Monday, March 20, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Refugees"

SW lent me this collection of short stories before we heard Nguyen read at 92Y last Thursday. I had read his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and admired it very much. At the Y, Nguyen read an excerpt from his novel, an opinion piece on refugees, and the beginning of the first story from The Refugees. The juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction was canny, prompting persistent questions about genre from the moderator Alexander Chee afterwards. It was also canny in a more commercial sense: a good way of enticing the audience to buy both of his books.

The first story "Black-Eyed Women" blew me away. It was a complexly layered narrative about ghosts and ghostwriting, a powerful meditation on what the living tries to forget in order to go on living. One of the two epigraphs for the book is a quotation 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.

The second story "The Other Man" about the coming to consciousness of his sexuality of a gay Vietnamese refugee offers interesting portraits of gay expatriate couple (one from Hong Kong, the other from England) but lacks drive in its plot. The next three stories "War Years" (the Vietnamese living on the West Coast rally support for the overthrow of the Communists back home), "The Transplant" (a man receives a liver transplant from a dead Vietnamese), "I'd Love You to Want Me" (an elderly Vietnamese man grows senile and calls his wife by another name) may lack the power of the first story but are very poignant in their effect. The next three stories are less strong but only by comparison with the strength of the earlier stories. They highlight the heroic stature of flawed fathers who had not only survived the flight from Vietnam but brought their family with them, as the earlier stories highlighted the heroism of obdurate mothers. Together the stories in this collection offer piercing insights into the condition of having been a refugee.

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