The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This splendid collection of short stories could not have appeared at a more appropriate time. Immigrants and refugees are under attack from the highest levels of government to the lowest level of individual who feels that he is disenfranchised and displaced in the workplace by the “horde of illegals” (as he sees it) who have come to America. Born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, Nguyen has written eight prescient stories that present the trials and perils of life as a refugee immigrant. Collectively, they show people struggling to retain their sense of where they came from and their delight at where they are, people who are straddling the mores of two different worlds.
The significance of Nguyen’s thoughtful stories was magnified as I read during a weekend in which the President banned entry from certain countries simply because those countries were predominantly Muslim. The executive order ignored the protections of our constitution and gave no credence to the fact that no refugee has ever been accused of inciting rebellion or committing terrorist acts in our country. It is important to emphasize that these insightful stories will continue to hold up when contemporary events become history. They are well-written, with finely-drawn characters and situations entirely credible.
“War Years” reveals how discord within the refugee community can breed distrust. In this case, Mrs. Hoa mines the New Saigon community seeking contributions to “fight the communists” in Vietnam even though the US-involved war is long over. Mrs. Binh, the narrator’s mother, sees this as a ploy to get protection money and refuses to pay, citing hard times. Yet, when Mrs. Hoa insults her, a desire to revenge leads to an unexpected recognition of kinship and shared experiences.
“The Americans” explores what it means to be an American within the context of a single diverse family. James Carver is a 69-year old black man raised as a sharecropper in Alabama. He piloted a B-52, dropping bombs onto Vietnam, and is retired from Pan Am. His wife Michiko is Japanese while their daughter Claire is not sure what she is, although she proclaims that she feels Vietnamese in spirit. They visit her in Quang Tri where she is now teaching English, and her boyfriend, a Vietnamese adopted by an American couple, researches a new method of identifying land mines. All have encountered discrimination in their lives, and the void between father and daughter seems to be unresolvable. Nguyen’s skillful revelations of the conflicts and the events that bring them to a head create a convincing world of family dynamics and realize the ultimate power of a family to save itself.
Successive waves of immigrants by choice or as refugees have come to America. The Chinese came to build the Transcontinental Railroad, the Irish to escape starvation, and Eastern Europeans to seek the rich promises of our country. All came seeking a life of safety and promise. As this collection illustrates, every experience was different yet every experience was similar in its differences. All faced difficulties in getting here, discrimination of various kinds and intensity, yet they worked toward becoming part of the American fabric. Nguyen’s stories remind us that even our differences can unite us.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the acclaimed novel The Sympathizer that won, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. A critic for the Los Angeles Times, he has also written two nonfiction books while teaching English and American Studies at the University of Southern California.