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.

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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.

More creating

Less consuming

More leading

Less following

More contributing

Less taking

More patience

Less intolerance

More connecting

Less isolating

More writing

Less watching

More optimism

Less false realism

— Seth Godin, More and Less

Friendly reminders as we move forward in the new year, as we usher in a new era of reality across the political and social spectrum. In just a few days, the “orange bloviator” as Zadie Smith referred to him will attempt to further plunge this country into an even more damning abyss of racism, fascism, imperialism.

I’ve been finding solace in so many things: this 2017 Plan of Resistance from the Transgender Law Center, small acts of resistance like The Booksmith‘s response to the alt-right bigot Milo Y’s 250k book deal and of course, infinite joy from book lists from The MillionsVulture and Kirkus Reviews

A book I’ve seen on many 2017 lists is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, a collection of short stories from the famed The Sympathizer author. I’m a big fan of his work and I can’t wait for this one!shortI’ve always been more of a novel/literary fiction fan more than anything but these days, short stories are blowing me away. Mia Alvar is the culprit; her weapon, In the Country: Stories. The last time I enjoyed short stories was with This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz a couple of years ago, and I’m anticipating even more as Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women collection of stories also just came out. Be still, literary heart, be still.

In a time when most of us — queer, people of color, immigrants — are feeling vulnerable, I always come back to books, among many tools of resistance, to ground me. What are you reading this time around? 

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