The Refugees, is as impeccably written as it is timed ... This is an important and incisive book written by a major writer with firsthand knowledge of the human rights drama exploding on the international stage — and the talent to give us inroads toward understanding it ... There is no effort to avoid the identity of 'refugee' — this book interrogates the term on political and spiritual levels, and the results are saturated with pain, memory and beauty ... In this collection, towns are altered by war, relatives by time. In some stories, decades pass between letters home to Vietnam, as in 'Fatherland.' There is a thorny dissonance between past and present. The living protagonists are often forced to carry traumatic visions with them as they try to make their way in a new country ... Nguyen is skilled at making us feel the disorientation and alienation of these characters navigating displacement ... The Refugees is a surprisingly sensual book, despite operating in difficult political and emotional terrain. Nguyen crafts sentences with an eye toward physicality and a keen awareness of bodies and their urges ... In an era where writers and readers debate who gets to write what, it is refreshing and essential to have this work from a writer who knows and feels the terrain on an intellectual, emotional and cellular level — it shows. Nguyen offers stories of aftermath, but also of complexity. He gives us human beings weary of pity and tired of sharing rehearsed stories that make them seem like 'one more anonymous young refugee.' In topic and in execution, The Refugees is an exquisite book.
Two of the most touching pieces, both about siblings separated by geography and history, bookend the collection ... The theme of doubleness – choice and inevitability, home and homelessness, starting afresh and being stuck – is present not only in the stories of Vietnamese refugees, but also of those who have become refugees from their own homes and loved ones ... The collection is full of refugees, whether from external turmoil – natural or manmade disasters – or from a deeper, more internal conflict between even those who are closest to each other. With anger but not despair, with reconciliation but not unrealistic hope, and with genuine humour that is not used to diminish anyone, Nguyen has breathed life into many unforgettable characters, and given us a timely book focusing, in the words of Willa Cather, on 'the slow working out of fate in people of allied sentiment and allied blood?.'
To illustrate their plight, Nguyen homes in on their bodies rather than their words, so that a more accurate description of what the book does is 'give flesh' to characters at risk of fading from memory, sometimes their own ... As concerned with the aftershocks of war as with war itself, The Refugees mostly elides grisly scenes like the bombings, killings, rapes and tortures that fill Nguyen’s spectacular Pulitzer-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer ... If at times I found myself missing the playful, voice-driven punch of The Sympathizer, it’s a tribute to Nguyen’s range that these eight stories cast a quieter, but no less devastating, spell. The collection’s subtle, attentive prose and straightforward narrative style perfectly suit the low-profile civilian lives it explores (the only military personnel here have long retired). With the volume turned down, we lean in more closely, listening beyond what the refugees say to step into their skins.
In The Refugees the living are haunted by their lovers, their children, themselves. They are wealthy, poor, and middle-class. Tour guides, shopkeepers, and hucksters. They are Vietnamese, American, and Vietnamese-American ... Others are haunted by the strangeness of California, by months spent in refugee camps, by years, if not lifetimes, spent living in another world ... Fans of The Sympathizer might miss Nguyen’s finely filigreed prose, byzantine-absurdist plotting, and Kubrickian dark humor in these stories. Still, The Refugees will haunt its readers, especially in these times, when refugee stories need to be told, shared, and told again, ad infinitum.
...[a] beautiful and heartrending story collection ... It’s a recurring theme in The Refugees that the traumatized individual must make his way slowly, word by word. Nguyen’s narrative style—restrained, spare, avoiding metaphor or the syntactical virtuosity on display in every paragraph of The Sympathizer—is well suited for portraying tentative states. His characters are emotional convalescents, groping their way to an understanding of their woundedness ... all Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes.
At a time when paranoia about refugees and migrants has reached a new high in America and perhaps the world, Viet Thanh Nguyen's first collection of short stories, The Refugees, adds a necessary voice humanizing this group of demonized people ... Nguyen writes empathetically about the emotional wounds his characters carry, whether as first-generation refugees or as their American-born children ... The men in the stories are the most vividly rendered characters, and the ones who are allowed the most foibles. The women are long-suffering and defined by their relationships to the men in their lives: as wives, mothers, daughters or even mistresses. It is more often the men's journey that interests Nguyen, who makes their pain and frustration vivid on the page ... Ultimately, however, these eight works celebrate the art of telling stories as an act of resilience and survival ... The Refugees is a beautifully written collection, filled with empathy and insight into the lives of people who have too often been erased from the larger American media landscape.
Nguyen is an exceptional storyteller who packs an enormous amount of information and images into a short work ... Nguyen is able to show us so much so quickly because he is an efficient writer — giving us not a word more than we need to fully grasp what he is saying ... Nguyen's vision of the Vietnamese migration to the United States and its impact on the nation is complex. His message is not Pollyannaish or demonizing, as some of the most simplistic of writing about them can be. Nguyen's message, instead, is that they are people, like all of us, with complicated lives and histories.
...a beautiful collection that deftly illustrates the experiences of the kinds of people our country has, until recently, welcomed with open arms ... Remembrance is a common theme in Nguyen's stories, particularly the kind of unwelcome memories that haunt the pasts of those who have endured trauma ... Every story in The Refugees succeeds on its own terms, but the most affecting one, perhaps, is 'The Other Man,' about an 18-year-old man named Liem who seeks refuge in America in 1975, after the fall of Saigon ... an urgent, wonderful collection that proves that fiction can be more than mere storytelling — it can bear witness to the lives of people who we can't afford to forget.
