The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press, 2017

Genre: Short Stories

Rating: 4/5


Displacement.  Scientifically speaking, displacement occurs when an object is immersed in a fluid, pushing it out of the way and taking its place.  As such, all the of protagonists in Nguyen’s book of short stories, The Refugees, suffer from displacement.  As with all refugees, their old lives must be violently pushed out of the way to make room for a new life in the new country in which they are immersed.  But unlike the scientific model in which the fluid is completely displaced, the refugees in Nguyen’s stories are still haunted by the fluid memories of their old lives that were so painfully ripped away.

On the heels of winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen has put together an amazing collection of short stories with his book, The Refugees.  Set in either Vietnam or in Vietnamese communities in America, each story is a gem in its own, with characters that will make your heart weep, and characters that will try your patience.  Caught between two worlds — feeling unwanted at home and abroad —Nguyen shows us that the external turmoil of being exiled is just a precursor to the real trauma of every day life for refugees and their families.

In the first story (my personal favorite), “Black-Eyed Woman,” a woman is visited decades later by the ghost of her brother, killed by pirates during their escape.  But the real story is the impact the traumatic event had on her life as she retreats into herself, trying to forget the brother that saved her life.  Displaced by a ghost of her former self, when she asks her brother why she was the one to survive, he responds with, “You died too.  You just don’t know it.”  Wow.

And therein lies the beauty of Nguyen’s work. These are not stories aimed at shocking us with vivid details of the horrors of escape.  Quite the opposite, these stories are subtle in their approach.  These are the quiet stories of their every day lives — the collateral damage that comes with being a refugee. These are the stories of disorientation and alienation that refugees suffer every day.

In a world where we tend to lump people into defined categories, we tend to lump all refugees into a category of their own.  But Nguyen elegantly reminds us that they are not just refugees — they are human beings, each with their own unique story.  The Refugees is a testament to lives we can not forget, in a world that is often cruel and heartless.  For anyone that has ever felt displaced, you will resonate with Nguyen’s melancholy stories.

Click here for the recipe that I have paired with this book review: Chicken Pho

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