Book review: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees tells eight tales of Vietnamese migrants

By Malcolm Forbes

There is a section in Ways of Escape where Graham Greene casts back to the early 1950s and discusses his love affair with Indochina in general and Vietnam in particular. He singles out Saigon’s opium fumeries, gambling houses and elegant girls, and the overall “feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to the visitor with a return ticket”.

That measure of danger would soon intensify, convulsing the country and displacing many of its people. In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s first collection of short stories and follow-up to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel The Sympathizer, the focus is not on visitors to Vietnam with return tickets but Vietnamese migrants who have fled war on a one-way trip to a better future in the United States.

In these times of looking inward and shutting out, of breaking down bridges and building walls, Nguyen’s eight stark and incisive tales provide valuable, necessary insight into the pain and upheaval of exchanging a homeland for an adopted other.
Nguyen – who was born in Vietnam and raised in the US – opens the proceedings with one his strongest stories. Black-Eyed Women introduces us to a ghostwriter who looks back on her youth in Vietnam, “a haunted country”, and is then visited by the ghost of her brother, who died decades ago on the fishing boat which carried her to her current safe haven. Read more
Source: The National