The Stories of Refugees, with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book Reviews

When I saw Viet Thanh Nguyen at City Lights Bookstore for a signing of his new book The Sympathizer (Amazon | Indiebound) back then, I didn’t know that I was going to be a huge fan of his work.

I started reading The Sympathizer which is one of those future classics I would reread at some point, or  one of those books I would highly recommend to folks. I was hooked. An excerpt from my book review:

The book is set in Vietnam in the ’70s, as South Vietnam (backed by the U.S. and its anti-Communist allies) falls to the Viet Cong (VC) or the National Liberation Front of the North. From beginning to end, the nameless narrator experiences and embodies tension: as the son of a poor Vietnamese peasant and a French priest, as an army captain and junior intelligence officer of a high-ranking General of the South when he was really a spy for the Viet Cong.

At his reading back at City Lights, he mentioned that before the book he had been working on a bunch of short stories for awhile. I think it’s safe to assume that he was referring to The Refugees (Amazon | Indiebound), which was released this year on February 7. Viet’s short stories have arrived.

Along with War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, I brought this book on my recent trip to the Philippines. On the flight to Coron from Manila, I cracked the book open eager to reacquaint myself with Viet’s work.

There are eight stories in the book and to my surprise, only one really resonated with me. I spent a lot of time trying to understand the book’s essence, trying to find the outright connections between refugees and the stories.


Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, 2014:”The Future is in Our Hands.” Created near the entrance of Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, this piece emphasizes the need for displaced people to rebuild their communities. Local youth painted and wrote in the mural about what they’d like to see in their future neighborhoods, whether they’re able to return to Syria or must remain across the border for years to come. Project partners included local artist Ali Kiwan, Joel Bergner, AptART, ACTED, Mercy Corps and UNICEF.

Maybe it’s because we’re living at a time when the spotlight on refugees is heightened, as wars in nations like Syria are being waged. A little less than a year ago, I wrote about the refugee crisis and how writers and artists are responding. Since I’ve written that piece, the crisis has only gotten worse.

For what it’s worth, I think what Viet was trying to do with this book is give the word “refugee” and the concept of “refuge” a broader meaning. Beyond the plight of Vietnamese refugees which I’ve come to associate with his work, the book explores what it means to be a refugee.

My favorite is one called War Years, wherein the narrator details life as a refugee from Vietnam in the U.S. After opening a small grocery store in a small Vietnamese community with other families of refugees, the narrator’s mother starts to get visits from a certain Mrs. Hoa. Mrs. Hoa was making rounds within the business community, trying to raise funds for an opposition to the Communist government back home. People didn’t want to be on her bad side, because that would mean the end of your business.

At one point, the narrator’s mother caved in — giving two hundred dollars of the five hundred Mrs. Hoa was demanding.

“That’s it,” my mother said, “that’s all I have.”

I calculated the cans of soup, the pounds of rice, and the hours of standing on her feet that made those two hundred dollars possible, and I was astonished that my mother had surrendered the money.


“We’ll see ourselves out,” my mother said.

“You see how the Communists weren’t satisfied with killing my son twice?” Mrs. Hoa aimed her gaze at me. “They killed him twice when they desecrated his grave. They don’t respect anybody, not even the dead.”


Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, Jordan 2014: “I dream of…” created as part of an arts and education initiative with local kids, who participated in the painting of this mural, expressing their dreams for the future. Project partners included AptART, ACTED, Mercy Corps and UNICEF. Photo by AptART.

All politics aside, what Viet captures in this scene are the effects of war and displacement. How wars tore families apart, creating a sense of perpetual violence and destruction even after the fact.

In The Transplant, a man grapples with a liver donation as the supposed donor organ takes advantage of his position. In the Black-Eyed Woman, a ghostwriter confronts the ghosts of her own family, and the ghosts that her mother has told her about.

And my mother, who had not looked away from me on the deck of the boat, looked away now. For all the ghost stories she possessed, there was one story she did not want to tell, one type of company she did not want to keep. They were there in the kitchen with her, the ghosts of the refugees and the ghosts of the pirates, the ghosts of the pirates, the ghost of the boat watching us with those eyes that never closed, even the ghost of the girl I once was, the only ghosts my mother feared.


Jordan 2015: Mural on a school in Za’atari Village created with Syrian refugee and local Jordanian youth to promote harmony between these two populations. Partners: aptART, Mercy Corps, UNICEF

There’s a part of me that wishes these stories had more time to build a stronger narrative, and maybe I would’ve been more engaged if they were turned to novels. Most of the time I was left hanging. I know I shouldn’t compare, but I really loved Viet’s work in The Sympathizer more.

These are just my opinions though, and I would love to hear other thoughts from folks who’ve read the book. Did you like Viet’s latest collection? Drop me a line!

* * *

All artwork in this post are found from Art with Syrian Refugees: The Za’atari Project.

51lhuoftiwlThe Refugees (Amazon | Indiebound) by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press (224 pages)
February 7, 2017
My rating: ★★
The Refugees

6 thoughts on “The Stories of Refugees, with Viet Thanh Nguyen

  1. “I’d Love You to Want Me” from THE REFUGEES is a stunning short story. As a reader who admires short stories far more than novels, I found this one especially enchanting. It shows how love is both inexplicable and savage.


    1. That’s a good point. This one really intrigued me, but I still wasn’t able to get into the story of the Professor and Mrs. Khanh as much as I would have loved to. Do you have other short story collections/books that you’d recommend?


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