Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories, each of which centers on, or sometimes simply touches on, the lives of Vietnamese refugees who have immigrated to America following the Vietnam War. While it is easy to conjure a stereotypical image of someone fleeing a war-torn nation, the variety of characters in the stories allows for multiple perspectives on what it means to be a refugee. Nguyen illuminates how the concept of fleeing a country in turmoil has a major effect on refugees as they try to form new lives. He also reveals the ripple effects the refugees’ exodus has in their newly adopted countries and in the countries they leave behind. Nguyen’s collection aims to show that anyone’s life can be affected by war and the refugee experience, and his range of stories defies any single stereotype of what it means to be a refugee.
Several of Nguyen’s stories examine the refugee experience from a first-person point of view, revealing the irreparable damage that war and turmoil can have on an individual’s life. “Black-Eyed Women” explores the life of an unnamed ghostwriter who came to America on a refugee boat as a young girl. In fleeing Vietnam, she experienced both trauma and tragedy: she was raped by pirates, and the ghostwriter’s brother was killed trying to protect her. Over the course of her story, she has to learn to bear this grief and the collective grief of losing her home to war—a mourning that makes it difficult for her to feel like she can make a proper life in America. In “The Other Man,” a young man named Liem’s arrival in San Diego from Vietnam separates him from his family and the only life he’s ever known. His story is not explained in the same depth as the ghostwriter’s, but when he recounts his journey to the two men who are hosting him, he expresses the grief and exhaustion of leaving his family and coming to America. He is not only expected to make a new life, but also to help his family as much as possible by sending money back to them. Liem’s story demonstrates that some refugees have to bear the loss of their family and simultaneously take on the responsibility for improving the lives of those they left behind.
In addition to looking at individual characters’ traumas, Nguyen also makes a point to show how even after a war has ended, it can impact lives on a massive, country-wide scale. The short story “War Years” bridges the gap between the individual and the collective refugee experience. Drawn from the perspective of an unnamed young boy, this story focuses on the new life that his parents and many other refugees have built in a Vietnamese community in San Jose, California. The boy does not remember the war, but the large group of refugees demonstrates how the enormous scope of this crisis served to change the culture of this town and presumably many others in America, as more than 150,000 Vietnamese people fled to America following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Another short story, “The Americans,” centers on an African-American veteran named James Carver who served as a pilot in the Vietnam War. In the story, he visits his daughter Claire, who has moved to Vietnam to teach, despite his protests that he dislikes the country. This story examines the scars of the Vietnam War both on the people who fought in it, as Carver both gained a thrill from serving in the war but also downplays the violent legacy of his actions, and on the people who were forced to remain in the country. When Claire’s boyfriend Legaspi brings her family to a site where demining efforts are ongoing, they observe several young Vietnamese people who have lost limbs from mine explosions.
In some of the stories, however, the refugees are background characters, as Nguyen expands on the effects that ripple out of a war-torn country to show that the lives of many people, even those who were not directly involved in or affected by a war, can be changed by it as well. In “The Transplant,” Arthur receives a new liver from a Vietnamese man named Men Vu who had passed away and donated his organs. This small but extremely meaningful act serves to prove that refugees can have an impact on the lives of people they might never meet. For some characters, like Thomas in “Someone Else Besides You” and Mrs. Khanh in “I’d Love You to Want Me,” their refugee status and heritage fade into the background of their lives. This illustrates how human beings are complex: while large events can certainly shift a person’s life dramatically, they are also not solely defined by a single experience, or by their cultural identity.
In an essay, Nguyen writes of himself: “I am a refugee, an American, and a human being, which is important to proclaim, as there are many who think these identities cannot be reconciled.” The different characters in The Refugees serve as examples of how these identities can be reconciled. For many people, particularly those in countries like the United States, refugees are often associated with images of war and turmoil and are viewed as masses of people rather than as individuals. Yet Nguyen knows from personal experience that while war can be traumatic and life-changing, it cannot take away people’s humanity and individualism. In writing this collection of short stories, Nguyen aims to show how the refugee experience is not defined by one situation or perspective. It is a collection of stories, encompassing both the stories of the refugees themselves and the stories of the people whose lives are touched by them.
War and the Refugee Experience ThemeTracker
War and the Refugee Experience 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.
In the darkness, he heard the rustle of mosquito netting as the others masturbated also. The next morning, everyone looked at each other blankly, and nobody spoke of what had occurred the previous evening, as if it were an atrocity in the jungle better left buried.
This summer, your uncles and cousins were reeducated with the other enlisted puppet soldiers. The Party forgave their crimes. Your uncles were so grateful, they donated their houses to the revolution […] The cadres tell us that we will erase the past and rebuild our glorious country!
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.
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.
The taller one’s prosthetic arm was joined with the human part at the elbow, while the other’s prosthetic leg extended to mid-thigh. Carver nicknamed the tall one Tom and the shorter one Jerry, the same names he and his U-Tapao roommate, a Swede from Minnesota, had bestowed on their houseboys.