Unmasking the American Dream
A Review of The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
John Ruff

A recent New York Times op-ed piece by Ariel Dorfman, “A Lesson on Immigration from Pablo Neruda,” reports how, nearly eighty years ago, Neruda, then only thirty-four but already the greatest living poet writing in Spanish, rented with his own money a cargo ship and raised funds to transport to Chile more than 2,000 Spanish refugees who were fleeing Franco’s forces. Neruda was serving as the Chilean Consul to Spain at the time. Dorfman recalls how, despite strong opposition within Chile, high unemployment, and a recent earthquake that left 28,000 dead and many others homeless, then-president of Chile Pedro Aguirre Cerda still chose to accept those refugees and even arranged for their welcome at the docks in Valparaíso when they arrived.

Dorfman, an American citizen of Argentinian-Chilean descent, ended his piece urging Chileans to remember that moment in their history as current political leaders in Chile contemplate measures to keep out immigrants, measures that would include building physical barriers on their borders with Bolivia and Peru.

Sound familiar?

In 1975, President Jimmy Carter found himself facing a similar situation, with public opinion polls reporting strong opposition to accepting Vietnamese refugees—stronger than the opposition reported in similar polls conducted last April about accepting Syrian refugees. Despite that opposition, Carter authorized the resettlement, and in the first year approximately 150,000 refugees from Southeast Asia were given temporary shelter in four large refugee camps in the United States. Viet Thanh Nguyen, then four years old, with his parents and older brother, were part of that first wave of refugees who received shelter at a converted military base at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. From there his family would move first to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then in 1978 to San Jose, California, where Nguyen’s parents opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in San Jose. At that time, San Jose was a rough and tumble city. Today San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley. It is also home to the largest number of Vietnamese Americans in the United States.

Nguyen In her review of the book, Doree Shafrir wrote, “there was no way that Viet Thanh Nguyen could have known that just a week and a half before his new story collection The Refugees was published, President Donald Trump would issue an executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, and protests would erupt in cities across the country in opposition to the ban.” According to Shafrir, Nguyen has written “the most timely short story collection in recent memory.”

I agree with Shafrir. It is timely and it is excellent. But I doubt very much it would have been published had Nguyen not won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his debut novel, The Sympathizer, which won a host of awards despite being turned down by thirteen of the fourteen publishers to which it was offered. That same year, Nguyen was a finalist for a National Book Award for Non-Fiction and a National Critics Circle Award for Nobody Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press). Nguyen’s second novel, The Committed, a sequel to The Sympathizer, is set for release next spring. No wonder the MacArthur Foundation awarded Nguyen one of its genius grants in 2017.

For me, his genius is on full display in The Refugees, though none of the eight stories ever appeared in the New Yorker or the Atlantic, the two most prestigious places to publish short fiction in America. According to Nguyen, he wrote these stories to learn how to write fiction, and it was a long, lonely ordeal. During that same period, he steadily achieved success as a teacher and scholar of Asian American studies at the University of Southern California, and received notice for the 2014 publication of Trans Pacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field, which he edited with USC colleague Janet Hoskins. In 2018, yet another book edited by Nguyen will appear, this through Abrams Press, entitled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. 

The eight stories collected in The Refugees were written over two decades, beginning about the time Nguyen became a faculty member at USC, fresh out of the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in English and ethnic studies. Unlike most contemporary American writers I can think of, Nguyen became a scholar to become a writer of fiction, without benefit of apprenticeship in an MFA or Ph.D. program in creative writing, though he has added creative writing to the subjects he teaches at USC. What unifies his critical and creative writing is his commitment to giving voice to the experience of Vietnamese refugees, whose story is largely unknown, not entirely because it has been untold. For most Americans, Vietnam is a place where we fought a long and bloody war and left before it was over. For the refugees who lost their homes, family members, and homeland, the Vietnam War has been memorialized in the United States mostly by and for the Americans who fought there. What the civilian population suffered gets left out of the story.

So it is fitting the first story in the collection is narrated by a Vietnamese American ghostwriter, still haunted by the trauma twenty-some years later, whose childhood memories include listening to an older brother’s ghost stories in a bomb shelter, with jets called “Phantoms” dropping bombs from above. The story arcs between that bomb shelter in Vietnam and the ghostwriter’s mother’s basement in California, where the ghostwriter lives, works, and continues to hide from the world. The ghostwriter is working on the memoir of another traumatized survivor: a man who was the only survivor of a plane crash that took more than 170 lives, including those of his family. That memoir the ghostwriter writes serves as an important subplot Nguyen braids with the ghostwriter’s story of survival—the ghostwriter who is visited in the basement by the older brother’s ghost.

