In The Refugees, Nguyen’s short stories encompass a broad scope of human experience from those who have sought refuge in America. And yet from this common core, the stories are illuminating, unique, empathetic and universal – there is no one way to be a Vietnamese refugee, and no one way in which this experience will shape your identity.
While this is a book about Vietnamese refugees, the themes are wide-ranging: identity and belonging, family dynamics, romantic relationships, trauma and healing, remembering and forgetting. Some of the strongest stories include I’d Love You To Want Me, where a woman who works as a local librarian begins to lose her husband to Alzheimer’s, and he begins to confuse her with a previous lover. In The Transplant, a hospital privacy glitch allows Arthur to track down the son of the man whose organ donation saved his life, and begins storing the son’s vast imports of fake designer goods in his garage to return the favour. And in War Years, a young narrator recounts the summer of 1983, where his mother, the owner of a Vietnamese grocery store, is publicly shamed and harassed for not donating a large sum of money to fight against the communists back ‘home’.
This isn’t a book about the Vietnam war, and we are largely spared graphic and traumatic retellings of wartime experiences. But the legacy of the war is the undercurrent that hums through each story, where the characters are always aware that were it not for the conflict, they would not have been torn from their homeland and forced to rebuild their lives in America. America is portrayed as multifaceted and complex, simultaneously hostile and land of opportunity.
‘Their relatives’ experiences and their own had taught my parents to believe that no country was immune to disaster, and so they secreted another percentage of the profits at home, just in case some horrendous calamity wiped out the American banking system. My mother wrapped blocks of hundred-dollar bills in plastic and taped them underneath the lid of the toilet tank, buried dog-tag-sized ounces of gold in the rice, and stashed her jade bracelets…in a fireproof safe, hidden in the crawl space underneath the house.’
I enjoyed the scope of the stories and their cleverly drawn arcs. I don’t read a lot of short stories, and I am frequently impressed with the ability to pack a memorable journey into a few thousand words. I did, however, feel I was being held at arm’s length as a reader. There’s a delicate balance between being understated and heavy-handed, and I think Nguyen’s collection tips towards the former, which meant that, for me, there was some intimacy lacking in the otherwise deeply personal and compelling stories. And while the collection works well as a whole, I feel that slightly more curation could have gone into the process of putting these stories together for a cohesive reading experience.
In his afterword essay, Nguyen writes: ‘Like the homeless, refugees are living embodiments of a disturbing possibility: that human privileges are quite fragile, that one’s home, family, and nation are one catastrophe away from being destroyed.’ By bearing witness to these stories, and the myriad of human experience, Nguyen collapses the distance between the reader and the refugees. In lending voice and humanity to this experience, it reminds us that nothing separates us from those born into countries at war and forced to flee, apart from the good fortune of our birth.