The Refugees

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees: Black-Eyed Women Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The ghostwriter describes how her clients come to her: they were often people who had escaped kidnapping and imprisonment for many years, or who had been involved in a sex scandal, or who had survived something typically fatal. They suddenly found themselves thrust into fame, and needed someone to help write their memoirs. Their agents then found her.
Nguyen introduces his first character, who remains nameless. She is known to the reader only by her job—ghostwriting. Her job title is evocative of the main conflict of her story: that she is haunted by the memories of her escape from Vietnam.
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The ghostwriter’s mother says that the ghostwriter should be glad that her name isn’t on her work. She tells her daughter a story: in Vietnam, there was a reporter who said the government tortured people in prison. The government then tortured him, and no one ever saw him again. She says, “That’s what happens to writers who put their names on things.”
The ghostwriter’s mother demonstrates one of the ways in which the Vietnam War affected them: not only in causing them to be refugees, but also in affecting their worldviews. She understands that it can be dangerous to sign one’s name on a work, a lesson derived from the stories she has carried from Vietnam.
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The ghostwriter has a new client: Victor Devoto. He was the sole survivor of an airplane crash, in which 173 others had died, including his wife and children. She notes that on talk shows and in interviews, his body appears but not much else.
Victor becomes important in helping the ghostwriter to heal from her trauma, because he understands serious loss. And, as the ghostwriter alludes to in her description of him, Victor is somewhat like a ghost himself.
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As the ghostwriter begins to work on Victor’s story, her own story haunts her. One day the ghostwriter’s mother wakes her before dawn and tells her not to be afraid: the ghostwriter’s dead brother has come to see them. The ghostwriter’s mother leads her into the hall. There is no one there, but the carpet is wet. The ghostwriter thinks that her mother must have opened the door and gotten wet in the rain before coming back inside, and tells her mother that she must be imagining things. Her mother insists that her brother wanted to see her.
The ghostwriter’s story becomes more and more present as she and her mother become haunted by the literal ghosts of her past—in the form of her brother. He becomes a representation of a past that the ghostwriter is unwilling to confront: not only his own death, but the version of the life that she would have led without her trauma.
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The ghostwriter explains that ever since the ghostwriter’s father had died, she and the ghostwriter’s mother had lived together. While she liked to write, her mother liked to talk. She constantly tells her gossip, but also ghost stories. Her mother had once told her a story of how her Aunt Six’s ghost had appeared in her kitchen and kissed her the evening after she died.
The ghost stories that the ghostwriter’s mother tells eventually become crucial to the ghostwriter’s ability to confront the past—both her own, and that of other refugees from the Vietnam War.
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The ghostwriter’s mother recounts this story the morning after she had seen the ghostwriter’s brother. She says that her brother looks exactly the same as when they last saw him. The ghostwriter remembers when she last saw her brother, cold and vacant on the deck of a boat. She says that she does not want to see him again: she merely wants to forget him.
The ghost is not only a representation of a past that haunts the ghostwriter, but a mechanism by which she must face that past, as well as a reminder of the future that she lost with her brother.
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Looking back, the ghostwriter says, she realizes that their childhood had been spent in a haunted country. The ghostwriter’s father had been drafted into the war and he had built a bomb shelter next to their home. The ghostwriter and the ghostwriter’s brother had gone to play in it as small children. When they were older, they would study and tell stories in it.
Not only is her present life haunted, but the ghostwriter acknowledges the haunted nature of even her childhood: how the Vietnam War had turned her homeland into a ghost of a country, anticipating the future trauma it would experience.
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When the ghostwriter, the ghostwriter’s mother, and the ghostwriter’s brother had used the bunker in earnest during the war, her bother would tell her ghost stories that he had picked up from the old women in the market. They would tell stories about fallen soldiers: the upper half of a Korean lieutenant in a rubber tree; a scalped black American in a creek near his helicopter; a decapitated Japanese private in a shrub. The ghostwriter had loved these stories from the “black-eyed women,” thinking at the time that she would never tell stories like those.
The variety of the ghost stories, like Nguyen’s collection, demonstrates the effect that the war has on everyone—not simply the refugees. When the ghostwriter later takes up the mantle of telling these ghost stories, she can be seen as a stand-in for Nguyen taking up the mantle of telling those stories, as well.
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The ghostwriter thinks, then, that it is ironic that she makes a living as a “ghostwriter.” In her mind, the black-eyed women mock her, asking if she would call what she has a life. As she thinks about them, she lies bed in the middle of the day. She pulls the covers up to her nose, as she would when she first arrived in America.
The irony of the narrator being a ghostwriter is not simply that she enjoys the ghost stories of these “black-eyed women” of her childhood, but also that she has become a kind of ghost herself (for example, by sleeping in the middle of the day and working at night).
