by JOHN BECHTOLD
by Viet Thanh Nguyen. New York: Grove Press, 2017. pp. 207
Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, describing what distinguishes good art from pedestrian work, wrote, “the greatest art is impersonal because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity that startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all” . The real world that Viet Thanh Nguyen exposes in his newest collection of short stories, The Refugees, is a world we’re not used to seeing, one that may startle us but should not delight us because the world he brings to life is marked by oppression and the lingering, sometimes haunting memories born of the grotesquerie of war. Nguyen creates a fertile cast of characters in this collection: some of whom are trying to reclaim their lives in a patriotic America that esteems military service; others, once soldiers, return to Vietnam as indifferent, maybe intractable onlookers, following their adult children who are more curiously equipped with an empathic understanding of people and place than their parents; and still others, like an elderly couple living in California, are less prone to look backward at the tragedy of their Vietnamese past and more likely to look forward into an indeterminate future marred by the onset of illness. These lives are different, yet similar. These fictional people converge in their shared experience of war, in their experience as victims of violence. They are refugees. And to be a refugee is to be forcibly dislocated by political violence, or as scholar Edward Said may express, to be “torn from the nourishment of tradition, family, and geography” .
Nguyen’s refugees, having been tossed from the familiar of their Vietnam, must, through imagination and willpower, blend into a new and foreign society – one that often casts a skeptical glance at those who appear different. One such refugee, a young, gay man who unexpectedly fled Saigon to save himself when the North Vietnamese Army began its assault on the city in 1975, eventually ends up in San Francisco with a sponsor couple. He must first confront his former self in order to forge his identity in a new country, which is shaped, in part, by the memory of a demonized war. Nguyen ends this story, “The Other Man,” by placing this young man, Liem, in the bedroom after a shower looking into the street through the window and at a reflected image of himself, which he tenderly traces with his finger as he ponders the possibility of what he may become. Here, Nguyen layers visual imagery with metaphor, creating a benevolent looking glass, of sorts, that may chart a welcomed tomorrow for Liem.
But of course, not all tomorrows are welcome. Inasmuch as they may hold the possibility for renewal, they bring the need to survive as well. And as Nguyen reminds us in a story he calls “War Years,” we sometimes march into those tomorrows with our memories, often organizing our lives around the trauma of memory, perhaps seeking respite from the emotional pain those memories bring. Nguyen begins “War Years” with force: “Before Mrs. Hoa broke into our lives in the summer of 1983, nothing my mother did surprised me” . We later learn about the origins of the narrator’s surprise and about Mrs. Hoa’s anger. We wonder—with the narrator, now grown and recalling this childhood episode—if Mrs. Hoa is indeed still fighting a war that has been over for nearly a decade. She moves through life with one eye on a past that looms large in her living memory. As for the narrator, a first generation American, he bobs along in the wake of his mother’s decisions, curious, yet removed, immersed in popular culture as his mother negotiates Mrs. Hoa’s unwelcomed intrusion with both compassion and anger.
Nguyen approaches these characters with a special tenderness and insight that may spring from his lived experience as a refugee. As he relates in a recent interview with Public Radio International, “My first memories are of coming to the United States and being taken away from my parents. So, there was always a part of me that knew my existence as an American had somehow been shaped by this very traumatic history of war and of being a refugee” . The war history that Nguyen speaks of does not consist of delicate images that fade with time. For those that experience the trauma of political violence, the images in question burst into conscious memory like shell fragments and become part of the every-day self.
When Nguyen writes, “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory,” in the opening chapter of his non-fiction exploration into memory and war, Nothing Ever Dies, he is identifying a landscape of war not bounded by the geography of a particular conflict, but rather a landscape unbounded in memory and reified in the artifacts of lives shaped by conflict . The characters in The Refugees occupy such an unbounded space as they move through their lives in a world at odds with the memory of their lived experience. In this sense, The Refugees joins Nguyen’s non-fiction, which ultimately challenges American culture’s preoccupation with a war rhetoric that valorizes the military in deference to a more nuanced understanding of what it means to live a war experience. Nguyen gestures to a more inclusive ethic of remembering, knowing that refugees understand what war means because they have lived it. And this book is for them, “for all refugees, everywhere,” as Nguyen dedicates – that is, for all 88.1 million people in the world dislocated by political violence .
- Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (1970; New York: Routledge, 2001), 63.
- Edward W. Said, “The Mind Of Winter,” Harper’s269, no. 1612 (September 1, 1984): 49. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/1301536164?accountid=14244.
- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees (New York: Grove Press, 2017), 49.
- Viet Thanh Nguyen, “A Refugee Writer Wins a ‘Genius Grant’ for his Depictions of the Displaced,” interview by Carol Hills and Marco Werman, Public Radio International, October 12, 2017, https://vietnguyen.inflo/category/interviews.
- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 4.
- “Figures at a Glance,” UNHCR, accessed December 21, 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.