The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Listen up, Mr President

Cover image It was impossible for me to read this collection without thinking of breach, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ short stories about refugees living in Calais’ now disbanded Jungle. Whereas breach is based on Popoola and Holmes’ research carried out in and around Calais, The Refugees was written by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. A particularly timely read given the current state of affairs in America

Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view. In ‘Black-eyed Women’ a young woman who resolutely refuses to believe in the ghosts her mother insists she sees, is forced to reconsider when the brother who died protecting her suddenly reappears. A young man is disconcerted to discover that he’s living with a gay couple, one of whom is his sponsor, in ‘The Other Man’ then finds himself behaving in ways he doesn’t recognise. ‘War Years’ sees a man remembering his mother challenging a fellow Vietnamese asking for money to combat a Communist resurgence then thinking better of it, faced with her own relative good fortune, while in ‘The Americans’ a Vietnam vet is invited to visit his daughter, now living in the country he last saw from a B-52, and bitterly resents what he sees as her accusations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative stories which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before.

Whereas the stories in breach are very immediate – its subjects still in flight from recent conflicts – Nguyen’s collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience which lends it a quiet power. His writing is beautifully polished, both eloquent and elegant: ‘In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories’, thinks the young ghostwriter in ‘Black-eyed Women’; ‘Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast as if searching for pennies’ in ‘The Other Man’. Nguyen shows not tells, subtly alerting his readers to the ordeals his characters have endured: a character’s water phobia, another’s compulsion to own more than he could ever need having left so much behind. A son’s casual assumption of American peace and prosperity since infancy contrast with his father’s quiet acceptance of a job far beneath his capabilities signalling the gulf that can open up between generations. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades. We need to hear them.

20 thoughts on “The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Listen up, Mr President”

    1. It made an interesting companion volume, if you like, to breach: one very immediate, the other showing the longer term effects. Nguyen writes beautifully, too.

    1. I think this one make an interesting contrast, Melissa, exploring the long term effects on the lives of refugees and successive generations.

  1. Great review Susan. I have this one in my reading queue and like you, thought how timely it was.

    Did you read The Sympathizer? It passed me by at the time but I figured I would read this one first.

      1. The Sympathizer is excellent, (the review is on my blog if you are interested).
        I think it’s great that books like this, that fight back against intolerance and make people aware of the complexities of migration, are making their way into bestseller lists.

        1. Thanks, Lisa. I’ll pop over and have a look. It’s a fine example of the way that good writing can reveal a way of life that most of us know nothing about, although we might think we do.

    1. Thanks, Resh. I haven’t read The Sympathizer either but I think I will now. His stories are so beautifully expressed.

  2. Lovely review Susan. Nguyen is a writer who interests me a great deal, and it sounds like his stories are well-crafted and dripping with meaning. And short stories again, I’m impressed! You’ve definitely become a short story reader 😀

    1. Thank you, Belinda. I think you’d like his writing – quietly contemplative yet powerful. And, yes, short stories again – not only that, but I’ll be posting review of another collection tomorrow!

  3. I’ve just read these stories in preparation for a post next month associated with my walk/blog challenge to raise money for Freedom from Torture.
    I think these are beautifully written stories about long-lasting human difficulties resulting from violent displacement of people. The family relationships, as you say, are especially well drawn.
    There is a modest, non-shouty kind of brilliance to the writing which the president could also learn from.
    Great review.

    1. Thanks, Caroline. I thought Nguyen handled the way in which the effects of fleeing conflict and settling in a new country trickles down through the generations beautifully. You’re absolutely right about the non-shouty brilliance of his writing. I’ll look forward to your post.

  4. I loved this collection, as well. I read and reviewed it in tandem with The Sympathizer and was struck, as you were, with the stories in The Refugee having more distance, less immediacy than many other immigrant stories like The Sympathizer and breach. I was so impressed with how this remove in no way diminished the stories or their impact.

    1. Yes, I found that aspect so interesting, Joslyn. An exploration of the way that the effects ripple through, and so beautifully expressed. I bought The Sympathizer on Monday and am looking forward to it.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.