4 Apr 2017

The Refugees

Given it's rather unassuming, albeit stylish, book cover, there is a lot more to this work of fiction than meets the eye. The second piece from Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees is a collective of eight short stories spoken by those within their homeland or from an adopted one, whom all have been affected in some way by Vietnamese conflict and thus immigration. There couldn't be a more topical time for this book to be on the radar, given the Syrian refugee crisis that infiltrates the news globally each day, on some level, being at the forefront of public debate.  From a young Vietnamese boy moving to LA into the household of a same-sex couple in 'The Other Man', to the startling story of a wife's struggle to come to terms with her husband's dementia in 'I'd Love You To Want Me', each story evokes different thoughts to it's predecessor on this controversial topic within disjointed realms (some set in Vietnam, some in America); all being poignant in it's own way, but intertwining nonetheless.


As you read through the stories, they seem to become more and more subtle in their reference to the dark times and trauma that is rooted in the subject matter, with the references becoming increasingly subtle, but it is always there if you look for it. The most resonating story is undoubtedly 'Black-Eyed Woman; portraying the life, if you can call it that, of a ghost-writer who is still very much haunted by the death of her brother, who was killed years before when their passenger boat was overrun by pirates. It is difficult to know who to feel more sympathetic towards as they begin to see his ghost in their house, drenched in water from having swam the distance to them, given that the narrator is a ghost herself in all senses of the word.

Something I noticed throughout the stories was the absence of gender in the voice of each narrator, particularly when the story was told from the eyes of a child. Frequently, I got at least halfway through a story thinking the narrator was one gender, to then be hit by a pronoun that I wasn't expecting. Perhaps this is purposefully echoing the loss of identity that comes with being a "refugee"; a genderless word in itself when spoken through the media with a collective noun that inevitably eradicates any identity once claimed. Thus, attempting to reclaim that identity was similarly as apparent. Identity in 'Fatherland' was played upon by the author particularly overtly, based on a father naming both 'sets' of his children with identical names, one set living in Vietnam and one in America, from a past life. Each of his 'current' children having a slightly older namesake in America is a bizarre parallel to get your head around. When the two come together, the reader is forced to establish the value of being successful in life; is it all down to what job you get, where you're from and how much money you have... or is there more to it?

Nguyen ultimately demonstrates through prose how the effects of the crisis has manifested itself is so many forms, resonating as a sense of collateral damage in lives lead now that has exceeded the boundaries of conflict and found itself coming to the surface in the behaviour of those it effected. It is this behaviour that exemplifies how trauma still flows through the veins of these characters, very much present in their day-to-day life despite being in a new, supposedly better, environment. Like that old saying, you can take someone out of somewhere but it doesn't stop them being who they are and what they've experienced. There is an unsettling sense of longevity in this complex, emotional trauma that the characters are dealing with, made prominent in the fact that the characters range from young children to the old. 

The form of a short-story collective enables the author to thread these together, showing a spectrum of reaction in behaviour from multiple points of view, from scattered scenarios bought to life in polarised environments. It is not a loud, overt or gratuitous spectacle of the crisis, but instead makes you think, read into the actions of the characters and start to empathize, rather than sympathize. It's one of those books you'll think about, want to research and ponder on for days after. It's worth reading the stories as close together as you can (and not dip in and out like I usually tend to) as they're more powerful as a collective. 


"I wrote this book for ghosts, who, because they're outside of time, are the only ones with time" Prologue

You can buy The Refugees here.

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