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.

Student Anti-Vietnam Rally, 1968

Writing about war is never an easy task, it involves remembering what must not be forgotten, slowly treading a path in one’s memory that is never neutral. It is filled with opposing forces — of heroes and villains, of the noble and the wretched, of the conqueror and the conquered. But it must be done. This, I believe, was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s task with his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer.

In addition to books that bravely asks life the hardest questions, historical fiction is fast becoming a favorite. From the genre-bending 100 Years of Solitude by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to a recent reading of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (of which I wrote about in a previous post), Viet’s The Sympathizer is an unexpected but welcome addition.

I dove into the book right after Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, and I acclimated to the nameless narrator’s tone in no time.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

The Necessity of Memory with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book Reviews, Fiction