The Refugees

The Refugees Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Refugees. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen was born in South Vietnam and is the son of immigrants who moved from North Vietnam in 1954. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the family fled to the United States and was resettled at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania—one of four camps that accommodated refugees from Vietnam. Later, Nguyen’s family moved to San Jose, California, where they opened up a Vietnamese grocery store. After graduating from Bellarmine College Preparatory, Nguyen attended the University of California Riverside and UCLA before finishing his studies at UC Berkeley in May 1992. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in English from Berkeley in 1995 before moving to Los Angeles as an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. He is currently the Chair of the English department at USC and a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity. His first novel, The Sympathizer, was published in 2015 and received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The following year he published his short story collection, The Refugees, and was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
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Historical Context of The Refugees

Many of the stories touch on or are the result of events that occurred during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was fought between North Vietnam, a communist government supported by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam, which was supported by the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and other anti-communist allies. North Vietnam had defeated the French colonial administration of Vietnam in 1954 and wanted to unify the country under a single communist regime, leading to country-wide military conflict. Vietnam was quickly scarred by bombs from various military forces, and many of its cities were lined with lethal land mines. It was extremely deadly: as many as 2 million civilians died, as well as an additional 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers, and about 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. The war ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, to the North Vietnamese, which led to a U.S.-sponsored evacuation of an estimated 150,000 Vietnamese refugees who were loyal to the South Vietnamese. This mass exodus was followed by another wave in 1978 of “boat people” who were fleeing the economic restructuring imposed by the communist regime. Many of Nguyen’s characters are imagined versions of these refugees.

Other Books Related to The Refugees

Nguyen’s The Sympathizer examines similar topics and ideas as The Refugees. The Sympathizer focuses on a communist spy who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and was relocated to refugee camps in America before his eventual return to Vietnam. Other major works that explore refugee experiences include Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which looks at the childhood of an Afghani boy who is then resettled in America following Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay also examines the experience of a Jewish Czech refugee before, during, and after World War II. Moshin Hamid’s Exit West serves as another example—it focuses on two refugees of an unnamed city who are forced to migrate further and further west using a system of fictitious doors. The book is also in counterpoint with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which recounts episodes from the Vietnam War from the perspective of an American soldier.
Key Facts about The Refugees
  • Full Title: The Refugees
  • When Written: 1997-2017
  • Where Written: Los Angeles, California
  • When Published: 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Short story collection
  • Setting: Vietnam; California
  • Climax: N/A
  • Antagonist: Frontier outlaw culture
  • Point of View: First person and third person

Extra Credit for The Refugees

A Personal Story. Nguyen writes that there is only one truly autobiographical short story in the book—“War Years”—though he admits that the entire collection is “emotionally autobiographical.”

Lengthy Development. Nguyen wrote this collection over the course of 17 years, with many of the stories being published individually in literary magazines prior to the book’s publication.