HomeAsian AmericansViet Thanh Nguyen's The Refugees is a Haunting yet Beautiful Collection

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees is a Haunting yet Beautiful Collection

Pulitzer Prize winning author Thanh Nguyen
Pulitzer Prize winning author Thanh Nguyen
It’s a story of remembrance and loss. The ghost of her brother, killed by pirates during the escape from the Vietnam War, gives her a visit. And then she realizes she will never actually be able to forget him. This is the premise of Black-Eyed Women, the first story in The Refugees.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees is a collection of nine harrowing stories centered on refugees and refugee families, reports The Huffington Post. A fiction follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer (2015), The Refugees was just published earlier this February and coincidentally reflects the issues of today, as the Syrian refugee crisis continues to be hotly debated.
The Refugees is dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere” and features characters processing trauma and loss of loved ones, especially focusing on the psychological aftermath of the Vietnam War. Nguyen, now a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, fled the Vietnam War with his family in 1975 around the time of the fall of Saigon.
What has made The Refugees especially stand out is the timing of its publication. Only weeks after President Trump’s attempted ban on refugees, the political and social atmosphere surrounding refugees is still tense. His collection challenges the narrow understanding of the refugee experience.
“The idea of the immigrant is so central to the American dream and the American mythology,” said Nguyen, reports BuzzFeed. “That idea of the immigrant as being part of an American story is so fundamentally strong that I was automatically being put into that story by reviewers and critics and so on. I had to actively say, ‘No, it’s not accurate.’ We need to understand how refugees are different so that we don’t erase the specificity of their experience.”
One of the stories, The Other Man, is centered on the 18-year-old Liam after his escape from Vietnam to the U.S., where a gay immigrant couple takes him in, reports NPR. “As he lay on his cot and listened to children playing hide-and-seek in the alleys between the tents, he tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape,” writes Nguyen. “He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.”
“Nguyen is skilled at making us feel the disorientation and alienation of these characters navigating displacement,” writes Megan Mayhew Bergman of The Washington Post. “Nguyen offers stories of aftermath, but also of complexity. He gives us human beings weary of pity and tired of sharing rehearsed stories that make them seem like ‘one more anonymous young refugee.'”

Related: The Life of Bestselling Author Viet Thanh Nguyen


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