Written by Chase Finney
Viet Thanh Nguyen (pronounced “Viet Tang When”) set a high standard for himself after his first novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. Fortunately, his first short story collection The Refugees upholds his reputation as a tactful storyteller. Each story in The Refugees studies what it means and especially how it feels to be a refugee through the lens of very different characters all bound to Vietnam in one way or another.
The first story, titled “Black-Eyed Women,” explores the experience of a Vietnamese ghostwriter living with her mother when both of them encounter the ghost of the narrator’s brother. It is revealed that after being killed by pirates during the family’s attempt to flee Vietnam (both the narrator and her mother are refugees), the narrator’s brother continued to swim across the Pacific Ocean to finally rest his soul with his mother and sister. While the book is in no way a collection of suspense stories, this story is the first to showcase Nguyen’s talent for maneuvering the timing and information revealed to keep readers engaged with the lives of the fairly mundane characters.
While the stories mainly focus on Vietnamese citizens, Nguyen also writes from the perspective of non-Vietnamese individuals experience in Vietnam or interacting with Vietnamese citizens, such as the aptly named “The Americans.” This story briefly chronicles an African-American war veteran’s experience visiting his daughter, who was teaching English in Vietnam. Here, Nguyen’s ability to sympathize with others aided him in deftly conveying the complicated uneasiness felt by the narrator, who had not seen to the country since his time in the war as an American bomber pilot.
While certainly not a breezy beach read, Nguyen’s simple yet eloquent writing style invites readers of nearly any background to inhale and then simmer on the message of The Refugees. The dedication at the beginning of the book reads “For all refugees, everywhere,” and despite Nguyen’s Vietnamese-American identity likely informing his decision to connect all of his characters with Vietnam, the humanity inherent in each story is unaffected. The immigration of refugees and asylum-seekers has been an especially hot button issue for the past few years in this country. However, for many, the high-level politicization has detached the issue from the human beings affected. Nguyen asks readers not to pity his characters, but instead take a step back from the back-and-forth of media coverage and see his characters–and hopefully by extension, all refugees–as human beings simply seeking to be understood.