[thursday recs] for all refugees, everywhere.

in a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories. (“black-eyed women,” 7)

continuing on from last week, here is recommendation number two! for context, please check out this post!

the refugees (grove, 2017) is viet thanh nguyen’s follow-up to his pulitzer prize-winning debut novel, the sympathizer (grove, 2015), and it’s a collection of 8 stories written over 2 decades. they’re all stories about refugees, told in the present (or, at least, in contemporary times, years removed from the war), most of these characters now resettled in different cities in america, some returning to vietnam as an adult after fleeing as children.

it would be easy to attach the label of “refugee narrative” onto these stories, a label that i find hugely problematic, this general idea of a “[blank] narrative” as it is applied to minority stories. you might walk into the collection thinking that you’re getting stories that focus on war, the act of fleeing, but you don’t — these are stories of people who carry this trauma and have learned to live with it, to carry it, in different ways.

most of my criticism of nguyen has to do with his prose, i think — and i say "i think" because i'm not quite sure if that's what makes me tilt my head. i can't honestly say that i find his prose all that moving in one way or another; it doesn't sweep me off my feet or wow me with brilliance or cleverness or particular adroitness; but neither does it offend or irritate me with its plainness. i also find that he hits all the right notes in his stories but doesn't always deliver the full emotional oomph i'm hoping for, and a lot of his endings feel abrupt, not necessarily rushed, just a little clunky and awkwardly arrived upon.

and yet.

i love what nguyen tries to do with his fiction. i love the way he thinks things through. for instance, here's a confession — i might have dropped the sympathizer last year, but i loved how he thought through that narrative voice, thought about what he was trying to do with his novel, not only narratively but also within the context of asian-american literature and how it is often perceived and read by the general literary audience. i love the way he approaches his fiction.

what i liked most about these stories is that nguyen doesn’t try to make heroes or saints out of his characters. he also doesn’t reduce them to capital-R-Refugees, by which i mean that nguyen presents his characters as human beings who carry this trauma, this loss, and are defined by it in ways but not in entirety. they may be refugees, or they may be the children of refugees, but their experience, their history, is not the whole sum of who they are.

in the four months since he’d fled saigon, he’d been asked for his story again and again, by sailors, marines, and social workers, their questions becoming all too predictable. what was it like? how do you feel? isn’t it all so sad? sometimes he told the curious that what had happened was a long story, which only impelled them to ask for a shorter version. (“the other man,” 26)

i think that, sometimes, it gets lost that refugees are people who are fleeing from something, who are seeking sanctuary from something horrific that is out of their control. there sometimes seems to be a blurring of “immigrant” and “refugee,” like the two are similar enough to be seen as the same, simply because both immigrants and refugees are coming from one country into another.

it’s important to remember that immigrants and refugees are not the same. there is agency and choice in immigrating. there is no better option for a refugee than to seek refuge elsewhere.

it’s also important to remember that refugees don’t simply come into another country and forget the violence or the journey that brought them there. they live with that, with every decision they had to make, with every loss they suffered, ever loved one they lost, every wrong they endured, and they come into these strange places and learn new languages and ways of life, sometimes (often times) in spaces that regard them suspiciously and/or condescendingly — and they survive.

i liked that nguyen shows us this, that these characters, these refugees, have survived. they get to america, and they adapt. they find each other and create vietnamese communities around the country. they take jobs they’re overqualified for; they make their living selling fake luxury goods; and they get involved with their bosses and lose their jobs. they’re haunted by the literal ghosts of their pasts, and there will always be that before and after, just like there will always be the saigon before the war, before they became refugees, and the saigon that exists now with its different street names, with its new name altogether.

and they are just as much a part of america as anyone else.

favorite stories:

  • "the other man"
  • "the americans"
  • "someone else besides you"

thank you, grove, for sending me the book. this does not impact my thoughts, nor does it influence my decision to include as part of this series.

later, his arm thrown over marcus’s body, facing his back, liem wasn’t surprised to discover how little he remembered. his habit of forgetting was too deeply ingrained, as if he passed his life perpetually walking backward through a desert, sweeping away his footprints, leaving him with only scattered recollections of rough lips pressed against his, and the comfort of a man’s muscular weight. (“the other man,” 42)

she wondered if he remembered their escape from vung tau on a rickety fishing trawler, overloaded with his five siblings and sixty strangers, three years after the war’s end. after the fourth day at sea, he and the rest of the children, bleached by the sun, were crying for water, even though there was none to offer but the sea’s. nevertheless, she had washed their faces and combed their hair every morning, using salt water and spit. she was teaching them that decorum mattered even now, and that their mother’s fear wasn’t so strong that it could prevent her from loving them. (“i’d love you to want me,” 107)

he remembered her infancy, when michiko insisted on sleeping with claire in between them, he so worried about rolling over in his sleep onto claire that he lay awake restless until he could worry no more, whereupon he climbed down to the floor and slept on the carpet. not so many years later, when claire was walking but barely potty-trained, and still sleeping in their bed, she would wake up, slip off the edge and land on his chest, and when he opened one eye, demand to be taken to the bathroom. the trip alone in the dark was too frightening. he would sigh, get up, and lead her down the hall, step by careful step, her hand wrapped around one of his fingers. (“the americans,” 148-9)

patti smith + viet thanh nguyen and vu tran!


