Since many of the characters in The Refugees deal with past traumas and former lives, an obsession with memories and a connection to ghosts play a large role in Nguyen’s stories. In each episode, characters are haunted—sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. However, in Nguyen’s stories, memory and ghosts are not simply representative of the past: they also represent the characters’ future possibilities and lives that were taken from them.
“Black-Eyed Women,” Nguyen’s first story in the collection, centers on a woman who is haunted both by her brother’s ghost and by the experiences that she had to endure in order to make it to America—but primarily by the ghost of who she might have been. The narrator of this short story, whose name is never revealed, is introduced simply as a “ghostwriter”—a person who is hired to write literary works that are officially credited to another person as the author. This sets up this character’s primary conflict, which is that she often feels absent from her own life, just as her name is absent from the body of work that she produces. This sentiment of feeling like a ghost is exacerbated by the fact that the ghostwriter is literally haunted by the ghost of her older brother. The narrator’s brother died on a refugee boat trying to protect her from pirates, who killed him and raped her in response. She is unable to confront both traumas, and as a result, she essentially turns into a ghost herself, refusing to go out in the daytime and growing paler every year. The ghost of her brother acknowledges this, saying to her that when he died, she died too and simply did not know it. In conversing with her brother, the ghostwriter gains some closure in finally grieving for his life and her own life. She realizes how the things she has lost have come to define her, and particularly emphasizes that the most painful losses are the years that she and her brother might have had, and the lives of the many other refugees who were killed on the same boat and were robbed of their future.
In “War Years,” a similar loss defines the community and families at the center of the narrative, as they confront the memories of the people they have had to leave behind. Some families, like the narrator’s family, try to move on, while others remain haunted by the uncertainty of their future. The narrator of “War Years” is a young boy living in San Jose, California, which has become a home to many Vietnamese refugees. They have a difficult time rebuilding their past lives, as they realize that their community is merely an echo of the country they once called home, and the prospect of regaining their lives in Vietnam is hopeless. This is why when Mrs. Hoa, another Vietnamese refugee, extorts money from other refugees to support a small Vietnamese guerilla army training in Thailand, the boy’s mother refuses to spend money to try to fight the Communists, believing that it is instead necessary to focus on their future in America. Nguyen reveals later that Mrs. Hoa lost her husband and her two sons to the war. However, she does not know whether her husband and one of her sons have actually died—as far as she knows, they are simply missing. Her efforts to support the war, then, stem from a desire to relieve herself of being haunted by their memories, and by the possibility that they might one day return to her life.
In several other stories, characters are haunted by the other potential lives they might have led. In “Fatherland,” Phuong views her older half-sister, Vivien, as a ghost of herself. Vivien was able to escape Vietnam and go to America, while Phuong was forced to remain. When her sister visits Vietnam many years later, Phuong realizes that Vivien leads a life that she herself might have led. In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” Mrs. Khanh’s husband, Professor Khanh, begins to lose his memory to Alzheimer’s Disease, and he starts to call his wife by a different name—Yen. She gradually relents to this false name, realizing that in order to make her husband feel sane, she has to relinquish a future in which she retains her identity. “Someone Else Besides You” centers on Thomas and his ex-wife, Sam. Prior to the story’s opening, Thomas had been unable to commit to having children with Sam, and so their marriage had fizzled. But after they have broken up and he sees that she is pregnant, he is haunted by the opportunity he lost and tells her that he wants to be the father of her child.
At the end of her narrative, the ghostwriter resolves to author her own book—writing “ghost stories” like hers and many others’. In a way, she therefore becomes a stand-in for Nguyen. In crafting this series of narratives, Nguyen unveils many of the characters’ ghost stories: they are haunted by the past and by what they have lost, but even more so by the possibility of what they might have become.
Memory and Ghosts ThemeTracker
Memory and Ghosts Quotes in The Refugees
My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.
I wept for him and for me, for all the years we could have had together but didn’t, for all the words never spoken between my mother, my father, and me. Most of all, I cried for those other girls who had vanished and never come back, including myself.
Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.
More than all those people starved by famine, it was the thought of my mother not remembering what she looked like as a little girl that saddened me.
Arthur, hovering in the corner, sensed that he was merely a specter, already dead, acknowledged by Norma only as she brushed by him on her way out the door, saying over her shoulder, “Don’t forget your pills.”
That was true love, she thought, not giving roses but going to work every day and never once complaining about teaching Vietnamese to so-called heritage learners, immigrant and refugee students who already knew the language but merely wanted an easy grade.
When I spoke, it was so softly that only the stranger curled up behind the belly ring could hear. Then I said it once more, louder: “I can be the father.” Feeling Sam’s hand grip my shoulder, I said it a third time, just to make sure they both heard me right.
He often compared Phuong with her absent sister, which had cultivated in Phuong a sense of yearning for Vivien but also some undeniable jealousy.
In the Ice Lantern’s glow, her sister’s face looked more like her father’s than her own, the symmetry rendering clear what Phuong could now say. Their father loved Vivien more than her.
The photograph ignited easily when Phuong lit it with a match.