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On the way back from the Association of College and Research Libraries 2019 conference where I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen speak, I downloaded The Refugees from my library to read on the plane. I read The Sympathizer  a couple of weeks ago and found the brutality hard to read but the humanity of the story too important to important to put down. That, it turns out, is more or less what Nguyen said in his talk at ACRL. That the real story of America is much more complicated than the one we tell and that without the “narrative plentitude” that exposes both the beauty and brutality of America, we are perpetuating the power structures that sustain inequity.

So I was not sure how much brutality to expect when I read The Refugees, but I opened it with my eyes and heart open to whatever Nguyen had to bring, because I’m thoroughly convinced that he’s right, we have to face our whole history. That said, if you follow this blog you know I’ve been reading a fair amount about the brutal side lately. So I was pleasantly surprised — the short stories in this collection are as clear eyed and critical as his other work, but Nguyen focuses here on the emotional toll of being human. No less brutal, but somehow easier to read. That’s probably not good — we’re conditioned to accept that psychological damage is a fact of life. But I found these stories about betrayal, deception, addiction, grief, inequity, racism, disappointment and pain less challenging to read than chapter 21 of The Sympathizer, which is a detailed description of multiple torture sessions during wartime and its aftermath.

I guess the stories in The Refugees seem more familiar, and also, like the Sympathizer, remind me that for all the pain, there is also love. In “Someone Else Beside You,” for example, the father is in many ways an awful, violent, duplicitous person. But even though he only knows the most brutal ways to express it, he clearly loves his son. In several cases, while the characters are refugees the story is about something anyone might go through — a father who doesn’t approve of his daughter’s choices in “The Americans,” a man duped by a dishonest friend in “The Transplant,” a woman dealing with her husband’s increasing dementia in “I’d Love You to Want Me.” Without sounding too kumbaya, that’s what we need — stories about diverse communities that help us all understand we’re the same in some very basic ways, so the structures we’ve built up to raise white able people born in a particular place over others are absolutely ridiculous and have no basis in our humanity.

And these stories are not only important — Nguyen is such a good writer. In “Black-Eyed Women,” this paragraph really manages to orient reader’s to the narrator’s relationship with her mother in a brief, beautiful passage: “Ever since my father died a few years ago, my mother and I lived together politely. We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk. She constantly fed me gossip and stories, the only kind I enjoyed concerning my father back when he was a man I did not know, young and happy. Then came stories of terror like the one about the reporter, the moral being that life, like the police, enjoys beating people up now and again. Finally, there was her favorite kind, the ghost story, of which she knew many, some firsthand.”

At the ACRL keynote, someone asked Nguyen about ghosts in his work. He said that in some cultures, ghosts visit because they are seeking justice. In The Refugees Nguyen contributes to America’s narrative plentitude by adding to our collective story lives we must see if we’re ever to satisfy those ghosts.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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