‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen, stories (2017) – 207 pages
There are many good examples from the stories in ‘The Refugees’ which show that Viet Thanh Nguyen has mastered most of the lessons of writing excellent fiction and has developed into one of the United States’ finest authors. He makes the characters in these stories and their situations come alive for his readers as only a few of the best writers can do.
I previously read his outstanding novel ‘The Sympathizer’ which told the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese, a viewpoint we here in the United States had not encountered before. When the Americans finally evacuated Vietnam as Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, there were all the Vietnamese people who had aided the Americans and were in peril. Ultimately over 600,000 Vietnamese people either self-evacuated or were evacuated and were processed as refugees to the United States. ‘The Refugees’ contains some of the stories of a few of these Vietnamese refugees.
Some have flashbacks to the terrible time of leaving.
“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. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was a stake.”
In one story, “The Other Man” a young man from Saigon is sponsored by a man from San Francisco who has a gay lover. This is an extreme example of the cultural shock in store for some of the refuges. His father, still in Saigon, writes him as follows:
“When you have time, send us the news from America. It must be more sinful even than Saigon, so remember what the cadres say. The revolutionary man must live a civil, healthy, correct life! We all think of you often. Your mother misses you, and sends you her love. So do I.”
The really good writers make these combinations of words seem so easy. Here is a daughter describing her father in poignant terms to which some of us can relate. In these lines, Nguyen captures the oddness of close family members and the embarrassment it causes.
“None was drawn more clearly than her father, whom she pitied, and, worse, did not respect. If only he were an adulterer or playboy, then there would be cause for resentment, but he was in decline, a failure without even the glamour of decadence and bad behavior. This was a matter of sufficient sadness and embarrassment so that when her father’s shadow appeared in the doorway, Phoung turned on her side as well.”
Remember the name Viet Thanh Nguyen. Here is a writer I suspect you will be hearing a lot about in the future.