The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“The dead move on,” he had said, coiled in his armchair, hands between his thighs. “But the living, we just stay here.”

My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.

The immigrant experience is one of displacement, one foot in their homeland the other in the country they have fled to. There is more than cultural struggles and differences, it is as if when you are uprooted, you take the soil that fed you wherever you go. It can be said of every immigrant experience, you can never fully erase your origins, and though you can grow where you have been planted, you will always carry the past with you. It’s a strange existance, being between two worlds and regardless of the years between, it remains like a second skin… the memories, the history of your family, the news of your old country. Culture is a fascinating character, for all of us, and some families won’t let you forget what used to be, what is so different from your adopted land compared to the place you came from.

The first story got me the most. A ghostwriter who is similar yet different from her mother, both have an affinity for words- one, written and the other, spoken. The ghost that visits is one that won’t harm and yet, the reader aches with the tenderness and brutality of loss. “Never turn your back on a ghost.” It is much like never forget, never turn your back on your history. Those left behind hurt so much more, and just who dies? The ghosts we carry live on in our memories of what happened, in our regrets and our longings. The horrible thing that changed her life, that took her brother’s is a different truth for one immigrant family and yet it isn’t her tale alone. How many such experiences? How unjust and violent, how many? Such things happen, but it doesn’t lessen the pain, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept and live with.

Each story in the collection is different from the next, and much to absorb and ponder. The wife who is tormented by her husband’s dementia and his confusion about an old lover of his, the son in another story is 13 and just beginning to understand that parents aren’t right all the time, don’t know everything. Though the stories his mother tells about starvation, war is hard to digest for someone who only knows of it second-hand. When Mrs. Hoa wants support, fighting the communists, money isn’t free flowing but the threat of being seen as communist rattles his mother who won’t throw away what little money they have on a ‘lost cause.’ The humiliation his parents undergo that he witnesses with a break in is poignant because as he says ‘this was neither the first nor last time someone would humiliate them like this.’ I am reminded of the stories my father has shared with me over the years from his youth of his own humiliations when he was a young boy just learning English, and those of his parents, some I witnessed in how my grandparents were treated as ‘stupid’ for their accents even after decades as American citizens. It changes you, and yet there are those who helped too, let that be said. How do our own people push us, how are we influenced, almost bullied into giving or not?

In The Other Man, the misunderstandings that happen when  Vietnamese Liem comes to live with a gay couple in San Francisco tickled me to the core. I can relate with the language and cultural barriers because when I lived in Okinawa I was the outsider that was clueless. Sure, sometimes they laugh at you, but sometimes with you. Some experiences are eye opening, and as he goes forward in his ‘Americanization’ it is strange to think how vastly different life is from one country to another.  It is less heavy than the other’s in the collection but a welcome diversion from the emotional tales.

Someone Else Besides You was another I enjoyed, which is strange since Thomas has a father that seems distant and dishonest until you read further along. He doesn’t really know the full story about his father nor his time in the war, his father seems severe and strong and still carries a dangerous air yet somehow he wants to push Thomas back into Sam’s arms but his actions are questionable and criminal. I smiled a strange smile reading about the father and son.

It’s no mystery after having read The Refugees why Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize Winning author. I go further and think about the conversation between Sam and Mr. P after Sam talks about having gone to visit Vietnam. “I will never go back.” He rapped his bottle of beer on the coffee table. “You do not know the Communists. I know the Communists.”

“They’re not so bad. They just want to move on with their lives.”

My father shook his head emphatically, “You are a foreigner. You know nothing. They take your money and say nice things to you.”

Those who haven’t lived through it, whatever it may be, whatever war… the foreigners can never truly understand how hollow a thing it is to tell someone to go back, to get closure, etc. It’s a different country for those who have left, even after it seems ‘safe’ to go back, not so for those that fled. Some of us will only ever be tourists… as close as we can get is through stories, much as children of refugees have. The past is full of ghosts for them, both living and dead, including ghost selves which are not so easily put to rest. Moving collection from a gifted prized writer.

Available February 7, 2017

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

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