Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Refugees

Posted by nliakos on May 9, 2019

by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove 2017; University of Maryland College Park First Year Book 2018-2019)

I’ve been dipping into this collection of short stories about refugees in America for about a year, one story at a time, in between reading other things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Viet Nam with his family at the age of four; his stories are informed by his own experiences as a refugee. I will briefly summarize each story.

The narrator of Black-eyed Women is a Vietnamese-American, one of the so-called “Boat People” who fled the country after the end of the war. Not unusually, the boat was taken over by pirates who raped all of the women and girls. The narrator was thirteen at the time; her older brother, with whom she was very close, tried to disguise her as a boy, but she was discovered. When he attempted to fight off her attacker, her brother was killed. In this story, the narrator, now 36 years old and a “ghostwriter” of other people’s books, confronts her brother’s ghost. “My brother watched me curiously as as I wept for him and for me, for all the years we could have had together but didn’t, for all the words never spoken between my mother, my father, and me. Most of all, I cried for those other girls who had vanished and never come back, including myself.”

Although I suppose the book was chosen as the First Year Book because of its subject of refugees and immigrants, this first story relates equally well to the #MeToo movement, telling as it does of the lasting trauma inflicted on survivors of sexual assault, who may appear to be functioning, but who have lost themselves, or a part of themselves.

The Other Man is the story of Liem, whose American sponsor is Parrish Coyne, an openly gay man living in San Francisco with a young Chinese immigrant named Marcus Chan. Liem is also gay, but has been unable to admit it to himself. By the end of the story, Liem is beginning to accept his sexuality and even sleeps with Marcus when Parrish is away.

“‘They think we’ve got a Western disease,’ Marcus said. ‘Or so my father says.’

‘We?’ Liem said.

‘Don’t think I don’t know.'”

War Years focuses on a family of Vietnamese refugees who are trying to leave the war behind them and move on with their American lives, but it is difficult when some members of their community keep trying to keep the struggle alive. Mrs. Hoa is one such person. She frequently comes around pressuring people to donate to the fight against Communism. The young narrator’s father would like to give her some money to keep her from spreading rumors about them in the community, but his mother insists that giving in will only make it worse. “It’s extortion,” she insists. Eventually, the mother confronts Mrs. Hoa in her home. . . . but the reality turns out to be a little different from what she had assumed.

The Transplant is the story of the odd friendship between Arthur Arrellano and Louis Vu, whose father’s liver saved Arthur’s life. . . or did it?

I’d Love You To Want Me describes the difficult path walked by Mrs. Sa Khanh as her professor husband succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mrs. Khanh is devastated when her husband insists on calling her by another woman’s name. Can she overcome her feelings of betrayal and continue to care for him?

In The Americans, African-American former fighter pilot James Carver and his Japanese wife Michiko are visiting their daughter Claire and her boyfriend in Vietnam, where Claire teaches English and her boyfriend works on disabling the many landmines. The POV is Carver’s, and he struggles during the visit. He doesn’t like the boyfriend, he is unhappy that his daughter wants to remain in Vietnam (where she feels she belongs), and he resists any accommodation to the place or the people. He picks fights with Claire, who says “He’s old and angry and bitter and he’s taking it out on everyone he meets.”  She berates her father for his role in the bombing of the country and people she loves. Carver, feeling misunderstood, stomps off in the monsoon rain, falls in the mud, and ends up in the hospital with a fever. Daughter has to help Father get to the bathroom, just as he used to help her, all those years ago. This is really a story of a man coming to terms with his mortality, as his body betrays him and his family moves on into a different future.

Someone Else Besides You examines the relationships between the 33-year-old narrator (Thomas), his father, and his father’s girlfriend. Thomas’s mother is dead. He and his wife are separated over the issue of whether to have children; his father pushes him to try to persuade her to come back to the marriage. His father constantly puts Thomas down, e.g.: “You were only half a man before you met her, and you’re back to being half a man now.” If this is how Vietnamese fathers talk to their sons, it’s really harsh. Then again, why would I assume that all Vietnamese fathers relate to the theirs in the same way? Thomas is a fairly passive individual, prone to weeping; his father is his opposite, unemotional and aggressive. Father and son go to visit ex-wife Sam, who is pregnant (with whose baby?). Thomas harbors no hope of a reconciliation, but he finds himself more amenable to the idea of a child, now that the child is about to become a reality.

The last story, Fatherland, is about a Vietnamese family whose father left his first family behind after the war, but he gave the children of his second wife the same names as the children of his first wife. Twenty-three-year-old Phuong finally meets her namesake (who calls herself Vivien, after Vivien Leigh, and is a doctor in Chicago). The story follows the development of the relationship between the two Phuongs during Vivien’s visit to Saigon. It turns out that Vivien has not been completely honest about her situation. Phuong is nevertheless inspired to follow her sister’s example and leave Vietnam for a different life.

The essay On Being a Refugee, an American–and a Human Being follows the eight stories. I think the essay was my favorite piece in the book, betraying my preference for non-fiction over fiction. The author shares his own story and considers the current xenophobia, yet another instance of a recurring phenomenon throughout American history. He writes, “The average American, or European, who feels that refugees or immigrants threaten their jobs does not recognize that the real culprits for their economic plight are the corporate interests and individuals that want to take the profits and are perfectly happy to see the struggling pitted against each other. The economic interests of the unwanted and the fearful middle class are aligned–but so many can’t see that because of how much they fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture, where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force, and I admit to being afraid of it.” This essay is followed by In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness, a contemplation of the writing life that led to the publication of these eight stories, which took 17 years from inception to publication.

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