The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Grove Press, Grove Atlantic, New York, 2017.
Adult short story collection, 207 pages.
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
This collection of eight short stories is tied together not so much by the characters as by a common theme – they all deal with Vietnamese immigrants, albeit in very different and sometimes surprising ways.
I first heard of this book when reading an interview with the author prior to the release. Instantly knew I wanted to read it and put in a library request. Received it at the end of April and was about to send it back unread because I didn’t think I’d have time to read it, but then Shenwei posted about the Asian Lit Bingo Challenge … so I read one story at a time during lunch breaks. Because of the tight time frame for this challenge and needing to return the book, I only read it once.
As usual, I’ll say a bit about each story.
This was a ghost story, which surprised me. I thought the whole collection was contemporary fiction, so at first I thought the ghost was magical realism, and then I wondered if the narrator had a mental illness. However, as I moved through the story, the first-person narration and the tight storytelling won me over. This story would, I think, reward rereading.
Trigger Warnings (spoilers): Rape, death of a child, murder, knife violence, plane crash, drowning!
The Other Man
This is the story of a young immigrant alone in America and living with two gentlemen. He’s exploring his own sexuality, trying to learn American customs, and planning a future when his heart is with his family in Vietnam. My heart broke at his naïvety and tenuous exploration of America and his new life, but I didn’t connect with this character as much as some of the others.
We return to first person narration with this story of an episode in an Vietnamese-American boy’s life as he works in his parents’ store, goes to church, and tries to learn about their past. There’s a stunning first line:
“Before Mrs. Hoa broke into our lives in the summer of 1983, nothing my mother did surprised me.” page 49
This story explores one immigrant family’s reactions to Communism and the internal politics of a Vietnamese-American community. I felt caught up in this tight-knit family’s reactions to Mrs. Hoa and anxious for more crumbs of information.
Arthur Arellano’s life was saved by a liver transplant. Then he inadvertently learned the name of his donor, a Vietnamese immigrant. Trying to connect with his donor’s family leads Arthur and his wife down a dark and twisting path.
Arthur is not a likeable character, but I felt sympathetic for his family. This story encouraged me to work on my own character flaws so they don’t have horrible consequences later in life.
I’d Love You to Want Me
Mrs. Khanh’s husband starts calling her by another name. He starts recalling times from their early life together… only they aren’t times they were together. Little by little, she starts piecing the past together from his comments. Her pain is intense as his dementia sends him back to his happiest times in life and he begins courting her as he did the other woman.
I think this was my favorite story in the book, even though it was so sad. Realistic love stories are my favorite, even if they don’t always end happily, and there was a romance to Mrs. Khanh’s choices. The final paragraph melted my heart.
An odd story follows an American man whose daughter Claire has chosen to work in Vietnam teaching English to schoolchildren. He has no interest in visiting the country he once flew over to bomb, but his Japanese wife persuades him to and he ponders the meaning of his life, his own declining abilities, and the fact that his daughter’s “Vietnamese soul” means she’s not moving back to America.
I liked the biracial family and loved the trick where Nguyen doesn’t specify the race of the main character until well into the story. But it felt out of place compared to the other stories.
Someone Else Besides You
Thomas is our first person narrator. We also meet his father, a man who cheated early and often. We meet his father’s girlfriend Mimi. And it is, surprisingly, the story of his own ex-wife Sam, a woman without whom he is not himself. This was my second favorite story in the book, so apparently I was interested in sad, off-beat romances this past week.
“It was a most peculiar thing to do, or so everyone said on hearing the story of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first.” page 181
Nguyen is excellent at crafting first lines. Phuong has three older siblings she’s never met because their mother fled to America when she learned he had a mistress. He survived reeducation and married his mistress, choosing to name their three children after his first family. All her life Phuong has lived in the shadow of her older siblings, knowing them only through letters and occasional photographs sent from America detailing their charmed life. Now 23, she is about to meet her sister for the first time.
This story was so good but also somewhat disturbing, even though the content wasn’t any more mature than any of the other stories in this book. The weird family dynamics and the loss Phuong and her father have felt and the scene at the carnival stuck with me.
I enjoyed this book. It’s definitely for adults, although teens could read it if the content wasn’t a concern or potential trigger. The variety of different stories about Vietnamese immigrants/refugees, impressed me. This collection draws together stories from a variety of ages, sexual orientations, time periods, and economic statuses. I recall the author stating that he hadn’t read an immigrant story from a Vietnamese perspective and wanted to provide a mirror for as many people as possible.
I’m not Vietnamese, but would guess that this book achieved that goal. Nguyen is #ownvoices both being Vietnamese and an American immigrant himself. For the rest of us, it’s a valuable window. Highly recommended.