The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I am a refugee, an American, and a human being, which is important to proclaim, as there are many who think these identities cannot be reconciled. In March 1975, as Saigon was about to fall, or on the brink of liberation, depending on your point of view, my humanity was temporarily put into question as I became a refugee.

My family lived in Ban Me Thuot, famous for its coffee and for being the first town overrun by communist invasion. My father was in Saigon on business and my mother had no way to contact him. She took my 10-year-old brother and four-year-old me and we walked 184km to the nearest port in Nha Trang (I admit to possibly being carried). At least it was downhill. At least I was too young, unlike my brother, to remember the dead paratroopers hanging from the trees. I am grateful not to remember the terror and the chaos that must have been involved in finding a boat. We made it to Saigon and reunited with my father, and, a month later, when the communists arrived, repeated the mad scramble for our lives. That summer we arrived in America. I came to understand that in the United States, land of the fabled American dream, it is un-American to be a refugee. The refugee embodies fear, failure, and flight. Americans of all kinds believe that it is impossible for an American to become a refugee, although it is possible for refugees to become Americans and in that way be elevated one step closer to heaven. To become a refugee means that one’s country has imploded, taking with it all the things that protect our humanity: a functional government, a mostly non-murderous police force, a reliable drinking water and food supply, an efficient sewage system (do not underestimate how important a sewage system is to your humanity; refugees know that their subhuman status as the waste of nations is confirmed by having to live in their own waste). I was luckier than many refugees, but I still remain scarred by my experience. After I arrived in the refugee camp set up at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, at four years old, I was taken away from my parents and sent to live with a white sponsor family. The theory, I think, was that my parents would have an easier time of working if they didn’t have to worry about me. Or maybe there was no sponsor willing to take all of us. Regardless, being taken away from my family was simply another sign of how my life was no longer in my hands, or those of my parents. My life was in the hands of strangers, and I was fortunate that they were kind, even if to this day I still remember howling as I was taken from my parents.

Like the homeless, refugees are living embodiments of a disturbing possibility: that human privileges are quite fragile, that one’s home, family, and nation are one catastrophe away from being destroyed. As the refugees cluster in camps; as they dare to make a claim on the limited real estate of our conscience — we deny we can be like them and many of us do everything we can to avoid our obligations to them. The better angels of our nature have always told us that morality means opening our doors, helping the helpless, sharing our material wealth. The reasons we come up with to deny doing such things are rationalisations. We have wealth to share with refugees, but we would rather spend it on other things. We are capable of living with foreigners and strangers, but they make us uncomfortable, and we do not want to be uncomfortable. We fear that strangers will kill us, so we keep them out. *** Our fate as refugees is controlled by the strategies of the men who command the bombers. In my case, the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam war than it did all of Europe during the second world war. This played a role in creating refugees, and because of American guilt and anticommunist feeling, the US government took in 150,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1975. It authorised the admission of several hundred thousand more, and other Southeast Asian refugees, in the subsequent decade. What the US did exceeded what Southeast Asian countries did, which was to deny entry to the “boat people” or contain them in camps until they could find a host country like the United States. Accepting these refugees was proof that the US was paying its debt to its South Vietnamese allies, and the refugees became reminders that life under communism was horrible. We were expected to be grateful for our rescue from such a life, and many of us were and are thankful.

“But I was also one of those unfortunate cases who could not help but wonder whether my need for American charity was due to my having first been the recipient of American aid,” or so I wrote in my novel The Sympathizer. I am a bad refugee, you see, who can’t help but see that my good fortune is a stroke of bureaucratic luck and the racial politics of the United States, where Asians are considered model minorities. If I was Haitian in the 1970s and 1980s, I would not have been admitted as a refugee, because I was black and poor. If I was Central American today, I would not be admitted as a refugee, even though the US has destabilised the region in the past through supporting dictatorial regimes and creating the conditions for the drug economy and drug wars. I am a bad refugee because I insist on seeing the historical reasons that create refugees and the historical reasons for denying refugee status to certain populations. Central Americans are categorised instead by the United States as immigrants, which suspends questions over the influence of American policy on their countries of origin. The immigrant is that foreigner who has proceeded through the proper channels. The immigrant is the one who wants to come, unlike the refugee, who is forced to come. The immigrant, as contrasted to the refugee, is awesome. The immigrant, in turn, makes America awesome. Or great. I forget the right word. In any case, here are the famous words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Except that this has not always been true. The current xenophobia in American society that is directed against refugees and their cousins, undocumented immigrants, and even against legal immigrants, has deep roots. Inasmuch as America has been built by immigrants and is welcoming to foreigners, it has also been built on genocide, slavery, and colonialism.

