REFUGEES IN AMERICA by Joyce Carol Oates

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen tells stories about people poised between their devastated homeland and their affluent adopted country

     Consider the distinctions between the words “expat,” “immigrant,” “refugee.” “Expat” suggests a cosmopolitan spirit and resources that allow mobility; to be an “immigrant” suggests some measure of need. A “refugee” is, by definition, desperate: he has been displaced from his home, has been rendered stateless, has few or no resources. The expat retains an identity as he retains his citizenship, his privileges; the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him. In the way that enslaved persons are truncated by the term “slaves,” defined by their condition, there’s a loss of identity in the category term “refugees.” It might seem to be more humane, and accurate, to give someone who is forced to seek refuge a more expansive designation: “displaced person.”

     Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term “refugee” precisely for the punitive violence it betrays. Born in 1971, he is, by self-description, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and he has been a refugee himself; he has married a refugee, a fellow-writer named Lan Duong. In the acknowledgments of The Refugees (Grove), his beautiful and heartrending new story collection, he speaks of his son, Ellison: “By the time this book is published, he will be nearly the age I was when I became a refugee.” 

     It is hardly surprising that the refugee is obsessed with identity, both personal and ethnic. He is likely to be highly sensitive to others’ interpretations of him and of his “minority” culture. And so his peripheral status confers certain advantages, for he is in a position to see what others do not. As Nguyen has recounted, in an afterword to his début novel, The Sympathizer (2015), “I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched ‘Platoon’ and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes . . . left me shaking with rage.”

     Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels. The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of the minor talents, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.

     The speaker is indeed a spy: he was, in the Republic of Vietnam, a Communist mole on the staff of a South Vietnamese general, before being evacuated from Saigon and taking refuge in America after the Vietnam War. 

     His confession is fraught with irony and his history is tragicomic; unlike the refugees of The Refugees, he regards himself with the distance of self-loathing, for he has participated in assassinations while following orders. Obsessed with “universal and timeless” questions, he is the epitome of twentieth-century man: “What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”

     The stories in The Refugees, too, feature protagonists who are poised between the past of a devastated homeland, Vietnam, and an affluent, adopted country, the United States. The book takes one of its epigraphs from James Fenton’s A German Requiem:

It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all your life.

     To survive, for the refugee, is to be buffeted between the grief-suffused admonition to remember the losses of the homeland and the self-protective counter-admonition to “forget,” the effort of which will be enormous and lifelong.

     Ordinary existence, to the death-haunted, is populated by ghosts. These are not ideas of ghosts, or poetic metaphors. These are ghosts who leave behind damp carpets and the brine-soaked clothing in which, twenty-five years before, they drowned while escaping a war-torn homeland. They are family ghosts: a fifteen-year-old boy, for instance, who had traded his life to save a sister threatened with kidnapping and rape by pirates. “These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns,” we read in the almost unbearably moving opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.” 

     Compulsive and unflinching introspection—another symptom of “refugee” consciousness—may lead survivors to realize harsh truths about themselves, as with an eighteen-year-old refugee who, in “The Other Man,” has been taken into an affluent San Francisco household:

He tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.

     Truths about others are no more comforting. At any time, the refugee is likely to be confronted—confounded—by the myopia of non-Vietnamese. In “The Transplant,” Arthur, the beneficiary of a liver from a Vietnamese donor, has “trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another,” and is “also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same.” In “Fatherland,” a Vietnamese girl working in an upscale Saigon restaurant overhears tourists speaking of “delicate and tiny” Vietnamese women, whose “dresses look stitched onto them.” A Vietnamese tourist guide entertains his credulous American customers for whom “act was fact”—“we’re all the same to them . . . small, charming, and forgettable.” As the sharp-eyed narrator of The Sympathizer tells us, the “all-American characteristic” is not sympathy or generosity but racial paranoia: “In America, it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.”

