The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Refugees includes eight short stories and two essays by Viet Thanh Nguyen detailing, in memorable and heartrending way, stories of immigration from Vietnam to America following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
In Nguyen's fashion, which one may have become acquainted with had he or she read The Sympathizer, nothing is off bounds, from ghosts to stalking, from impersonation to infidelity. But each, surprisingly and uniquely, touches on another element of what it is to make a new home in the Land of the Free, or what it is to suffer, or what it is to no longer know the soil of your roots. I enjoyed Nguyen as a novelist, but I could not get enough of him as a short story writer.
Stand-out stories included 'Black-Eyed Woman', about a ghost writer confronted with the ghosts of her own past, including the death of her brother and the end of her body decades before - events which took place on the fishing boat that ferried her family away from Vietnam. Or, 'War Years', about a hard-working mother and co-owner of a grocery store, who surprises her son for the first time ever when, after stalking a woman who had threatened her in her workplace when she refused to give money to support South Vietnamese soldiers, went to confront the woman only to give charity instead. 'Fatherland' also stood out - the story of one man and his two wives. The first, who moved to America with three kids, and the second, with whom he lived in Vietnam, with three kids given the exact same names, if only to call his first set of children back to meet their namesakes.
Just as enchanting were Nguyen's own reflections in his essays at the end of the book. I loved the short but hard-hitting argument he made about what it means to be a refugee, an American and a human, and how different his experience was as Vietnamese, than as it were for refugees immigrating from other countries, whose experiences of prejudice have been quite different. Despite his family being models of 'good refugees' - Harvard-goers and Pulitzer Prize-winners - they are also 'bad refugees', who see their fortune "a stroke of bureaucratic luck and the racial politics of the United States, where Asians are considered model minorities."
In all his success, Nguyen remains quite humble, aware and sympathetic to all those who have not had the same experience immigrating to the U.S. or elsewhere following the destruction of a homeland. His stories are written with the same humility, though each possesses a stark lesson from a man well deserving of his success.