By Viet Thanh Nguyen
209 pages, $25
In America, “where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.” - Viet Thanh Nguyen
The author dedicates this book of short stories to “all refugees, everywhere.” And for good reason: Our brothers and sisters are in need of validation.
Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam in 1971. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, his family, originally from North Vietnam, moved to Indiantown Gap, Pa. Raised in America, he’s professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, “The Sympathizer,” and was also a National Book Award finalist for his work, “Nothing Ever Dies.””
There are eight short stories in this collection: Black-Eyed Women”; “The Other Man”; “War Years”; “The Transplant”; “I’d Love You to Want Me”; “The Americans’; “Someone Else Besides You”; and “Fatherland.”
Perhaps the strongest is the first. “Black-Eyed Women” refers to the memories of a young Vietnamese American woman living with her mother. Paradoxically, she ‘ghost-writes’ other people’s books. She remembers South Vietnam during the war, recalling “the ancient crones who chewed betel nut and spat its red juice while squatting on their haunches in the market” as they told ghost stories.
As a young girl huddled with her mother, she “shivered with delight in the gloom” as she listened to the black-eyed women. They related horrors about so many cruelties. There was the one about “the upper half of a Korean lieutenant’s body launched by a mine into the branches of a rubber tree; a scalped black American floating in the creek … his eyes and the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water; a decapitated Japanese private groping through cassava shrubbery for his head.”
She is visited by the ghost of her brother who died at sea trying to escape the country. He knocked at her door and she let him in. His clothes are dripping, she relates, from swimming the Atlantic, which, if you believe the tale, has taken years. She explains, “He refused to meet my gaze, seemingly more fearful of me than I was of him.”
The sister, now 38, thinks: “What does one say to a ghost, except to ask why he was here?” She tells the ghost of her brother, “Mother will want to see you.” When she returns with Mother, they find only his wet clothes. Mother launders them and folds them in a neat pile.
Mother cautions, “Now you know, never turn your back on a ghost.” Ghosts don’t live by our rules, the daughter realizes. So she decides to make it a work of hers to hunt these pallid creatures down in her writing. She searches for them “in a world besides our own, then leaves them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.”
One could write endlessly about this pearl necklace of brilliant story gems. Perhaps because I’ve become a bit forgetful myself, I cotton to another story, “I’d Love You to Want Me”, about a professor with Alzheimer’s Disease, Dr. Khanh. He gets in trouble at a wedding banquet, forty years after his own marriage, by referring to his wife by the wrong name.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ve done this a thousand times.’
“Have I? I can’t seem to recall.”
What a wonderful wife! She ends up reading short stories to him as his capacities decline.
Because of his disability, she thinks, “A short story, would be just long enough … . She would read with measured breath, to the very end. She would read as if every letter counted.”
These stories show that Viet Thanh Nguyen has incredible gifts as a writer. His description of the immigrant experience can, by turns, be brutally graphic, archly sardonic, or supple in sensing the pain of the sojourner.
He’s a great argument himself for admitting refugees to America. Nguyen is part of the movement of peoples that can revivify every country, if properly conceived and implemented.
These are parlous times for refugees, estimated by the United Nations presently as 65 million. They are on the move from their native countries to somewhere, anywhere, else. They are seeking relief from war and racism and other proliferating ‘isms’ that kill freedom. Refugees are looking for safety and a chance to live peacefully in another country. Their plight is confounded by receiving nation-states’ concerns against terrorists who infiltrate refugee ranks.
The refugee issue is at once a huge opportunity and burden. The theme of doubleness – choice and inevitability, home and homelessness - must be carefully resolved. Refugees tell their stories because they’re the only ones they’ve got. We must listen.
As Ezra Pound put it years ago, “Literature is news that stays news.”
Michael D. Langan is a longtime reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.