     Which you were, of course, could be a matter of context. In “Fatherland,” a young Vietnamese-American woman, Vivien, goes to Saigon to visit the children of her father and his second wife, her half siblings. (Vivien’s mother had fled to America with her kids after the war.) Her visit is a grand occasion for the family. She gives them expensive gifts and treats them generously, taking them to the sort of restaurants that native residents can’t afford. In particular, Vivien’s half sister, seven years younger than she, is in awe of Vivien’s glamour, and has fantasized about coming to the United States to live with her, and to emulate what she believes to be Vivien’s success as a doctor in Chicago. Disillusion comes when she discovers that Vivien isn’t a doctor but, rather, an unemployed receptionist with prospects as limited as her own. After the American half sister leaves, the Vietnamese half sister burns photographs of the two together: “Vivien’s features melting before her own, their faces vanishing in flame.” It is the final image in The Refugees, ashes blown into the sky above Saigon.

     Although only now published together in book form, the earnest, straightforward, relatively conventional stories of The Refugees would appear to have been written before the more stylized and experimental The Sympathizer. But all Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes. By the end of The Sympathizer, we have doubled back to its thematic beginning, as the narrator, now a survivor of torture in a Communist reëducation camp, becomes a refugee again amid anonymous “boat people”—a name, the narrator notes, that “smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family.” Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable. And yet, The Sympathizer ends with a proclamation that would work as well for the displaced Vietnamese of The Refugees: “We will live! ” ♦

Joyce Carol Oates, a visiting professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of, most recently, “A Book of American Martyrs.” More

This article appears in other versions of the February 13 & 20, 2017, issue, with the headline “Not All There. 

John Oliver is Running Cable Network Ads to School Trump on Basic Facts Presidents Should Know | Quartz.com

The Bowling Green massacre. The inauguration turnout. The voter fraud that cost him the popular vote. Donald Trump lives in an alternative universe with alternative facts, but John Oliver isn’t having any of it. After a three-month hiatus, his show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver returned to HBO Sunday (Feb. 12) with biting commentary…

via John Oliver is running ads on cable networks to school Trump on basic facts presidents should know — Quartz

Why protesters are sending books to the White House – CNNPolitics.com

Getting a book as a Valentine’s Day gift would usually be sweet, but it’s probably not if you’re the Commander in Chief and the book was sent to poke fun at your reading habits.
A group of activists have decided to share their love of reading — perhaps folded in with a hefty helping of criticism — by inundating the White House with books for Valentine’s Day.

The Facebook event Bury the White House in Books on Valentine’s Day (natch) was started by a pair of writers and educators who are also behind the group “Readers are Leaders.”

The idea sounds simple: Select a book you think the President should read, write an inscription, and send it off to the White House. 

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/07/politics/trump-books-white-house-valentines-day-trnd/ 

#46 just officially signed his cruel, anti-refugee executive order — Fusion

On Holocaust Remembrance Day—a somber day some used to remember those killed in Nazi concentration camps after being turned away from entering the U.S.—President Donald Trump signed executive orders implementing “extreme vetting” of refugees in an effort to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out. “We don’t want ’em here.

via Donald Trump just officially signed his cruel, anti-refugee executive order — Fusion

Berlin’s mayor has a powerful message for Donald Trump about his border wall with Mexico — Fusion

Protesters of the environmental organization ‘Greenpeace’ display placards showing a part of a slogan at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin, Germany, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Full slogan reads ‘Mr. President, walls divide, build bridges!’. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated later the day. Michael Sohn/APThe mayor of Berlin, a city intimately aware of…

via Berlin’s mayor has a powerful message for Donald Trump about his border wall with Mexico — Fusion

via Republicans Have a Warning for President Trump: Don’t Play Nice With Russia — TIME

(WASHINGTON) — A day ahead of President Donald Trump’s weekend call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the fight within the Republican Party over the direction of U.S. policy toward Moscow intensified. Trump, who has said he wants a better relationship with Russia, was noncommittal on Friday about whether he was considering lifting U.S. sanctions against…

via Republicans Have a Warning for President Trump: Don’t Play Nice With Russia — TIME

January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day

The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

Join the conversation and share your reflections about International Holocaust Remembrance Day on social media using #HolocaustRemembrance.

