Post-war Amer­i­cans

Viet Than Nguyen’s new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries paints sub­tle por­traits of the many shades of ‘refugee’

India Today - - LEISURE - —Ja­son Over­dorf

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The ti­tle of the Pulitzer Prizewin­ning au­thor’s new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The Refugees, is a re­minder that Amer­ica once wel­comed those dis­placed by for­eign wars. Its bril­liantly drawn char­ac­ters il­lus­trate how fully those im­mi­grants—mainly Viet­namese-Amer­i­cans but also Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans liv­ing in his home state of Cal­i­for­nia—have em­braced their new home.

In ‘The Other Man’, for in­stance, a refugee fresh from war-torn Viet­nam makes his way to San Fran­cisco. There he dis­cov­ers the free­dom to ac­knowl­edge his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, along with the com­plex­ity of liv­ing “a civil, healthy and cor­rect life”—as his fa­ther writes to him from com­mu­nist Viet­nam. Sim­i­larly, in ‘I’d Love You to Want Me’, an ag­ing first gen­er­a­tion Viet­namese-Amer­i­can woman wres­tles with the mean­ing of love when se­nil­ity prompts the French man she mar­ried decades be­fore to be­gin call­ing her by an­other woman’s name.

In ‘The Trans­plant’, a hos­pi­tal er­ror prompts a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can gam­bling ad­dict to search for the man who pro­vided the liver for the trans­plant that saved his life—by call­ing all the peo­ple named Vu in the tele­phone di­rec­tory. Fi­nally, a charis­matic seller of ‘bet­ter than gen­uine’ watches and hand­bags tells him, “I’m the man you’re look­ing for, Mr Arel­lano.” The two men forge an un­likely but life-af­firm­ing friend­ship that is doomed to de­struc­tion when the real donor ap­pears, and Arel­lano learns ‘Louis Vu’ is not even re­ally Viet­namese.

That sub­tle joke hints at Nguyen’s pur­pose in this col­lec­tion—which es­chews the stereotypes that can make what Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers call ‘eth­nic’ fic­tion so ir­ri­tat­ing. When he first learns the donor’s name, Nguyen notes that Arel­lano, who is “af­flicted with a... com­mon astig­ma­tism wherein all Asians ap­peared the same”, had “fallen back on his de­fault choice when con­fronted with [the] per­plex­ing prob­lem of [iden­ti­fy­ing] an Asian” to de­cide that Vu must be Chi­nese. Then, at the big re­veal, Louis Vu tells him he was right, but that he’d “never been to China. I can barely speak Chi­nese. So what does that make me”?

The an­swer, of course, is Amer­i­can. And hu­man.

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