Celebrated for the breakthrough success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen returns with his anthology The Refugees. Considering our country's current political climate regarding immigrants, this collection couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. Nguyen's stories revolve almost exclusively around 1st- and 2nd-generation Vietnamese families who find that even though they escaped the reaches of Communism in their own country, they face the challenges of defining who they now are and where they belong in a country that hesitates to bid them welcome. The ensuing trials of identity and romantic pursuits threaten to drive children from their parents and separate siblings from one another.
Most of the stories in The Refugees revolve around unstable families rife with jealousy and contempt. The fathers are ruthless with their children and get away with being unfaithful in their marriages, as when Thomas warns his father's girlfriend that he will cheat on her as he did his mother and finds that the girlfriend prefers to focus on the benefits of the relationship. The children rebel to explore a life their parents failed--or refused--to provide, like Claire leaving America to teach in Vietnam against her father's wishes. Yet these families continue to function out of necessity since many of them are not wealthy, whether that lack of wealth is emotional need or simply money. A passage in "Someone Else Besides You," illustrates this most clearly when the narrator recalls when he asked his father for an allowance:
"The next night he handed me an itemized list of expenses that included my birth, feeding, education, and clothing, the sum total being $24,376. "This doesn't include emotional aggravation, compound interest, or future expenses," my father said. "Now when can you start paying me an allowance?"
Beneath this turmoil burns a deeper fear. Even though these immigrants are far from the Communism they left behind in Vietnam, memories of their harsh living conditions still haunt them, as they haunt Liem in "The Other Man." He reflects on his nights in Saigon, sleeping in a "crowded room of single men and boys, restless on reed mats as they tried to sleep while breathing air humidified with the odor of bodies worked hard." One boy's mother in "War Years" hears the news reports on TV about an Ethiopian famine and shares with her son that a dozen children once starved to death in her village.
While these accounts come off as nonchalant, the deeper effects these horrors have on the characters appears in the form of a mild but constant state of paranoia. Any form of public recognition sparks a fear response from the characters. That recognition could be as significant as widespread fame, as in "Black-Eyed Women" where the ghost writer's mother warns him against making a name for himself by telling him of a reporter who was imprisoned and tortured for reporting against the Communist government. Or the recognition could be as simple as attracting stares, as in "The Other Man" when Parrish hugs Liem unexpectedly in an airport.
Yet despite the fears these characters have, we get rare glimpses into the more serene moments of their past, sweet memories like eating durian-flavored ice cream on a veranda overlooking a tea plantation or feeding bamboo shoots to the deer in the Saigon zoo. These deceivingly insignificant moments do much more than give us an idea of the characters' pasts; they contrast the fearful recollections of the Communist regime and show us just how deeply they love their homeland, that escaping their country doesn't mean they no longer care about it.
Those tender moments are isolated among the confusion these characters feel in much the same way they themselves are isolated in a new country, trying to define themselves. In one story, Claire, the daughter of a 1st-generation mother and an American father, actually returns to Vietnam to help the people there, and when confronted by her father, who had a different future for her in mind, she simply tells him: "There was always a place for you somewhere. But there's never been a place for me."
The stories in this collection rarely end on a final note. The troubles each character faces seldom resolve. Yet the stories don't come across as cut too short; instead, these unresolved endings highlight the wandering, unfinished struggles the characters must go through. There's no arrival; these characters are still searching.
Conscious of the plight of immigrant families and the fears they have of losing a past that once gave their life meaning, Nguyen has composed an anthology that raises far more questions than it answers, but in a time when people are asking and thinking very little, this collection proves to be a necessary response to an overwhelming immigrant situation.