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The Refugees

posted on 05 Jun 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I understand that the short story form is notoriously difficult for authors to do well but this collection is a fine example of getting it right by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is his second piece of fiction and every one of the eight stories presents a perfect distillation of the complex aspirations of different individuals who had to balance their lives between the land of their birth and their adopted homeland, America, as a result of the Vietnam war. Nguyen was born in Vietnam, travelled with his family as a refugee aged four years old and then grew up in America, so he writes these stories from an informed perspective.

The stories cover a wide range of memorable characters and situations and all of them are equally splendid but I have made the difficult decision to tell you about two in a bit more detail.

The first story of the collection is 'Black Eyed Women' which tells the melancholy tale of a family haunted by the death of the eldest son who died during the escape by boat across the Pacific from Vietnam twenty five years before. When the author talked about the refugee experience at the recent Hay Literary Festival, he explained that being a refugee stays as part of ones identity forever, no matter what happens next. I had read this book some weeks before he explained this  but it helps me understand this story better. The woman narrator has many fond memories of her long dead brother who did not survive the perilous journey.  These memories include the whispered ghost stories that he used to frighten her with as they huddled together as children in their home made bomb shelter during the war. He told her that the stories originally came from the black- eyed cackling ancient village crones and, now as an author living in America she treasures them because ' in a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories'. Her elderly mother has recently told her about seeing the ghost of her brother who has come to visit their house in America, but it is not until the young woman sees him for herself that she is hit by a painful wave of unresolved sorrow and guilt. We only have a glimpse of the story surrounding his death but this is just enough to covey the keen moment of bravery, despair and horror when he tried to save his sister, a moment that changed all their lives forever. Speaking with his ghost at last provides her with some catharsis but it is more a chance to recognise the power of stories to help explain life and death:

' we search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.'

'War Years' touches on memories of growing up as a child of parents who run the New Saigon Market store in America. Here we get a sense of the need to escape from a rather suffocating home, a feeling probably again influenced by the authors own childhood. In his Hay interview he admitted that his parents had needed to put all their energy into working long hours in order to build a reasonable lfe in their new country and that this left little space for spending pleasurable leisure time. The child in this story has no memories of the war,  but he knows all about it ' as well as I knew the story of Adam and Eve'. His rather dull life is disturbed when a Vietnamese woman, Mrs Hoa comes into the shop collecting money to ostensibly fund a guerrilla army of former South Vietnamese soldiers who are training in Thailand to overthrow the Communist government in Vietnam. He is puzzled and anxious about his parents lack of enthusiasm to contribute to this cause because, as an American child he has soaked up plenty of anti Communist messages and ' knew that we were in the midst of an epic battle against the evil empire of the Soviet Union'. He is a watchful child who realises that his mother and father have differing views about Communism that leak into overheard conversations. He worries about all this and thinks about who might be sleeping in the bed where they used to live in Vietnam wondering:

' what kinds of books a Red read, and what kind of movies he saw....I had seen Star Wars a dozen times on videotape, and if anyone was so deprived as to have not watched it even once, then the country in which he lived surely needed a revolution.'

I love this earnest child -centred perception. Although his parents make a reasonable living with their business, he also knows that they send lots of money back to relatives in Vietnam and are constantly fearful of impending disaster, including robbery - a frightening experience that they have lived through recently. When Mrs Hoa publicly accuses his mother of supporting the Communists because she refuses to make a donation to her cause, the boy and his mother decide to follow her home from church to find out more.  They eventually discover that she has a tragic back story and this changes their perceptions.

The author apparently took seventeen years to write these vivid stories, returning to polish them over and over again until he felt they were ready. It was certainly worth it because this is a stunning collection of beautifully crafted gems that I will certainly read again many times. I look forward very much to reading his other books and hope that he will publish many more in the future.

 

Karen Argent

June 2017