THE REFUGEES, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Grove Press, 207 pp., $25.
The mainstreaming of xenophobia that occurred during the last election cycle is a shocking reversal for a country once proud to be known as a melting pot. It was in this context that Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen published an op-ed piece in The New York Times last December about the importance of storytelling in shaping our national identity. “Through identifying with characters and people who are nothing like us, through destroying the walls between ourselves and others, the people who love words . . . break down the boundaries that separate us,” he wrote.
That is the mission he joined with the 2015 publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” the brilliantly constructed confession of a Vietnamese spy in the years after the war, and continued with last year’s “Nothing Ever Dies,” a work of cultural criticism that examines the way the Vietnam War is both remembered and forgotten in everything from novels and movies to monuments and souvenirs. His new book, “The Refugees,” comes at the project with yet another literary tactic — eight stories, each exploring the refugee experience from a different angle.
Born in Vietnam in 1971, Nguyen came to the United States in ’75, among hundreds of thousands who fled after the fall of Saigon. He grew up in Southern California and now lives in Los Angeles. As he poignantly notes in the acknowledgments, his son is almost the age that he was when he became a refugee.
The opening story, “Black-Eyed Women,” is told by a ghostwriter who specializes in survivors of tragedy. Her latest client is the only person who walked away from a plane crash that killed 173 people, including his wife and children. Her own past uniquely qualifies her for this project, as we learn when she receives a visit from her brother, a ghost. He was murdered when he tried to protect her from rape during their family’s escape from Vietnam by boat. Twenty-five years later, he still seems to be 15, he is still soaking wet and he still smells like the boat the family escaped on, “rancid with human sweat and excreta.”
Though the narrator had not believed in ghosts previously, she is quick to come around. After all, she has lived all these years with what she thinks of as a “parrot crouched on my shoulder, roosting there ever since we let my brother go into the sea, and it came to me that letting it speak was the only way to get rid of it.”
“Tell me something,” it says to her brother. “Why did I live and you die?”
“You died too,” he explains. “You just don’t know it.”
With this answer, the ghostwriter’s terrible grief is finally unleashed. The next time she is offered a tragedy memoir, she declines. She is writing her own.
This is the most brutal story; others have a softer kind of melancholy, with ironic moments created by the absurdities of life — such as what happens when a man looking to thank the family of the donor of his new liver finds there are hundreds of people with the surname Vu in the Orange County phone book (“The Transplant”). Or what a wife can do when her increasingly senile husband permanently mistakes her for an old girlfriend (“I’d Love You to Want Me”). Or when an 18-year-old Vietnamese boy is resettled after the war with a pair of gay men who live in a purple Victorian in San Francisco (“The Other Man).”
The last story, “Fatherland,” is set in present-day Vietnam. “It was a most peculiar thing to do, or so everyone said on hearing the story of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first.” Now the first Phuong, who grew up in the United States, changed her name to Vivien, and became a pediatrician, suddenly announces her intention to come to Saigon for a visit. The Vietnamese Phuong, who works as a restaurant hostess, is thrilled to meet her cosmopolitan half-sister with her fancy luggage and credit cards, her elaborate plans for touring the sights, and the question nobody’s ever been brave enough to ask — why give them our names? — which gets an answer nobody expects.
By the end of the visit, the girls feel they are close enough to reveal secrets. But their revelations only show how far apart they really are.
As our first major Vietnamese-American writer, Nguyen is a prodigious genius making up for lost time. Good thing we let him in.