Friday, February 17, 2017

The Refugees

Title:  The Refugees
Author:  Viet Thanh Nguyen
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0802126391 / 978-0802126399

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Fame would strike someone, usually the kind that healthy-minded people would not wish upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, humiliated in a sex scandal, or surviving something typically fatal."

Favorite Quote:  "Almost everything looked more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God's eyes, man's hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere."

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other literary prizes for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. So, how do you follow that? This book is a completely different literary approach; it presents a collection of eight previously published short stories.

The book is dedicated as follows:  "For all refugees, everywhere." It begins with two powerful quotes that set the tone for the entire book. The first is an author's note. "I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they're outside of time, are the only ones with time."  The second is from English poet 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 author himself is a refugee and a child of refugees. When he was four years old, his parents left Vietnam and came as refugees to the United States. They settled in San Jose, California. Thus, in many ways, these stories are a reflection of his own experiences. In an interview, Mr. Nguyen has said that story "War Years" is indeed based on his parent's experiences and his own upbringing. It is about shopkeepers in New Saigon, who are trying to make ends meet, leave the past behind, define their identity in this mix of cultures, and raise a child who wants to fit in. This challenge of integrating where you come from with the place you now call home is one faced by all immigrant communities.

The distinction between immigrant and refugee, however, is an important one to understanding this book. Immigration is a movement towards something - opportunity and a better life perhaps. Immigration is usually by choice. Refugees, however, are looking to escape from a place or a regime in which life has become untenable. Refuge is sought for survival. At the end of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese people sought relief from the onslaught of Communism and a lifetime of poverty. They became the "boat people." Many died; the stories told here are those who survived and made it to the United States. In the United States, they found a new home and a chance to start over. The found refuge, which the dictionary defines as "shelter or protection from danger or distress."

The first story, in fact, deals with the journey of the boat people. It deals with those who survived and the ghosts of those who did not. Another story deals with different perspectives on the history of the war - a father who was a soldier and a daughter who finds her home amidst the same country her father fought.

The story that touches my heart the most perhaps is titled "I'd Love You to Want Me." This is the story of a wife caring for her husband who suffers from either Alzheimer's or dementia or both. The diagnosis is never mentioned, but the implications are clear. The story deals with the heartache of that and compounds it with the memories of a land and a past long gone. The husband's memories reach back to a distant past in Vietnam. He calls for his love, a woman who is not his wife. He yearns for this lost love and this lost life. The reader or the wife in the story never learns what the story behind the name is except that it is a love lost. What is the wife to do? Her answer is agonizing and heartbreaking.

The one word that comes to mind through all these stories is haunting, which brings it all back to the two statements at the beginning of the book. Based on that, I will be adding The Sympathizer to my reading list.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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