the light. In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” an aging professor with dementia begins to believe that his wife is a former lover named Yen, his accidental disclosures tracing the outlines of a life previously hidden. The reader—as well as the professor’s wife—knows Yen only through the professor’s offhand comments about her, but as the world recedes from him she alone remains. The story is an understatedly devastating reflection on duty, regret, and the power of the unspoken, ideas that underpin much of “The Refugees.”

Nguyen, once a refugee himself, considers the Vietnamese diaspora through a wide lens. His stories’ protagonists include a black American veteran and a Mexican American transplant recipient in L.A. His characters experience exodus and its aftermath in a range of ways: some are transfixed by the traumas they witness, while others find unexpected opportunity, even liberation. “The Other Man” is the story of Liem, a young man who leaves Saigon in the chaos of the Vietnam War’s last days and winds up in San Francisco, where he finds tolerance and even acceptance as a gay man. And yet even Liem feels torn between two worlds, and profoundly guilty because of it: In Vietnam, his family is struggling through re-education, land confiscation, heavy censorship, and repression. In each of the stories that make up “The Refugees,” there are whispers of lives left unlived, simultaneously very distant and omnipresent, trajectories that only shocking changes in fate could have disrupted.

Nguyen’s characters are all aware of this tension. In “Fatherland,” Mr. Ly returns from a five-year stint in a New Economic Zone to find that his wife, after discovering his infidelity, has disappeared to America with his three children; his response is to remarry, have three more children, and name them after the first ones. The children in Vietnam grow up hearing sporadic news of their namesake half-siblings’ successes in America and eventually realize that their father would rather be there—that he feels he was deprived of the life that should have been his. Nguyen has a remarkable eye for detail that allows him to cast every image with real emotional force, from Mr. Ly’s carefully laminated stack of photographs in the living room to the way his shirt, a size too small, strains shabbily across his stomach. Whether in Vietnam or in America, many of the characters in “The Refugees” share the forlornness particular to those subjected first to great tragedy and then to the banality of colorless lives.

That tragedy looms large throughout “The Refugees”: Although none of the stories deal directly with the war, and only a few with the brutality of the boat journey, the scattered glimpses of the traumas suffered by the Vietnamese—refugees and non-refugees alike—are all the more devastating as a result. In these scenes, Nguyen’s writing is lyrical and searingly evocative without slipping into voyeurism or sensationalism; the protagonist of “Black-Eyed Women” speaks of seeing “the smoldering tip of God’s cigarette, poised in the heavens the moment before it was pressed against my skin.” Like Nguyen’s ghosts, the tragedy of the war is always there in the background, coming in and out of focus but never abating—take for example a young taxi driver in Ho Chi Minh City who cannot bring himself to call it that, despite the fact that the city was renamed before he was even born. Even in the stories set most closely to the present day, and even for characters who do not remember the war, past losses murmur.

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Memory, in Nguyen’s telling, is the material of the bonds connecting not only past and present but also homeland and foreign, life lived and the life that was once possible, and all the fragments of a divided and contradictory identity. But, like continental plates floating away from one another, those fragments of identity drift constantly farther apart; the generation that stood with one foot in each land is no longer the majority of the diaspora, and Nguyen recognizes the challenges that will result. In “Fatherland,” Mr. Ly’s eldest daughter returns to Vietnam, where she feels alienated not only from the father who is a stranger to her but also from the country she does not recognize. “Can you love someone you don’t remember? Can you love someone you don’t know?” she asks. The searching, candid way in which “The Refugees” examines that question makes it an essential read for anyone seeking to understand the immigrant experience, while Nguyen’s writing—as polished and powerful as it was in “The Sympathizer”—confirms the author’s place among today’s most compelling literary voices.

—Staff writer Lien E. Le can be reached at lien.le@thecrimson.com.

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