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The Refugees


The Refugees

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection, THE REFUGEES, could not be more timely --- or timeless. The deft hand that brought us the searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel THE SYMPATHIZER returns with eight tales of disparate refugees. As in his previous work, Nguyen handles the subject matter with empathy and sociopolitical awareness. He pairs brutally authentic realism with lyric narratives to ultimately resonate with haunting truth.

This is not a war novel, and unlike THE SYMPATHIZER, these are not, at least explicitly, war stories. Instead, each story is an intimate portrait of the fallout of war, spanning different stages of aftermath in Vietnam or America.

"Few other works have endeavored to center on refugees with the focused lens of short story, and Nguyen’s rendition is haunting, beautiful and urgent."

The act of becoming and living as a refugee is a deeply complex, fraught one, now as much as ever --- and Nguyen does dedicate the book to “all refugees, everywhere.” The identity of refugee speaks to the liminality of place and belonging: someone who has been forced out of what was once home, narrative, community and expectation, who now must create themselves in a rawly new environment, one that almost inevitably rejects them in some capacity.

The memories of what was once home and the consciousness of what is now occurring within that home to create the demographic of its refugees linger with the refugee while they are forced to learn the scripts of their new culture. They no longer belong to their country of origin, and yet they cannot escape its stigma or the memories of its influence. They may be met with pity or fear, or worse. They also may find themselves welcomed, but may then discover that, though they can wear their place of refuge like a shield against the terrors from which they fled, it suits them ill-fittingly, and the niche they try to carve out for themselves jabs them in ways they couldn’t have expected. These are the experiences that Nguyen evokes, intimately, in excellent renditions of the short story form.

A young woman’s brother had committed an act of ultimate sacrifice as they embarked on the treacherous sea journey towards safety. Decades later, she does not know what to say to his ghost. A young man flees Vietnam and experiences culture shock with his liberal San Francisco sponsor and the man’s boyfriend --- not because the situation is uncomfortable, but because he begins to learn new truths about himself that he does not yet know what to make of. A wife slowly discovers the painful reality about her husband’s distant past as his memories blur and he begins to call her by the wrong name. His mind is too far gone to recognize his own cruelty.

These stories are unified by their gentle poignancy and their investigations into shifting identity: expectations, adaptations and holding onto what has not yet been taken. Few other works have endeavored to center on refugees with the focused lens of short story, and Nguyen’s rendition is haunting, beautiful and urgent.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on February 24, 2017

The Refugees
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Publication Date: January 2, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802127363
  • ISBN-13: 9780802127365