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The ghostwriter flashes back, describing how terrified she, the ghostwriter’s mother, and the ghostwriter’s father were those first few years in America. They peeked through the curtains before answering the door, afraid of Americans. Her mother once warned her that another family had been tied down at gunpoint, the baby burned with cigarettes until the mother showed the intruders where they hid the money. The ghostwriter’s mother had said that this proved how they did not belong in this country, where “possessions counted for everything.” The only belongings they had were their stories.
In this short story, ghosts, memories, and stories become tightly bound together. The ghostwriter’s mother understands how their stories become a part of their cultural inheritance. In writing a collection of stories about the Vietnamese refugee experience and its many facets, Nguyen allows his own cultural heritage and life experience to inform his writing, as well.
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The evening after the ghostwriter’s brother’s first visit, knocking wakes the ghostwriter at 6:35pm. She had locked the bedroom door, but the doorknob starts to rattle. She thinks to herself that her brother had given up his life for her; the least she can do is open the door.
As details about her brother begin to emerge, readers can see just how guilty and haunted the ghostwriter is by her own life—as her brother is dead in part because of her.
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The ghostwriter’s brother is a pale fifteen-year-old, in soaked black shorts and a gray T-shirt, with bony arms and legs; his voice is hoarse and raspy. The ghostwriter welcomes him in and brings him fresh clothes and a dry towel. She is afraid to ask why he is there, so she asks what took him so long. She wonders if he knows that she is not good with children; that motherhood would be too intimate for her. He does not respond, so she assumes that it took a long time for him to swim to America.
The description of this first interaction illustrates the difficulties that the ghostwriter has had in her life as a result of losing her brother. Like characters in other chapters, she wants a sense of intimacy but feels instead that she is isolated from others.
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The ghostwriter hears her mother returning and tells the ghostwriter’s brother to wait there so that the ghostwriter’s mother can also see him. When they return, they find only the clothes and the towel. Her mother tells her that she should never turn her back on a ghost. Her mother asks if the ghostwriter believes in ghosts now; she reluctantly says yes.
Though it is unclear whether the brother is meant to be taken as a literal ghost, or an imagined haunting, his effect on her is tangible because of her unwillingness to confront the past he represents.
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The ghostwriter thinks about how no one she knew believed in ghosts, except for the ghostwriter’s mother and Victor. Victor had had a difficult time moving on from the crash. Nothing had been touched in his home since the family had left for the airport. “The dead move on,” he comments to the ghostwriter, “But the living, we just stay here.” The ghostwriter continues Victor’s memoir, working through the night in the bright basement.
Victor’s statement is a perfect description of the ghostwriter’s own situation. Even though her brother has passed, the ghostwriter is unable to move on with her life and remains burdened by the horrors she endured fleeing Vietnam. As she writes Victor’s words for him, readers can see echoes between his situation and the ghostwriter’s.
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One day, on the brink of finishing Victor’s memoir, the ghostwriter and the ghostwriter’s mother watch a Korean soap opera together. Her mother comments that if the Vietnamese War had not happened, they would be like the Koreans, the ghostwriter’s father would be alive, and the ghostwriter would be married with children. Her mother worries that when she dies, no one will come to her funeral—and that her daughter won’t leave the house or know what to say. Her mother comments that the ghostwriter’s brother would have known what to do, because “that’s what sons are for.”
The ghostwriter’s mother’s lament helps to illustrate one of Nguyen’s overall points throughout the collection of short stories. While the war had an effect on a massive scale, the horrors caused even to one individual family—or one individual person—are profound.
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That night, the ghostwriter returns to the basement to write. Plagued by the ghostwriter’s mother’s words, she wonders why she lived and the ghostwriter’s brother died. As she starts to think back to the day of his death, she hears a knock. She tells her brother that he can come in; it is his home, too. The ghostwriter asks why her brother has come; he says that he has not left this world yet. She understands why—even though she has tried to forget the day of his death, it is unforgettable.
The ghostwriter’s invitation to her brother illustrates a theme that emerges from other short stories: that a “home” is often defined by a family, particularly when a person has been displaced from their cultural home. The ghostwriter, her mother, and her father then were forced to create their own sense of home in America.
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The ghostwriter and the ghostwriter’s brother had been on a refugee boat with a hundred other people. He was fifteen; she was thirteen. Her brother took her into the engine room, cutting off her long hair, binding her breasts, giving her his shirt, and smearing her face with oil.
The story of the ghostwriter’s brother’s death goes hand in hand with the story of them playing together in the bomb shelter—the difference here, however, is that the children start to fully understand the stakes of their situation. They have lost their innocence as a result of their refugee experience: an innocence that they will never regain.
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The ghostwriter and the ghostwriter’s brother had then huddled in the dark until the pirates came. They confiscated all valuables and then seized the teenage girls and young women, shooting any men who tried to protest. The girls were thrown onto the pirates’ boat.