2016 april 19:  patti smith at the graduate center.

patti smith was in conversation with kevin baker, and she was at the graduate center as part of a festival commemorating the 70th anniversary of camus' only visit to the states.  it's always such a pleasure to hear patti smith, even more so when she's talking about the writers and books she loves.

again, did a pretty crappy job recording questions.  ^^

[before the program started, patti smith said that she had a horrible case of the allergies, so, "if i start coughing, don't worry -- it's not catching."]

kevin baker:  how did you get introduced to camus' work?

patti smith:  well, the truth is i loved french literature, and, if you were french, i was going to read you -- it was that simple.  i don't know; i just really liked the titles of the books.  the original title of the stranger was the outsider, and i was arrested by it.

KB:  he's a great observer.  do you feel he influenced you?

PS:  oh, absolutely.  and it's truthfully entirely literary -- i'm not a political writer ... but his writing style, it's just -- i just understood it.

PS:  i know it might seed conceited, but, as a young person, i aspired to walk in his tracks if i could.

KB:  it struck me that he writes a lot about metamorphosis.  and that's also a thing of yours, it seems to me.

PS:  i guess so, but i never thought about it.

PS:  the idea of metamorphosis has always been comforting to me because it gives us this sort of idea that we have another chance.  metamorphosis or resurrection, whatever you want to call it -- another chance.

PS:  the idea of death seemed so terrifying to me, and a happy death helped me find some kind of reconciliation.

KB:  was there a particular reason?

PS:  i was so ill as a kid, and i heard countless times some country doctor telling my mother, "i don't think she's going to make it."

PS:  i didn't want to die because there were so many books to read.  there were a million books i hadn't read, so i had a lot to do.

PS:  [about a happy death]  it's like all the hubris of youth that suddenly in the end very quickly evolved into a different place.

KB:  people say that your work sounds kind of like a french novel-in-translation.

PS:  i'm not like a big proust reader -- i mean, i plow through proust, but those long, long sentences ...

PS:  i don't think writing is ever easy.  writing is torture.  [...]  there are moments you think you're a genus, but that's disproved the next day.  writing is labor.

PS:  when i was living in the twentieth century, i mourned that i wasn't living in the nineteenth century.  now the twentieth century seems so innocent.

PS:  when you're writing, you create an atmosphere that the reader can enter like gumby.

PS:  being profound isn't really my biggest ability [KB:  au contraire!], but, when i'm performing, risk is always part of it.  part of the battle is that you have to communicate with the people.  you have to rein in.

2016 april 21:  viet thanh nguyen and vu tran at the brooklyn public library as part of the international writers series.

this was an incredible event with two smart, well-spoken, thoughtful writers.  my little asian-american writer heart was bursting as i walked home afterwards.

i gave up on trying to record any of the questions.

vu tran:  i guess i've always had these conversations with my vietnamese friends who are also writers.  when i said that to the new york times*, i felt kind of guilty because i hadn't engaged with it on a deeper level.  i had guilt on my part because viet has always been doing that -- he's been doing that in his criticism work.

*  i'm trying to find this interview.

viet than nguyen:  (started this vietnamese arts organization that grew into this bigger representative of vietnamese arts and cultures)

VTN:  to me, that's really crucial because obviously the work of writing is something to do on your own but so many people need a community for sustenance.

VT:  what's also really important about it, though -- at lease, for me -- i grew up in oklahoma, and i didn't have any vietnamese friends -- i didn't have any asian friends, let alone vietnamese friends -- and i feel like you end up sitting not in a vacuum but in a context you don't always need.

VTN:  when i was in college, i wanted to write on vietnamese literature, but there was very little [of it].  it's incredible to see this explosion of vietnamese literature and vietnamese literature-in-translation from the last thirty years.  there's a lot for people to read out there, who want to read more of vietnamese literature and participate in this community.

VTN:  sometimes, vietnamese-american writers write about vietnam, sometimes they write about different things.

[re:  genres]

VT:  i wrote that short story -- the second chapter in dragonfish -- and i felt that narrative -- the crime narrative, if you will -- didn't feel fleshed out to me.  there were some characters with this backstory i thought i'd investigate.

