[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)