These two aspects of America are contradictory but both are true at the same time, as they are true of the other liberal democracies of the west. So it is that in the US, where 51 per cent of billion-dollar start-ups were founded by immigrants, and all of the 2016 Nobel Prize winners are immigrants, the country has periodically turned on its immigrants. Beginning in 1882, the United States banned Chinese immigrants. The excuse was that the Chinese were an economic, moral, sexual, and hygienic threat to white Americans. In retrospect, these reasons seem ridiculous, particularly given how well Chinese Americans have integrated into American society. These reasons should make us aware of how laughable contemporary fears about Muslims are — these fears are as irrational as the racism directed against the Chinese. Various other legal acts effectively ended non-white immigration to the country by 1924, and while the door would slowly creak open with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 (when 105 Chinese were permitted to enter annually), the United States would not embrace open immigration until 1965’s Immigration Act. The contemporary US has been defined by that act, with large numbers of Asian and Latino immigrants coming in and reshaping what America is (and for the better; without immigration from non-white countries, American food would be as terrible as that of pre-immigration England). But the prejudice remains. It emerges in the feeling against undocumented immigrants. Those who oppose them say we should give preference to documented immigrants, but I suspect that once the undocumented have been kicked out, these rational people will start speaking about how there are too many immigrants in general.
In truth, my own family is an example of the model minority that could be used to rebut such an argument. My parents became respectable merchants. My brother went to Harvard seven years after arriving in the States with no English. I won the Pulitzer Prize. We could be put on a poster touting how refugees make America great. And we do. But it shouldn’t take this kind of success to be welcomed. Even if refugees, undocumented immigrants, and legal immigrants are not all potential billionaires, that is no reason to exclude them. Even if their fate is to be the high-school dropout and the fast-food cashier, so what? That makes them about as human as the average American, and we are not about to deport the average American (are we?). The average American, or European, who feels that refugees or immigrants threaten their jobs does not recognise that the real culprits for their economic plight are the corporate interests and individuals that want to take the profits and are perfectly happy to see the struggling pitted against each other. The economic interests of the unwanted and the fearful middle class are aligned — but so many can’t see that because of how much they fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture, where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force, and I admit to being afraid of it.
Then I think of my parents, who were younger than me when they lost nearly everything and became refugees. I can’t help but remember how, after we settled in San Jose, California, and my parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store in the rundown downtown, a neighbouring store put a sign up in its window: “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.” But my parents did not give in to fear, even though they must have been afraid. And I think of my son, nearly the age I was when I became a refugee, and while I do not want him to be afraid, I know he will be. What is important is that he have the strength to overcome his fear. And the way to overcome fear is to demand the America that should be, and can be, the America that dreams the best version of itself.

MJ: You’ve said that when you wrote The Sympathizer, you made the decision not to pander to a white American audience.

VTN: If you’re a so-called minority writer, the temptation is to write for the majority. That’s the easiest route to get published, and that distorts the stories. Writers from the majority can assume their audiences know what they’re talking about—they don’t have to explain things, whereas minority writers are expected to. I refuse to do that. So I wrote a book that’s a confession from one Vietnamese person to another. If you’re not Vietnamese, you’re not the primary audience. That can be disorienting, but I wanted to force readers to question their privileges and assumptions.

MJ: Your stories touch on how hard it is for refugees to feel like they belong. Is that something that affects you, even after all these years?

VTN: I feel that sense of in-betweeness and that sense of dislocation on a regular basis. It’s not a tragedy or anything. I think many of us feel that way about our situations, except I connect that to the feeling of dislocation as a refugee. I’ve never stopped being a refugee. The one time I think I actually felt completely present, that I fully belonged, was in the writing of The Sympathizer, which took two years and I had nothing else to do with my life for those two years—90 to 95 percent of that experience was really wonderful. I felt like finally my writing and myself had merged.

MJ: When did you realize you wanted to write for a living?

VTN: I think I always knew. By college, I had a really grand, preposterous vision of myself as becoming a writer, but I don’t think I had the discipline or the patience—or the ability or the humility. It took 20 years to acquire those things. Before writing The Sympathizer, I never called myself a writer because it seemed so pretentious—a writer was what somebody else called you, a title bestowed. But when I finished the book, I felt I had paid my dues.