AT THE MUSEUM

WASHINGTON, DC

On January 27 at 11 a.m. EST, the Museum will host a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This program will feature remarks from the Honorable Björn Lyrvall, ambassador of Sweden to the United States, and a Holocaust survivor, musical selections with the US Army Band, as well as a candle-lighting ceremony and victims’ names reading.

 Join live at ushmm.org/watch.

AROUND THE WORLD

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK CITY

Through March 5, the United Nations is hosting State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. This powerful exhibition examines how the Nazis used propaganda to win broad voter support, implement radical programs, and justify war and mass murder. It emphasizes why the issue of propaganda matters and challenges citizens to actively question, analyze, and seek the truth. 

Additionally, UN Information Centers in more than 40 countries will host condensed exhibitions in nine languages featuring State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.

WORLD WAR II MUSEUM, NEW ORLEANS

The National World War II Museum is hosting State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. It opens with a special event on January 26 held in conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day that features reflections from a Holocaust survivor and a Museum educator. Visit the exhibition through June 18.

CITY HALL, PARIS

Paris’s Hȏtel de Ville, or city hall, will host State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda (L’État Trompeur: Le Pouvoir de la Propagande Nazi). Visit the exhibition in the Paris Rendez-Vous space from January 26 through February 27.

MISERICORDIA UNIVERSITY, DALLAS, PENNSYLVANIA

Misericordia University is hosting Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, an exhibition that explores the history of the early 20th century international eugenics movement and the complicity of physicians and scientists in Nazi racial policies. It is partnering with the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust to present two special events on January 26 and 27 in conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, featuring Museum historian Patricia Heberer Rice. The exhibition will be on display through March 14, 2017.

CONFRONTING PROPAGANDA

Learning about the Nazi use of propaganda advances our understanding of how and why the Holocaust happened and helps us identify relevant lessons today. In this brief clip, Holocaust survivor Bob Behr recounts his personal experience growing up in Berlin where he faced the power and pain of Nazi propaganda.

The aims of life are the best defense against death.     Primo Levi

On January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp. Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi was among those freed. The author of several books, novels, short story collections, and poems, Levi is best-known for If This Is a Man (aka Survival in Auschwitz), his account of the year he spent in the death camp, and his memoir told through the metaphor of chemistry, The Periodic Table. 

     

U.S. border agents turned away Canadians hoping to come to the Women’s March and because of this really questionable incident, they all will be required to obtain a visa to visit the US in the future

https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/worldviews/wp/2017/01/21/u-s-border-agents-turned-away-canadians-hoping-to-come-to-the-womens-march/

At least this time we don’t have to pretend the president is good – The Washington Post

He is a deeply flawed man, but he doesn’t try very hard to pretend otherwise. Even his most enthusiastic supporters, or many of the ones I’ve talked to, are happy to acknowledge Trump’s failings. They may argue about which traits are failings and which are mere foibles hyped by his critics, but they did not vote for him because they thought him scrupulously honest or because they believed his character to be unimpeachable. Indeed, there must be very few people on either side who believe Trump to be a thoroughly good man. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2017/01/19/at-least-this-time-we-dont-have-to-pretend-the-presidents-good/?tid=hybrid_collaborative_3_na&utm_term=.49d567935c4e

I wonder if we might benefit from having a more realistic understanding of the new president’s character at the outset of his administration. Instead of viewing our head of state with the usual rosy hopefulness we know in our hearts to be destined for disappointment, perhaps now’s the time to cultivate a sort of transactional attitude toward the man: If he does well, we’ll think about keeping him. If he does poorly, we suspected it all along and we’ll get rid of him. That strikes me as a healthier and more small-r republican way to view any president — indeed any politician. He’s only our president, after all, not our savior. 

Health care battle cheat sheet: Democrats vs. GOP


An excellent short-read that breaks down the most important points of diversion between existing Affordable Care Act and a Republican replacement plan. 

http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/12/news/economy/obamacare-republicans-health-care/index.html?iid=ob_lockedrail_bottommedium