Book Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Reviewed by Margo McCall

In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen continues his exploration of war’s effect on Vietnam and its people. The characters in these eight intimate, densely woven stories are scarred in a multitude of ways, psychologically damaged from their traumas, yet doggedly soldiering on in their daily struggle to survive in a strange land.

There’s a ghostwriter drawn to telling other people’s stories of trauma while at the same time ignoring her own. That is, until, the ghost of her brother, killed twenty-five years ago by pirates, appears in the living room, dripping seawater on the carpet.

The war’s effects are many. An obsessed storekeeper battles an anti-Communist neighborhood woman until the neighbor’s impoverished living conditions prompt the storekeeper to surrender. An Alzheimer-ridden former oceanography professor drifts back to pre-war times, confusing his wife with a former lover in the process. And a disaffected young man born in a refugee camp doesn’t want to have children because he’s afraid he’ll turn out like his authoritarian father.

These characters are recognizable, at least on the surface. The shopkeepers and security guards and other hard-working Vietnamese immigrants that are part of the multicultural kaleidoscope of many American cities. But the window Nguyen opens into their lives is intimate. He shares what happens after they go home and close their doors.

Time has become as corrupted as these characters’ psyches. Decades after they crossed oceans in flimsy boats, or huddled in refugee camps, the experiences are still present. They rarely speak of what they’ve been through, for to do so would bring the horror out of the shadows and into the daylight.

Although the Vietnamese refugees—2 million between 1978 and 1995—escaped with few material possessions, they brought their culture and cuisine. Nguyen is a very sensual writer, his descriptions of dried fish, chilis, fish sauce and black tiger shrimp offering a fragrant and satisfying counterbalance to the emptiness of dislocation.

Love also binds the characters in this collection. It’s a tough love, borne of survival. What seems like cruelty has a sweet undercurrent. The wife called by a former lover’s name recalls how her husband guided them across “the great azure plain of the sea, unbroken to the horizon,” without ever raising his voice. The penny-pinching shopkeeper compassionately donates to the neighborhood woman once she sees the woman lives in crowded squalor.

None of the characters in these short stories are living the American Dream. Some inhabit houses with barred windows. One character works two jobs, changing uniforms in the parking lot and rarely sleeping. In the new land, the oceanographer can only get a job teaching ESL, although he’s still called the professor. And in “The Americans,” family left behind in Vietnam envy relatives who escaped, until they realize the stories of material success are just lies.

Although not thriving materially or psychologically, at least they are physically safe. But the damage suffered as they fled their country seems irrevocable. They are still moving about in the world, continuing their battles for survival, but in many ways, are the walking dead.

The spotlight Nguyen shines on his characters’ lives serves to illuminate the extent of the damage, individual by individual, as well as the long journey toward recovery. Dedicated “for all refugees, everywhere,” the timing of this collection couldn’t be more apt. There have been dozens of refugee crises since Vietnam, and there are dozens unfolding as we speak: Syria, Yemen, Haiti, Guatemala, South Sudan. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates the world refugee population at 20 million.

Born in Vietnam and now the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Nguyen is the author of The Sympathizers, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance.

Margo McCall is a Southern California fiction writer. For more, visit margomccall.com.