VT:  the crime framework became primarily something -- we all read mysteries because of the kind of ambiguity of the story and the shadows that can never be resolved [...] and i thought that was kind of an interesting framework for a story about immigrants.  because immigrants do that.  we walk around with all these stories from our parents, our grandparents, and we don't want to share everything.  [thus creating a natural ambiguity and maintaining shadows.]

VTN:  i always loved genre fiction.  i don't look down on genre, and it's really weird to me that, in this literary world of new york, we sell a lot of genre fiction [but put literary fiction on the pedestal].

VTN:  i'm scared of reading genre fiction because i know that, if i pick up a jo nesbo novel, i'm not going to put it down.

VTN:  what i'm most excited by are books that mix genres and aren't easily contained.

Q to vu:  why a white-american protagonist?

VT:  he needed to be a white-american because i guess i was playing with two things.  one was the narrative that i think we're all familiar with -- a white westerner comes into the native community, and he's the one who saves them.  but, also, there's the conventions of crime fiction or the detective novel, in that i was interested in the detective who wasn't very good at detecting -- and, in my mind, those two narratives tended to overlap.  in my book, i think what robert [the protagonist] does is that, because he doesn't get access to this woman he loves so desperately, he creates this other narrative for her, which is that she's crazy.

VT:  i don't let [robert] learn that much [about her] because, sometimes, you can't get all the answers to your questions.

Q to viet:  in the sympathizer, you wanted him to be the anti-hero.

VTN:  anti-heroes are the privilege of majority culture, majority writers.  you have the full panoply of representation to you as the majority.  if you're the minority, you have the burden of representing your community.

VTN:  why would my anti-hero be all of vietnam?

VTN:  the novel was deliberately set up to be a confession from one vietnamese person to another vietnamese person.  i think it's easy for writers of minorities to write to a white person because publishing is very white.  i rejected that.  [...]  what is translated [in the book] is american culture to the vietnamese.

VTN:  my experience has been that americans as a whole don't know anything about us.  on one hand, there is a very large refugee community, but, on the other hand, it's very invisible.  we had this whole interior life scattered across the country, and no one knew about them.

VTN:  when i was growing up, in every pho restaurant, there was this clock, and that just affirmed for me that vietnamese people are very conscious of time.  

VTN:  i grew up with my dad constantly telling me we're one hundred percent vietnamese.  [...]  the second time [my parents visited vietnam and came back to the states], my dad said to me, "we're american."

VT:  in my book, i think of vietnam as this animating but debilitating shadow that follows all these characters, whether they wanted it or not.  with my characters, it was more, at least with suzy [the vietnamese wife] i think that -- she abandons her daughter, and i think vietnam is embodied in this one act.  it's something she feels guilty about, but, at the same time, she knows it's something she has to do.  that tends to happen -- it'll be like one particular experience or one fact that ends up, in a way, if you're displaced from your country, that becomes representative of that in your memory.

VTN:  another [thing] that minority writers are expected to do with this refugee narrative is that, in the end, the characters are americanized.

VT:  i [wanted there to be] not literal ghosts -- i want the reader to question whether these are actual ghosts or not.  the thing i was thinking about is that, when you talk about magic realism, that kind of magic is diffused in that culture.  i thought that american culture -- they don't actively believe in ghosts in ways that other cultures do.  and, in many ways, i think that has to do with religion.  i wanted that spectre of ghosts to be something that weights on the characters a bit in different ways.

VTN:  haunting is so much a part of the legacy of war.  haunting is real, even if ghosts aren't.  if the parents are haunted, oftentimes, the children are haunted, too.  and i wanted to make that quite literal.

VTN:  if you look at so many immigrants -- filipinos, cambodians, koreans, laotians -- so many of them came here because americans fought wars in their countries.  but the american dream doesn't remember that.

VT:  i feel like the melting pot is an idea that goes back to the huddled masses yearning to break free, and it goes back to this idea of immigrants coming here to make things better for their families and assimilating -- but that melting pot doesn't leave room for those who were forced to come here.  if you believe in this notion of the melting pot, it's not just something that builds things; it destroys something in the process -- you're erasing something in the process, and that's detrimental to those people.

VTN:  we blame refugees because they're easy scapegoats for problems in society, for these problems we've caused in other countries.  it's very important to remember that the refugee narrative is very different from the immigrant narrative.

VTN:  i know [that the pride vietnamese are showing in my book after winning the pulizter] is more of a symbolic appreciation than a literary appreciation, and i'm okay with that.

VT:  i got the chance to change my name when i got my citizenship in the sixth grade, and i wanted to pick scott, but my mom stopped me, and i'm very grateful for that.

VTN:  the job of writers is to destroy the cliche.