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