The One with the Vietnamese Americans

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees (2017)

I’d heard a lot about these stories when they first came out, and I’m glad I stumbled upon this French translation at our local library. These eight stories are deep and subtle, dealing with difficult pasts, traumas and family relationships in a beautiful, spare language, and it’s hard for me to tell you which one I loved best.

There’s the first of the collection “Black-Eyed Woman”, whose narrator is a ghost writer for celebs who write memoirs, but she has her own traumatic past she tries hard to forget, until one day the ghost of her dead brother visits her.

I also loved “I’d love you to want me” with an ageing couple. The husband, an old university professor, has Alzheimer’s and starts to call his wife with another woman’s name. She gets to wonder if he had an affair in his past, and if it hurts her so very much to doubt whom he really loved more.

Nguyen captures the culture shock between Vietnamese who have escaped the war and have rebuilt their lives in America. The distance between the two countries illustrate some misunderstandings and illusions / projections that Americans have on Vietnamese immigrants, and vice versa (see the shock of this young refugee arriving in the US at the end of the war to be welcomed by a gay couple, “The other man”), and Vietnamese in Vietnam have on the emigrants who may (or may not) have a grand, easy life in the US (“Fatherland”). I also loved to see Nguyen tackle the divisions amidst the immigrant community, as they are no monolyth. In “War years”, a teenager boy watches how his hard-working parents in their small grocery shop are being harassed by a Vietnamese woman who collects money for the anti-communist fight. Will his mother give her some hard-earned cash? (No spoiler here for you, but the story is a rollercoaster of emotions)

After these stories, I’m now more tempted to try Nguyen’s prise-winning novel, The Sympathizer, although it was not on my radar before. Have you read it?

One thought on “The One with the Vietnamese Americans

  1. Pingback: Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) | Smithereens

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