Searching for connections in the Vietnamese diaspora

(photo: BeBe Jacobs)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees, the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, arrives at a time in the modern era when there have never been more refugees. Nguyen himself was a refugee from Vietnam, arriving in the United States as a child. His phenomenal collection asks: Do others see the refugees among us, and how do refugees see themselves? What violent memories and losses do they carry in their hearts and bodies? Never before has Joan Didion’s dictum, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” been so gracefully demonstrated.

The Refugeesby Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press. 224p, $20

His stories explore how individuals form tenuous connections in a community carved up by politics, war and the vastness of geography; communication and its limits is a recurring theme. Yet the characters also confront problems that are not limited to refugees: dementia, for example, in “I’d Love You to Want Me.”

In “The Other Man,” the reader encounters a liminal state that nearly all of the book’s characters inhabit: “When his partner looked toward the window as well, Liem waved in return, and for a moment there were only the three of them, sharing a fleeting connection. Then the men passed by, and long after they had vanished into the shadows he was still standing with his hand pressed to the window, wondering if someone behind blinds and curtains might be watching.”

The desire for connection and the challenge of invisibility is paramount. In the opening story “Black-Eyed Women,” the narrator, a ghostwriter, confronts her mother’s idea that telling the truth is dangerous, a type of exposure that could lead to imprisonment. But the story also includes a miracle, one that the narrator struggles to believe: her brother, killed as the family escaped Vietnam more than two decades ago, comes back in the flesh as a ghost to visit. His very real body is even damp from, her mother claims, swimming to their house in the United States all the way from the ocean where he died a violent death. The narrator looks for plausible explanations for all of the signs her mother brings her until ultimately coming face to face with her beloved brother.

The penultimate story in this collection, “Someone Else Besides You,” concludes in a way that could end each story, “He was waiting, just like us, for what was to come.”

More: Books / Refugees / Asia

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Rainbow flags fly alongside the U.S. flag outside the U.S. Embassy to Italy in Rome June 16. A prayer service was held nearby at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in remembrance of the victims of the Orlando, Fla., terrorist attack (CNS photo/Paul Haring).
Father James Martin's new books talks clearly and openly about an issue that daunts and taunts our church.
Nicholas P. CafardiJune 27, 2017
Photo via Wikipedia Commons
Largely forgotten today, Ignaz von Döllinger was one of the most widely respected Catholic intellectuals of his day.
John W. O'MalleyJune 13, 2017
Johanna Pung made this for Wikimedia Deutschland
Thomas Murphy, S.J. reviews "The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation" by Randall Fuller.
Thomas R. MurphyJune 09, 2017
More than 2,000 people attend Mass at historic St. Albertus Church in Detroit Aug. 10. The Mass was organized as part of a "Mass mob" movement to fill now-closed historic inner-city Detroit churches for occasional Masses. St. Albertus is no longer an active parish but the church remains open as a center for Polish heritage. (CNS photo/Jonathan Francis, Archdiocese of Detroit)
T. Howland Sanks, S.J. reviews "Great Catholic Parishes," "Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century," "Parish Leadership," and "Seminary Formation."
T. Howland SanksJune 02, 2017