by Viet Thanh Nguyen
In an opinion piece in The New York Times following the release of his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer , Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen describes himself as a refugee, rather than an immigrant.
“Refugees,” he wrote, “are the zombies of the world, the undead who rise from dying states to march or swim toward our borders in endless waves.”
So it’s perhaps no surprise that he should inscribe his debut collection of short stories, The Refugees, with the words of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño: “I wrote this book for ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.”
Inside this extraordinary collection, Nguyen has given voice to a diverse range of refugees who have carved out new lives in their adopted land, America, but remain haunted by the ghosts of their former lives in Vietnam.
Despite the many accolades heaped upon Nguyen – who also carried off the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction and a clutch of other notable awards for his debut novel – it still comes as a revelation just how beguiling these stories are. Sharp, sardonic, poignant and profoundly human, each tale opens the door to a new set of characters, a new cast of “ghosts”, a fresh way of articulating that which remains buried deep in the human heart, locked up in fragmented memories, slivers of disillusionment, shards of hope.
No story in this collection speaks more potently to the prevailing notion of refugees than the opener, “Black-Eyed Women ”. It is narrated by a successful 38-year-old ghostwriter who, ever since her father died a few years earlier, has been living “together politely” with her 63-year-old mother, who works in a nail salon.
“We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk,” she notes, wryly listing an inventory of the kinds of gossip, morality tales and ghost stories her mother loved to tell her– terrifying tales of woe that filled her American adolescence and were, “all of them, proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”
It is only late at night, when pondering her own ability to fashion the story at hand – that of the sole survivor of a plane crash – that her own memories of the horrific experiences she endured during their escape on a fishing boat come knocking at the door in the form of her brother’s ghost. We’ve all read of the horrors endured by the Vietnamese boatpeople, yet it’s hard to conceive of a narrative that conveys the weight and intensity of their long-buried, often unacknowledged trauma with such economy and gravitas.
The true power of this collection lies in the way Nguyen subverts stereotypical notions of the refugee experience, both sharpening and stretching our appreciation of its vast, universal dimensions in stories that range across generations, gender and time. In “The Other Man”, for instance, he chronicles the gradual “Americanisation” and sexual awakening of a young Vietnamese who comes to live with his sponsors, a gay couple, in San Francisco in 1975.
In “The Americans”, a frail and ageing African-American former air force pilot is coaxed back to Vietnam by his Japanese wife in order to visit their daughter, Claire, who has decided to live there. Claire struggles to make him understand her compulsion to make restitution for his earlier carpet bombing of the country and he can’t fathom why she empathises with “vast masses of people she had never met, strangers who regarded her as a stranger and who would kill her without hesitation given
Nguyen also possesses an extraordinary ability to evoke the everyday, the quotidian details of ordinary lives in vivid, direct prose. In “War Years”, the reader can almost smell the spices that stock the shelves of the grocery store owned by the parents of its 13-year-old narrator. The boisterous daily trade of cash and conversation is captured in Nguyen’s note-perfect rendering of dialogue.
New Saigon Market, in California, in 1983 is a place where English “was hardly ever spoken and Vietnamese was loud”. Sprinkling his tale with fragments of dialogue, ruminations on his English homework, and his passion for comics and Star Wars, this teenage narrator unfurls an almost tragicomic account of Mrs Hoa, a war widow who attempts to get her parents to finance a guerilla army to fight against the “evil communists” and resurrect the Republic of the South.
The “resentful remnants” of the defeated southern republic are also poignantly invoked in “Fatherland”. Here, contemporary reality collides with 30 years of public propaganda and private illusion when a daughter of a Vietnameseman’s estranged first wife, who absconded to America with their three children, visits his second family in Saigon.
Mr Ly had learned of his wife’s departure while serving a five-year sentence in the New Economic Zone. During the war, he had owned a shoe factory but, as his daughter from his second marriage observes, now “he wore his sadness and defeat in a paunch barely contained by the buttons of a shirt one size too small for him”.
For all the masterful ways in which these stories illuminate complex family relationships, the burden of family expectations, notions of identity, displacement and loss – or even the ravages of dementia, so heartbreakingly and keenly observed in “I’d Love You to Want Me” – what resonates most potently is the way in which the book’s characters are both enriched and weighed down by their dual identity; by the way the ghosts of their home country reach out across time and geography to haunt the next generation, ensuring they remain forever outsiders.
“As they [the ghosts] haunt our country,” observes one of the many unnamed but unforgettable voices in this small, peerless collection, “we haunt theirs.”