This story, “Black-Eyed Women,” named for the old crones with betel-stained teeth who told the narrator’s brother the ghost stories he shares in the bomb shelter, was the last of the eight stories to be written. In terms of technique I think it’s the best story and the one I find most compelling. No story in the collection is more ingenious at storytelling;  particular turns in the plot and shifts in tone almost knocked the wind out of me. As skillful as Nguyen is in his plots, the power of his stories resides even more in the characters. The ghostwriter, the ghostwriter’s brother, and the ghostwriter’s brother’s ghost, are incredible conjuring acts. No set of characters in the whole collection intrigues me more, and I haven’t even mentioned their mother, who’s in league with the black-eyed women in her strong belief in ghosts. Nguyen introduces her as a somewhat comic figure, but she emerges as the first of a number of female characters in the collection—mothers, wives, sisters and step-sisters—whose capacities for love, insight, virtue, endurance, and grit far surpass those of the males in their lives. I see this most and best in the third story, “War Years,” my second favorite in the collection, that climaxes in a face-to-face confrontation between the two strongest women in the book. The story is narrated by an eight-year-old boy whose mother and father run a Vietnamese grocery store in San Jose. (To the extent of this story’s autobiographical trappings, I have a suspicion that Nguyen’s mother was a force of nature.) In other stories, wives tend to be stronger, more loving, and far more sympathetic than their husbands, and often forgiving. There is much to forgive: infidelity in three of the stories, a gambling addiction in another. Every story somehow exists because there’s trouble in the family, and Nguyen’s depiction of family life is one of the things I admire most in the work.

The males in the story tend to be flawed, somewhat feckless, and, at worst, frauds. In fact, the only noble male we meet is the narrator’s brother in “Black-Eyed Women” and his sudden death is related with blunt force. 

The first story ingeniously establishes two themes that resound throughout Nguyen’s fiction, non-fiction, and scholarship: the need to remember, and the equally compelling need to forget. Perhaps the most interesting twist on this theme beyond “Black-Eyed Women” occurs in “I’d Love You to Want Me,” about an aging professor in the early stages of memory loss, who begins to confuse his wife with another woman she never knew existed. It’s one of the saddest stories in the book; he is more to be pitied than condemned for his unfaithfulness, which ennobles even more her fidelity as he becomes more incapacitated.

Identity also emerges as recurring motif. We deal with issues of ethnic identity, sexual identity, what it means to be American, and what it means to be Vietnamese American. Though most of the stories focus on Vietnamese Americans, the story “The Americans” does not. The married couple at the center of the story—a retired African-American pilot who flew B-52s over Vietnam and a Japanese woman he met in Japan on R and R—travel to Vietnam to visit their biracial daughter, whose crisis of identity has led her there. It’s a crisis she feels most intensely in her relationship with her father, who has a whole set of issues of his own. That story is worth reading for the way Nguyen brings to a boil both the father’s issues and the daughter’s. In another story, “The Transplant,” the lead character is a Mexican-American man with a gambling addiction. By some bureaucratic error he learns the surname of the donor of his transplanted liver. When he seeks the family to express his gratitude, he becomes an easy mark for a Vietnamese American con man who traffics in smuggled knockoff goods. Nguyen is a gifted satirist: no story in the collection skewers our expectations like this one. Louis Vu is short for Louis Vuitton: my favorite fraud in the collection, though not the only one.

Do not imagine these stories are mere apprentice work. I would predict The Refugees will take its place in the canon of Asian American literature along with Toshio Mori’s Yokohama California, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, and Ha Jin’s The Good Fall. When I consider certain female characters in the collection, I am reminded of my favorite novel on the American immigrant experience, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, though that book, for me the quintessential American epic, is a romance. In contrast, Nguyen is a realist in the mold of the great Europeans; he highlights disillusionment and disappointment in his immigrant stories, and, much more than Cather, works to unmask the American dream. Though at the end of “Black-Eyed Women,” the ghostwriter comes out of the basement. At the end of “The Americans,” there is hope for the father and his daughter. That daughter is involved with an engineering student also in Vietnam, who helped design robots that are drawn by specially trained mongooses to demine the countryside. Perhaps that is a good metaphor for these stories: de-mining operations.

On the dedication page, the book is inscribed “for refugees, everywhere.” According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are at present more than 22.5 million refugees in the world, over half of them under the age of eighteen. It is incumbent upon those of us with leisure to read, with roofs over our heads, with instruction from these stories and the cautionary tales they provide, not to forget them.


John Ruff is professor of English at Valparaiso University.

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