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.