Michael Kazin: I see you as belonging to a long tradition of American authors who go back and forth between writing fiction and writing cultural and political criticism and commentary: Some examples include Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Edmund Wilson and Toni Morrison. How do you combine the two types of writing?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a great genealogy to be put in, a humbling one, too. Whether or not I match that level, I do see myself as someone who’s both a writer and a critic, a novelist and a scholar, and I believe that the capacity to move back and forth between these realms of fiction and nonfiction is tremendously useful for people on both sides of the divide. The various kinds of scholarly and critical work that I’ve done is what made The Sympathizer and The Refugees attain whatever force that they have. Conversely, working as a novelist and as a short-story writer have given me both a greater degree of empathy and a greater degree of style that helped to shape both my critical insight and the way that I write criticism.

Kazin: Are there writers from that tradition, either the ones I mentioned or others, who inspire you and whom you have learned the most from? I noticed your son’s name is Ellison, and I wonder if he is named after Ralph Ellison.

Nguyen: Yes, definitely. Certainly the African-American literary tradition has been really important to me; Ellison for sure, but also Baldwin, Morrison, and W.E.B. DuBois. He’s another figure who wrote both fiction and scholarly works. With all these writers, there’s a sense that you need to work through all these literary forms in order to confront the extremely difficult problems of race, nationalism, American identity, and American imperialism. They did it through both insight and scholarship and style. Part of the power of their persuasion arises from the combination of all those elements. I think also of W.G. Sebald, who engaged in another kind of project. He brought together fiction and nonfiction in investigating the impact of the Holocaust on Germany.

Kazin: You raised the thorny question of identity, which has been so important to scholars of cultural studies and historyas well as to political activists. Early in Race and Resistance, you write about “the need to organize beyond identity if what we seek is more than visibility and empowerment.” How do you see identity not just for the people you’ve written about in your fiction, but as a political category, as a political problem, in America today?

Nguyen: I think that identity is a very necessary part of political mobilization and empowerment. It certainly was for me, to recognize myself as an Asian American, as a Vietnamese American, as a refugee, and to make a claim on American identity. These are all crucial moves for me. But there’s no doubt that a politics organized purely at the level of identity or aesthetics organized purely at that level is deeply limited. What it cannot do is address the deeply entrenched problems of inequality and exploitation that occur at the structural level in any society. Identity is an outcome of that inequality and exploitation—whether it’s the identity of the majority or the identity of minorities.

So we can use identities to highlight inequality and exploitation and the failure to live up to the ideals of a nation or a community, but we can’t actually change those conditions purely through art and politics organized around identity. Art and politics also has to engage at the level of social transformation. Literature, no matter how great it is, can’t change the conditions that it illuminates. I strongly believe that the fiction I write can help us to see how history works and how war operates and how refugees are created. But we’re not going to actually change the problems that my fiction talks about unless the fiction is enabled by and harnessed to social and political movements.

Kazin: What about Asian-American identity and politics, which you discuss in Race and Resistance and, to a certain degree, in Nothing Ever Dies? How do you see the Vietnamese-American experience fitting into the larger history of Asians in the United States? Clearly, the term Asian American encompasses a lot of different groups with quite different histories: Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and lots of others as well.

Nguyen: Vietnamese-American identity and community obviously overlap with Asian-American community and identity, but there are crucial ways in which there is a departure. Vietnamese  Americans who become a part of American culture benefit from the opportunities that Asian-American coalitions have created and suffer from the racism that has been directed against other Asian Americans over time. But Vietnamese Americans also differ from other Asian Americans in how they arrived in the United States as a result of the Vietnamese War and the Cold War. This means that many of the first-generation Vietnamese Americans who were refugees carry with them deeply held anti-Communist feelings. In contrast, the genesis of the Asian-American movement in the 1960s and the formation of that sense of community was formed in the crucible of leftist, often Marxist politics. So there’s a contradiction between these two political visions, one often left unaddressed in Asian-American political discussions.

That being said, I think that there are lessons to be drawn from both the successes and the failures of the antiwar movement as we think about how to deal with antiwar issues today, our take on American involvement overseas, and how to look at Muslims from the Middle East. The tendency to idealize or demonize victims and villains in Vietnam was definitely a mistake but one that, hopefully, we can learn from to act differently in the present. It is crucial to look at people who are living in Middle Eastern countries afflicted by war through a framework that is not so bifurcated between villains and victims. We should regard them as agents of their own history who are making complex choices and mistakes about their own fates. Some are victims or villains. But most of the time, just like Americans, their actions, world-views, and plights fall somewhere in between.

Kazin: Many of the fictional characters in The Sympathizer and The Refugees are liminal figures. I like that line spoken in “The Transplant” by Louis, a dissembling Vietnamese immigrant who passes himself off as someone he’s not: “I never think about the past. Every morning that I wake up I’m a new man.” Do you see liminality as a problem that afflicts refugees more than other kinds of immigrants?