The opening story, 'Black-Eyed Women,' is told by a ghostwriter who specializes in survivors of tragedy...This is the most brutal story; others have a softer kind of melancholy, with ironic moments created by the absurdities of life — such as what happens when a man looking to thank the family of the donor of his new liver finds there are hundreds of people with the surname Vu in the Orange County phone book ... As our first major Vietnamese-American writer, Nguyen is a prodigious genius is making up for lost time. Good thing we let him in.
With tenderness and intimacy, with softly shaded ironies, Viet Thanh Nguyen personalizes a group of Vietnamese-Americans living on the West Coast ... Unsurprisingly, The Refugees is full of complicated family dynamics, cultural rifts and surprising resolutions ... The nine unpredictable and moving stories that make up The Refugees are a remarkable achievement, portraits of people living in a phantom zone called America. I found that I was unable to read more than one story a day — they so filled my mind.
[Nguyen] returns with a softer and more elegant form, each of his eight stories suffused with hauntings ... Nguyen writes most movingly of the debt of safety and freedom and how it impoverishes the lucky survivors; men and women who, having survived war and displacement, find themselves living in relative comfort, terrorised by an unanswerable question: why me? ... The Refugees, given its subject matter and the enormity of contemporary travel bans, racism and conflict, has a light but powerful touch ... Nguyen’s stories are to be admired for their ability to encompass not only the trauma of forced migration but also the grand themes of identity, the complications of love and sexuality, and the general awkwardness of being. For all their serious qualities, they are also humorous and smart.
Death comes in various forms in The Refugees—some literal, some figurative, some solely bringing about the death of dreams that needed to die anyway ... None of the presumed or offstage deaths is quite as affecting as that of the narrator’s brother in 'Black-Eyed Women,' and nothing in The Refugees is half as gruesome as the scene where he’s murdered and the narrator is gang raped ... Perhaps the most important lesson of this story, and of The Refugees as a whole, is that you don’t have to live like a ghost.
...[a] quietly profound peek into the lives of Vietnam’s deracinated and dispossessed ... Only in 'Black-Eyed Women' does Nguyen resort to anything resembling cliche as a means of laying bare a character’s snarled state of mind ... Of course, it isn’t just the refugees of the book’s title for whom nothing ever dies, but almost everyone who experienced the war, from U.S. military personnel to those Vietnamese (the vast majority) who stayed behind.
Wistfulness threads through The Refugees like an anthem of displacement. The text is barbed with subtle humor that is wry and painful. The resulting stories are beautiful in their astringency and shifting points of view, but no reader will set them down feeling jolly. Nguyen’s writing travels along a spine of moral reckoning ... A few stories — such as 'The Americans' and 'I’d Love You to Want Me' — seem at a loss for an ending, but overall, the collection casts a formidable spell, especially at this political moment when refugees are both a lightning rod and an abstraction.
In the wake of the immigration ban, The Refugees provides an imperative perspective on how refugees bear the onuses of war time and time again. We see this throughout Nguyen’s stories – that American fear, whether anti-communist or Islamophobic, is taken out on the innocent. We see the guise of protection being used to propagate racism and xenophobia ... Thematically, The Refugees is interested in the trauma and transgenerational grief of people forced out of their homes, as well as what it means to feel trapped in the nowhere space between cultures ... The Refugees are neither prolix and maximalist, nor terse and pared down—they are simply good stories imagined with keen attention to detail ... There’s no denying he is a deft wordsmith and purveyor of lovely diction. But he’s also just so damn readable. His most violent and scathing prose is lightened by nuanced humor ... The Refugees serves up elegant, hearty stories full of vibrant language and memorable characters. There’s plenty of time to invest in each one, and they’re worth coming back to time and time again.
What remains true in each story, whether his characters are in California’s Vietnamese communities or in Vietnam, is that war creates breaks in family lines. Nguyen writes compelling stories that reflect these caesura, and The Refugees is a precisely rendered collection of sketches ... Nguyen’s stories are significant because they both are and are not like those of everyone else; the presentation of the refugee experience as human, and therefore relevant, written with a skillful hand. Since these stories speak to the unique refugee experience, they will garner reviews full of words like 'necessary,' 'important' and 'required.' It’s impossible not to use these words because they’re earned by his steady prose. Nguyen’s writing is a wonderful dichotomy of honesty and energy. At the same time, these are stories that will seem familiar to any reader because they’re generational, human.
...the stories abound with images of doubleness and surreal twists of perception, often imbuing the narratives with a dreamlike clarity and strangeness. Nguyen’s characters have, naturally, been raised to view the world through a particular lens. What happens, he asks again and again, when that lens is made redundant by history and displacement? ... Memory is naturally a recurring theme in the stories, but Nguyen avoids the mawkish tone of so much backward-gazing literary fiction by anchoring his characters’ recollections in vivid often grotesque imagery ... throughout the collection Nguyen crafts a personal language and imagery superbly fitted to each character’s volatile, near-inexpressible memories and reflections. He instinctively understands what to leave off the page and what to include, and when to allow readers to fill in the most painful details for themselves. For all of the collection’s strengths — and they are many — the final impression, at least for this reviewer, is of a novelist recharging his creative batteries and exploring tropes, ideas and character types that will likely be expanded upon in a future novel.