Pub. date: February 7th, 2017
Publisher: Grove Press
Thanks so much to Grove Press and Edelweiss for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I have two confessions: I haven’t finished reading The Sympathiser yet (not because I didn’t like it, I set it down months ago because of life and more urgent reads in my TBR and haven’t picked it up since), and my knowledge of the Vietnam war is pretty insignificant. I requested this book anyway because I figured there would less pressure to love it than its Pulitzer-winning predecessor. Turns out I didn’t need to be that cautious because I’m officially now a member of the Viet Thanh Nguyen fan club.
As the title indicates, this collection of previously-published pieces revolves around the experiences of refugees from the Vietnam War. In just eight stories, set in America as well as Vietnam, Nguyen manages to capture and share a plethora of viewpoints and characters. He starts off strong with ” Black Eyed Women”, where we meet a ghostwriter, a Vietnamese-American refugee who is the middle of working on a very traumatic memoir when she’s visited by the ghost of her brother who died when they were fleeing Communist Vietnam. Nguyen conveys a powerful message with simple sentences. For example, when the narrator asks him why he’s wearing the same clothes as the day he died:
“The dead move on,” he had said, coiled in his armchair, hands between his thighs. “But the living, we just stay here.”
This sentiment is echoed in “The War Years”, where the narrator recalls an incident from his childhood about a woman who approaches his mother seeking donations for an anti-Communist guerillas back in Vietnam, yet cannot come to terms with the disappearance (potential death) of her husband and son who were both guerilla soldiers.
“While some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.”
The stories also represent so much internal conflict that can be seen among several characters. Whether it is the young refugee who is deeply attracted to one of his hosts, or the wife of a professor who is struggling with her husband’s deteriorating memory and saving face in front of her own children, the man who let’s his dad take revenge on his own ex-wife merely out of spite, regardless of his complicated relationship with the man, or two sisters, one American and one Vietnamese, and their complex relationship.
My favorite story of the collection is “The Americans”, in which Nguyen tells the story of a man who was an American pilot during the war, and is visiting his daughter in Vietnam who works there as a teacher in a rural part of the country. The father is haunted by memories of the war, which are further aggravated by his daughter’s insistence that her move to Vietnam is permanent. When her mother attempts to diffuse an argument on the subject with her father, the daughter says:
“I am home, Mom. It sounds strange. I don’t know how to put it, but I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. I have a Vietnamese soul.”
I’m a sucker for stories that revolves around tensions between parents and their children, especially in the Asian community where such conflicts are further complicated by a culture that has always emphasised children respecting their parents wishes no matter age or life choice. Yes, they make me feel validated, because this is something I struggle with a lot, and I can relate to this particular story especially as the child of expatriates. For parents and children, coexisting without severing ties despite having polar opposite views on nearly everything is increasingly common among the present generation.
It’s pretty hard to pinpoint any weak links in this collection. Even though they’ve been published separately before, and despite the variety of experiences, they all echo fear, love, loss, and internal struggles. The fear that refugees and immigrants experience as depicted in these stories feel very authentic; that inclination to be contained, subservient, and to assimilate, such that any contrasting behavior, especially from the younger generations, feels like a shock to the system. The stories themselves don’t come with surprises, extreme plot twists, or sensationalized details. Rather, the simple writing conveys raw feelings of displacement that are in tandem with these experiences. This is a very timely book with unforgettable characters, so I urge you to pick this up soon.