Sunday, February 5, 2017

"For All Refugees, Everywhere"

Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2015 novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. His new book is Refugees, short stories that explore the refugee experience and are informed by his own family history.

After the Communist take over of Viet Nam in 1975 Nguyen's family was part of the 3 million who fled the country; 800,000 refugees left by boat. They endured days at sea, pirate attacks, and suffered from lack of water and food. Under Communism, those who remained faced persecution and imprisonment in reeducation camps. Nguyen's family was settled in a Pennsylvania refugee camp. They eventually moving to Harrisburg, PA then relocated to San Jose, CA, where they started a Vietnamese grocery.

These stories are deeply moving. People are haunted by the past, uncomfortable in new cultures. Their very appearance makes them stand out as different.

The narrator in Black-Eyed Woman comes from a family haunted by ghosts. She finds it ironic that she has made a career as a ghost-writer. She is visited by her brother's ghost who has come because she has tried to forget the past, but she can't forget the horror of war and what happened on the blue boat that altered their lives forever. In a few pages and flashes of memories we understand the refugee experience and the cost of survival.

The Other Man is about Liem who in 1975 arrives in San Francisco to meet his sponsors, a gay couple. He dreads telling his story one more time, and has created a 'short' version. The letters between Liem and his parents project happy, idealized versions of their lives. Liem considers how he will send postcards, photos of Chinatown New Years, and talk about his friends. His parents write that the family has been re-educated and, forgiven, have donated their homes to the revolution. Neither are able to be truthful.

The teenage girl in War Years pushes her traditional parents to sell American foods in their grocery where they sell Jasmine rice and star anise, fish sauce and red chilies, rock sugar, tripe and chicken hearts. Her mother has resisted Mrs Hoa's pressure to contribute to a fund for the guerrilla army made of former South Vietnamese soldiers who are planning a revolution to resurrect the Republic of the South--Until she sees what Mrs. Hoa's life is like and understands what she has sacrificed.

Arthur's garage is filled with knock-off high-end merchandise. In The Transplant, Arthur is duped by a grifter pretending to be his liver donor.

I'd Love You to Want Me concerns aging Professor Khanh whose memory is slipping  to an alternative reality where he married his true love instead of going through the arranged marriage to the dutiful wife who now cares for him.

The Americans considers identity and the search for home from another angle. African American James Carver served in Viet Nam. His Japanese wife insists they visit his daughter Claire who lives in Vietnam. James only knowledge of the country was from forty thousand feet as he flew over on bombing missions. He can't understand why his daughter has chosen to live in a backwater village to teach. Claire can't make him understand how she never felt accepted in the States, did not fit into any pigeon-hold of race, and how she needed to make restitution for the damage he had wrecked on the country during the war.

A divorced son moves in with his elderly father in Someone Else Besides You. The son had watched his father's infidelities to his arranged marriage wife. Concerned he will turn out like his dad, he has resisted his wife's desire to have a child. The father interferes, trying to get the kids back together; They learn the wife is not only pregnant, but she had visited their homeland of Vietnam.

Mr. Ly has two families in Fatherland-- the first wife who took their children and immigrated to the United States, and the replacement wife and children all named for his first children. When his eldest daughter comes to visit from the US, the younger daughter with the same name hopes her sister will sponsor her to come to America. The father had been a capitalist, and at war's end was sent to a labor camp where confessions were extracted as part of his re-education. The truth of their history and life is revealed, impacting the family dynamics.

As a genealogist I am always aware of how I got to 'here.' I think of my grandparents and great-grandparents and eighth great-grandparents. They moved across Europe, leaving their war-torn homeland and fleeing war and religious persecution. Drawn to the promise of America, they crossed the ocean, searched for new communities that would accept them, and made my life possible. We are all descended from refugees.

I am glad to have read these stories, especially in light of  the world refugee crisis today and the current administration's push against acceptance of refugees.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Refugees
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Atlantic Press
February 2017
$25 hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2639-9