I wanted to read more literature this year by authors of color, especially Asian and Asian-American ones as I feel so much is overlooked by mainstream lists. The Refugees was my first deliberate attempt of picking a Vietnamese-American author’s work; I hadn’t heard of him before, but Viet Thanh Nguyen has written a number of fiction and non-fiction works on Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American culture and identity. This was my first foray into a collection of short stories and it was rewarding because I was able to connect with most of the main characters in each of the eight stories and not feel frustrated at the end of the few pages that it was only just beginning.
Admittedly, the beginning was a bit steep for me. Black-Eyed Women was the first story featured, about a young Vietnamese-American woman and her mother who narrowly escaped the violence from the Vietnam War, but experienced several traumatic events during their escape on an overcrowded fishing boat. It’s clear the woman was just a young girl, barely pubescent when they escaped Vietnamese land for the open sea; her brother, only older by a few years tried to protect her from pirates who raided the boat, taking all the girls to presumably be sex slaves. Before the pirates arrive, he rubs motor oil on his sister’s face, binds her barely existent breasts and chops her hair. To distract the pirates from his sister, he stabs one of them with a small knife he had concealed and is subsequently killed in front of her. The young woman tries to forget this part of herself. In the story, the young woman’s mother says that a ghost has visited the house, the ghost of her brother who has swam from the fishing boat to their Southern California house. Her mother welcomes the ghost who she says is dripping wet with ocean water and chastises her daughter for not being receptive and for not attending to her mother’s needs as well as a son would. The mother tells stories about ghosts, while the young woman tries to write them down. Ironically, she’s a ghost writer, writing about other people’s stories and in this chaos, her own ghost has come to haunt her.
The other seven stories were a lot more digestable for me, all dealing with Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American or American culture both in Vietnam and Southern California, where many Vietnamese had immigrated. Though I thoroughly enjoyed five of the eight stories (three were a little more difficult for me to really feel), The Americans was one of the most poignant. It dealt with the story of a 68 year old American Vietnam War veteran who after much prodding by his Japanese wife ten year his junior, agrees to go to visit their daughter who is working as a teacher in a rural Vietnamese town. He does not like her boyfriend, a Vietnamese-American who is working on a DoD funded project to design robots to disable land mines. Carver, the hardened father is gruff, confronting his daughter about her choices and telling her she shouldn’t be in Vietnam, insinuating it was just as he remembered: a crap hole of some sort. After dealing with all his jabs at her boyfriend and her career choices, she breaks down, angrily confront him that she was there because she wanted to undo all the bad things he had done in the war, bombing innocent people in his B-52. The fight is never resolved, as Carver wanders off, getting caught in a monsoon storm. He gets pneumonia, waking up three days later to his daughter sleeping on the floor of the hospital ward. He is overwhelmed and remembers her when she was young and breaks down.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing is easy to grasp and his style is fluid. Although the material he deals with is extremely emotional and raw, I don’t think readers should shy away from the melancholy many of the stories evoke. When I get a chance, I would definitely read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer published a year prior to this collection.