The ghostwriter explains later that these women haunt her just as much as her brother does, because of the years that they had lost from their lives.
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The last pirate to leave glanced at the ghostwriter, commenting that she was “a handsome boy.” The ghostwriter’s brother then stabbed the pirate, and the pirate drew his machine gun and swung it against her brother’s head. He hit the deck with a thud and a crack; dead, and with blood flowing from his temple.
The ghostwriter’s guilt is explained here: she is haunted by her brother because she feels that she was indirectly the cause of his death. But the reality, of course, is that her brother’s death is not her own fault, but instead due to the massive havoc that war wreaks on people’s lives, both before and after they have become refugees.
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The ghostwriter asks if it still hurts; the ghostwriter’s brother says no, then returns the question. She says yes. The pirate had thrown her to the deck, ripping off her shirt. The ghostwriter’s mother and the ghostwriter’s father were screaming; she knew that she was screaming, even though she could not hear herself as the men got on top of her. She and her parents would never speak about this assault. But what pained her the most, she explains, was the light beating down on her and blinding her. Since that day, she avoided the daylight. Her brother notices that she is paler than he is. She asks him why she lived and he died. He tells her that she died too, she just didn’t know it.
The ghostwriter’s pain is more fully explained: not only did she lose her brother, but she also, in a sense, lost herself. As a result of this day, she became a living ghost and could not go out in the daylight or confront the outside world. Additionally, she lost some sense of intimacy with her parents, because they could not openly confront or address their shared trauma. She became isolated from the only people who could fully understand her experience.
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This statement sparks a memory of a conversation the ghostwriter had with Victor. He had said that he believes in ghosts. He sees his wife and children all the time when he closes his eyes; when his eyes are open, he sees them in his peripheral vision. But he also smells them, feels them, and hears them. His wife tells him to check for his keys; his daughter tells him not to burn the toast.
Victor’s method of thinking about ghosts is in some ways the opposite of what the ghostwriter has done up to this point: accepts the loss of his family, but refuses to be isolated from them. The final step in the ghostwriter’s journey to confronting her past is understanding this way of thinking.
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The ghostwriter had asked Victor if he is afraid of ghosts. He says that “You aren’t afraid of the things you believe in.” She didn’t understand statement at the time, but does now. With the ghostwriter’s brother by her side, she weeps for the years they didn’t have together, for all of the words the ghostwriter’s father and the ghostwriter’s mother didn’t say to each other, and for the girls who vanished that day and did not come back—including herself.
Victor’s statement serves as an important turning point in the ghostwriter’s thinking. Up until this moment, she has been afraid of her past and was therefore haunted by it. But when she accepts the horrors of what has happened to her, and grieves for the way it has affected her in the present, she is finally able to move forward.
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When Victor’s memoir is published a few months later, it sells well. The ghostwriter’s name is not on it, but her reputation grows behind the scenes in publishing. Her agent calls her to offer another memoir, but she says she is writing a book of her own: ghost stories.
Grieving for her brother allows the ghostwriter to move past being haunted. She takes more ownership over her own life in choosing to write her own work, rather than about the lives of others.
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The ghostwriter’s mother tells the ghostwriter that the ghostwriter’s brother would not be coming back: he had said what he needed to. The ghostwriter implies that she has some past things that have been unaddressed. Her mother looks away, not wanting to talk about the ghosts of the refugees and the pirates, nor the ghost of the girl the ghostwriter had been.
Just like the ghostwriter, her mother has been haunted by the past—but instead of being haunted by her son, she is haunted by the way in which her daughter was affected by the war, and that she could do nothing to stop her assault.
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Instead, the ghostwriter asks for a story. The ghostwriter’s mother tells a story of a woman whose husband was a soldier. He was reported dead and she had refused to believe it. After the war, she fled to the United States, finally marrying again. She is happy until the day her first husband returns, decades later, having been a war prisoner for nearly thirty years. Her mother shows the ghostwriter a newspaper clipping with these two people, who look shy and uncomfortable together.
The ghost story that the mother  tells the ghost writer demonstrates the way in which  the Vietnam War has made ghosts out of so many people, and not just her own family. These ghosts are echoes of a former self that was not allowed to become fully realized.
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This storytelling becomes a nightly ritual, and the ghostwriter writes all of the stories down. She writes that this is how some of the stories come to her, but more often she hunts for the ghosts. She explains that stories are just things that people fabricate. “We search for them in a world besides our own,” she writes, “then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.”
The ghostwriter once again connects stories, memories, and ghosts. She searches for the stories, which are echoes of reality, just as ghosts are merely echoes of the people they used to be. Even though the ghostwriter strives to tell the stories, she understands that they are something that people simply fabricate, and can never fully capture what actually existed because of the way in which the war has disrupted each of their lives.
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