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. 

Book Review: EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid 

A Refugee Crisis in a World of Open Doors – NYTimes.com

EXIT WEST
By Mohsin Hamid
231 pp. Riverhead Books. $26.

You own a house or rent an apartment. You live with your family or by yourself. You wake in the morning and drink your coffee or tea. You drive a car or a motorbike, or perhaps you take the bus. You go to work and turn on your computer. You go out at night and flirt and date. You live in a small town or big city, although maybe you are in the countryside. You have hopes, dreams and expectations. You take your humanity for granted. You keep believing you are human even when the catastrophe arrives and renders you homeless. Your town or city or countryside is in ruins. You try to make it to the border. Only then, hoping to leave, or making it across the border, do you understand that those who live on the other side do not see you as human at all.

This is the dread experience of becoming a refugee, of joining the 65 million unwanted and stateless people in the world today. It is also the experience that Mohsin Hamid elicits quietly and affectingly in his new novel, “Exit West,” which begins “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” The city and the country are unnamed, unlike the two characters at the story’s center: Saeed and Nadia, a young man and woman whose courtship begins in this moment of impending crisis. They are cosmopolitan city dwellers who meet in “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding,” and whose first date is at a Chinese restaurant.

Hamid’s enticing strategy is to foreground the humanity of these young people, whose urbanity, romantic inclinations, upwardly mobile aspirations and connectedness through social media and smartphones mark them as “normal” relative to the novel’s likely readers. At the same time, he insists on their “difference” from readers who may be Western. Their city is besieged by militants who commit terrible atrocities, evoking scenes from Mosul or Aleppo. As for Nadia, she was “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.” But while this robe seems to be a form of conservative Islamic dress, one of the starkest signs of difference between Nadia and non-Islamic readers, she is more daring than Saeed. She is the one who offers him marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, and she is the one who initiates sex. The robe, it turns out, is camouflage to allow Nadia to be an independent woman.

The backdrop for “Exit West” is both the plight of refugees from places like Syria and the specter of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Hamid takes full advantage of our familiarity with these scenes to turn “Exit West” into an urgent account of war, love and refugees. Politics also matters as it does in his other novels, which likewise dealt with pressing issues: the troubles of contemporary Pakistan (“Moth Smoke”); 9/11 and the tensions between being Pakistani and American (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”); and naked capitalism and ambition in an unnamed country (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”). Throughout his oeuvre, Hamid envisions an interconnected world in which East and West inevitably meet as a consequence of complicated histories of colonization and globalization. The dramas and love stories of individuals like Saeed and Nadia cannot be separated from these histories, even if, in their own lives, those histories are not necessarily preoccupations. Until, that is, those histories erupt.

When they do, people die. They do so often, unexpectedly and in violent circumstances. Hamid offers a few incidents like this, and in their spare detail they are enough, as when Nadia’s cousin is “blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm.” Refusing to dwell on the morbidity of such a scene, Hamid declines to turn the destruction of the city and its people into a spectacle, the way they would normally be visible to those outside the country, watching its doom from a digital distance. Examining the destruction at a slight remove, Hamid discourages readers from pitying the city’s residents. Instead, focusing on Saeed and Nadia, and removing the particularities of the city, the country and its customs, Hamid aims to increase the depth of a reader’s empathy for characters who can be, or should be, just like the reader. The reader, of course, must think about what would happen if her own normal life was suddenly, unexpectedly upended by war.

Most likely, the reader, like Saeed and Nadia, would flee. They do so through the sudden, unexplained doors that appear throughout the city and that are portals to other places. While the city is unnamed, these sites of refuge are named — Greece, London, the United States. In their concreteness, versus the deliberate vagueness of Saeed and Nadia’s city, they call for identification from readers of the novel who live in these kinds of desirable places that the refugees want to go. The novel implicitly asks these readers why doors should be closed to refugees, when those readers might become refugees one day? How these doors work is not Hamid’s concern. The doors can be manifestations of magic realism, fantasy or science fiction, or all three, but they simply stand in for the reality that refugees will try every door they can to get out.

What happens once Saeed and Nadia arrive at these promised lands makes up the second half of the novel, in which it seems that “the whole planet was on the move, much of the global South headed to the global North, but also Southerners moving to other Southern places and Northerners moving to other Northern places.” Here Hamid’s novel reveals itself to be a story not only of the present but of the future, where migration will be the norm. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either terrifying or hopeful. When everyone is moving, then mobility becomes normal rather than disturbing. While these movements cause unrest on the part of the “natives” — what Hamid, in a postcolonial reverse, calls the inhabitants of the host countries — the vision that he ultimately offers is peaceful. After the natives get over their initial fear of strangers, both the natives and the strangers discover they are just as likely to get along as not. From this measured, cautious recognition of a mutual humanity, the natives and strangers attempt to forge a new society.

This gentle optimism, this refusal to descend into dystopia, is what is most surprising about Hamid’s imaginative, inventive novel. A graceful writer who does not shy away from contentious politics and urgent, worldly matters — and we need so many more of these writers — Hamid exploits fiction’s capacity to elicit empathy and identification to imagine a better world. It is also a possible world. “Exit West” does not lead to utopia, but to a near future and the dim shapes of strangers that we can see through a distant doorway. All we have to do is step through it and meet them.


Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He is also the author of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and, most recently, the story collection “The Refugees.”

Link to original review on NYTimes.com

#45 officially signed a 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

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