The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen’s The Sympathizer was one of the best books I read last year. A Pulitzer winner for best fiction it dealt with, among other things, a wonderful takeoff of a Vietnamese consultant working on a film suspiciously like Apocalypse Now.
This book contains eight short stories on the experience of Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon in 1975. The evacuation didn’t save many of the poor. The rescue involved mostly Vietnamese officers and upper level bureaucrats in the government. They landed in cities like Los Angeles and tried to build new lives. These are generally the people portrayed in the collection, though there is one tragic story about a young girl’s experience in trying to flee the country by boat with the help of pirates working the South China Sea.
The stories are of people trying to adjust to life in the US, a culture extraordinarily different from the life in Vietnam. Some are just trying to get by and forget the past. Others are sure that a force can be put together to invade the country and take it back from the communist government, a dream not unlike one that lured the Cuban community in Florida for most of the 1960s forward.
One story deals with a man now separated from his American wife who invites his rigid and distant military father to move in with him. A family trying to run an Asian market risks earning a reputation as communist sympathizers if they don’t give money for a military group planning on invading Vietnam, a move that could rob them of all their Vietnamese customers. Another story deals with a refugee housed by a gay couple in San Francisco.
The stories are poignant, funny, and sometimes painful. At the beginning of the book Nguyen quotes James Fenton’s “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.
It’s a book that focuses on the pain of losing the past, of a horrendous war, and an adopted country that resists assimilation. Nguyen has the ability to write the painful and strange in a way that compels the reader to dig in to the end.