Strangers to Ourselves: Reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees

August 28, 2017
Title: The Refugees
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Originally published: February 2017
Page count: 209
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Genre: Short story

Since 2015, the topic of refugees has been close to the lips and hearts of many, either to aid or to fear, to have or to refuse. Viet Thanh Nyguen’s previous works, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies, which won and/or were nominated for the highest prizes in their genres, reopened the question of whether refugees had ever truly gone away prior to 2015. In his previous works—one novel and one non-fiction—Nyguen explored questions of identity and history—and extends this now into this series of short stories written over the course of two decades.

Since the Second World War, refugees have been a constant part of American culture, and rarely welcomed with ease. As with refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, refugees were looked on with suspicion; the very nation with whom American soldiers had been at war for nearly 25 years were now taking up residence in America. Similar stories played out with Jewish refugees in World War 2, Iraqi refugees in the 1990s, and Syrian refugees today: the refugee as the ones who are present among us, as strangers and aliens, and as persistent reminders of violence and history whose stories we would rather remain elsewhere.

This vision of refugees—as the victim and outsider—obscures two important points which Nguyen’s recent collection of short stories opens up: that refugees are not homogenous, and that the experience of loss (which we associate with refugees) is not a unilateral experience. Because refugees come to America, Americans assume a posture of universal benefactor, forgetting that the histories of refugees are intimate and diffuse, and that Americans are not immune from loss, privation, or being lost between worlds. The stories of The Refugees do not follow one single thread, save this: leaving one world and entering another is not a zero-sum game. For the figures of Nyguen’s stories, travelling over the ocean does not mean that the past resides in family homes; the present is a constant act of integration, bricolage performed over and over again, carving out space for the past.

Within The Refugees, the genres range back and forth to communicate these core themes. The opening story, “Black-eyed Women” is a ghost story of the more straightforward variety, with apparitions speaking to the living, while “I’d Love You to Want Me” is a ghost story of a more modern kind, in which the ghosts of the past come lovingly to lay claim to the living in the form of dementia. In both cases, the past comes to claim the present in lingering ways, but in ways which require the present to make room for it. Manifested in the form of unknown lovers, misremembered names, and dead siblings, the past impinge upon the present characters in ways which disrupt the lives of all those around them.

This disruption of the past is not one-directional, however. The most common tropes of refugees, as mentioned earlier, is that Americans are the host and the refugees the needy victims. What these stories open up is the possibility than encounter is reciprocal; whether in love or hate, encounter marks us irrevocably for these stories. In “The Americans,” we follow James Carver back to Vietnam where he fought decades earlier, as he has to wrestle not only with his own wounds, but with the ways in which his daughter is now integrating herself with Vietnam. In “The Other Man,” we meet a refugee taking up residence with a gay couple, and finding himself becoming romantically knit into their lives in ways he did not anticipate; “The Transplant” binds two men together through a case of mistaken identity, making strangers into a perverse family. The refugees in these stories run in multiple directions: Americans become lost and the refugees found; refugees, in their pursuit of home, draw others into their search, and out of their false comforts.

The gift of this collection is not its literary art, though this is amply present. The gift of this collection in this present moment is the evocation of refugees as bearers of truths about America which it would rather not hear again. But with every decade, these stories must be told again, and told anew. Refugees suffer trauma of many kinds, and there is no ideal refugee, but only strangers to welcomed. But the call to welcome strangers, as The Refugees reminds us, is not because we are those with ample goods and the refugees with nothing, but because we have often become strangers to ourselves, closed off to the world in an attempt to hide from our own pasts. We may attempt to hide from our own pasts, but as in the classic ghost stories, and as Nyguen shows, the past will take on flesh and dwell among us, waiting patiently for a place at the table.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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