In Limbo

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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The Refugees is a short story collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Each of the 8 stories in this collection features a character caught between here and there. Here is involuntary: the result of war or revolution, internal displacement or betrayal or a journey across the sea in an unworthy vessel. There is a mythical place: home as it once was or should have been. Both here and there are the Vietnam of The Refugees.

It took Nguyen 20 years to write The Refugees while pursuing an academic career and penning a debut novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The Sympathizer explores the limbo between the Viet Cong held north and the US-propped south. While Nguyen paints a huge and intricately detailed canvas in The Sympathizer, I prefer his more intimate glimpses in The Refugees.

Maybe it’s because I feel more of an emotional connection with the protagonists of these 8 short stories. Maybe it’s because I recognize the smells and sounds of an Asian-American home in Southern California.

“We’re having dinner,” Mrs Hoa said. Other voices rang from the dining room. An aerosol of grease clung to the air, along the warm, wet sock odor of cooked rice. “Have you eaten yet?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “War Years,” The Refugees (Grove Press 2017)

Ghosts

Nguyen announces the themes of The Refugees in the opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.” The unnamed protagonist is an unmarried adult woman still living at home with her mother. For work, the protagonist ghostwrites memoirs of tragic survival. The father of a school shooter, the sole survivor of a plane crash, a soldier who loses all his limbs when he defuses a bomb. At home, the protagonist’s mother is the storyteller, the fabulist who sees ghosts.

He was bloated and pale, hair feathery, skin dark, clad in black shorts and a ragged gray T-shirt, arms and legs boy. The last time I had seen him, he was taller by a head; now our situations were reversed. […] When he said my name, I trembled, but this was a ghost of someone whom I loved and would never harm, the kind of ghost who, my mother had said, would not harm me.

“Black-Eyed Women”

This ghost has swum across the Pacific Ocean. It’s taken him 20 years to arrive in California to deliver a message to his little sister. You died, too, on that boat. You just don’t know it. In an interview, Nguyen said, “The reason I wrote this story was because these kinds of stories of ghosts visiting Vietnamese people after they’ve passed are very, very common.”

“These kinds of stories happen all the time,” my mother said, pouring me a cup of green tea. This evening seance would be our new nightly ritual, my mother an old lady, myself an aging one. “Why write down what I’m telling you?”

“Someone has to,” I said, notepad on my lap, pen at attention.

“Black-Eyed Women”

Seeds

The Sympathizer and The Refugees span roughly the same time period. The Fall of Saigon on 29 April 1975 is a watershed moment in both books. While the protagonist of The Sympathizer stands close to the powers-that-be in South Vietnam, the characters in The Refugees are ordinary citizens. They do not act but rather are acted upon.

The GIs taught him the rudiments of English, enough for him to find a job years later in Saigon, sweeping the floor of a tea bar on Tu Do Street where the girls pawned themselves for dollars. With persistence, he sandpapered the two discourses of junkyard and whorehouse into a more usable kind of English, good enough to let him understand the rumor passed from one foreign journalist to another in the spring of ’75, six months ago. Thousands would be slaughtered if the city fell to the Communists.

“The Other Man”

Orange County, California is home to almost 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans. In the 1970s, South Vietnamese refugees flocked to this place, including the protagonist of The Sympathizer and most of the characters in The Refugees. In “War Years,” Mrs Hoa blackmails the Vietnamese shopkeepers in Little Saigon into funding a guerilla army eager to take back the homeland from the Communists. A father prepares his sons for the day when they will return to Vietnam to fight.

His body remained trim enough to fit into the vintage camouflage paratrooper’s uniform that he’d worn during the war. These days he broke out the uniform only once every few months, to march in the honor guard for parades and memorials in Little Saigon.

“Someone Else Besides You”

Character Flaws

When I like about the characters in The Refugees is how they reveal their vulnerability. The fearsome father in “Someone Else Besides You” is also a philanderer. His womanizing has scared his son into believing he, too, would never commit to a relationship. The son tries to warn his father’s current mistress of what lies ahead.

“Tell me something,” she said. The curve of her smile straightened into a thin, hard line. “Aren’t there times when you’d rather be someone else besides you?”

In “The Americans,” a Vietnam vet reluctantly returns to his former battlegrounds to learn how very estranged he has become from his daughter. An aging professor calls his wife, in “I’d Love You to Want Me,” by the name of his former lover. In “Fatherland,” a daughter realizes that her older half-sister is the child their father truly loves.

As Yiyun Li aptly notes in her review of The Refugees, “Two of the most touching pieces, both about siblings separated by geography and history, bookend the collection.” Selflessness leads to the separation of brother and sister in “Black-Eyed Woman.” Selfishness will not allow the half-sisters of “Fatherland” to live together. Some of the characters in The Refugees may be fleeing war or revolution. They are all refugees of the heart.

31 July 2022 | Karen Kao