Nguyen: I think both refugees and immigrants are liminal figures. But as they stand on the threshold of crossing societies, they do have something of a different orientation. I think that immigrants tend to look forward, even though sometimes they look back over their shoulders too. Refugees look more in reverse than towards the future simply because they were often forced by circumstances to begin their journeys and are defined by their loss. Immigrants certainly have lost something as they make the move to another country, but they’ve also chosen to undertake that journey. So they have more of a possibility of looking forward. Their liminal condition is easier for them to deal with than the liminality of refugees who have been thrown across the threshold to another land.

Nguyen, himself a refugee, is drawn to dualities, as he writes in the prologue to “Nothing Ever Dies”: “I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe its words.”

Very little is forgettable in these lapidary stories. Particularly the collection’s dedication: “For all refugees, everywhere.”

As Nguyen reminds us, the reader, in his latest collection The Refugees, the Vietnamese community fled Vietnam under great political duress and eventually ended up in San Jose and in California.

In his collection, Nguyen deals with themes of trauma, loss, love, family, identity, including sexual identity, in the Vietnamese refugee community. Of the eight stories that make up the collection, “War Years” left the deepest impression on me. This story, based on Nguyen’s own family experience, depicts the tension that builds within the Vietnamese refugee community as characters struggle to rebuild their lives while dealing with the aftermath of the war.

…Nguyen and I talked on the phone over the holidays about his struggles growing up in San Jose, his frustration with the short story form, and secondhand memories—traumatic memories passed down from one generation to the next.


VTN: I was witnessing what was happening with my family and the Vietnamese refugee community, who were also struggling to establish themselves and dealing with the legacy of the war.

Also, I was an only child because my brother had gone off to college by the time I was eleven. These feelings of being lonely and isolated, and watching the emotional difficulties of my parents and of the Vietnamese community, all come back to what San Jose means.

…The Vietnamese community did support each other. They formed churches and community networks, and families helped each other out. Vietnamese people place a great emphasis on loyalty, family bonds, community, and hospitality. All of that was wonderful about the Vietnamese community.

But at the same time, the Vietnamese community, being so intimate with each other, were also the people who knew where the weak spots were. Living in the Vietnamese community meant that you could also be subjected to rumors, betrayals, suspicions. There were anti-communist feelings—that was a consequence of the war—and it was very difficult to speak out in any way or deviate from whatever was the consensus in the community.

During the 1980s, it was a very difficult time for the Vietnamese community because there was a lot of violence, whether it was spousal abuse, child abuse, or the phenomenon of home invasions, where Vietnamese youth in gangs were assaulting Vietnamese people in their homes and robbing them. That was a very real phenomenon. So, to answer your question, to be in the Vietnamese community was both to be supported and also to be threatened at the same time.

Nguyen: After The Sympathizer was published, people emailed me or wrote to me saying that they remember this time when Vietnamese people were coming to the United States, and that they were living next to these people, taking the bus with them, and had no idea what these people had gone through. They still didn’t thirty years later. That was part of what I had felt growing up in San Jose—that I was deeply immersed in the Vietnamese community and knew the negative stories of what the people had been through, and was also distinctly aware that no one else outside the Vietnamese community knew very much about these experiences.

People rarely asked questions about what the Vietnamese had gone through, and if they did ask questions and the Vietnamese people told them, it would be very awkward. How are you supposed to respond to these horrible stories that people had about what the war was like and about being a refugee? It was an assertion even among Vietnamese people that it would be very difficult to tell our stories to non-Vietnamese people.

It was difficult being a Vietnamese refugee…You needed to form a community, even if it was one community of Vietnamese people against another community of Vietnamese people, you had to have your own band of people protecting you. That impulse was very strong at all levels of the Vietnamese community, whether it was with the adults or the children.

By the time I got to high school at Bellarmine College Preparatory, which is a very white school, there were Asian American students there but we separated ourselves off. We knew we were different but we didn’t know how. We would have lunch together and call ourselves the “Asian Invasion” or “The Yellow Peril.” That was the extent of our political consciousness. It wasn’t until I went to UC Berkeley that I actually figured out that we were Asian Americans, and that’s why we felt different from those people and maybe were treated differently.

Nguyen: That’s a true story. I met a Vietnamese American woman about my age who told me that this is what her father had done. It’s not surprising to me. It’s ritually symbolic of so many things in terms of our political history, our war history, and our cultural patterns within the Vietnamese community. It’s very believable that a man would have two families, and that someone would be so melancholic that they would name one set of children after a set of children that left. This premise has a lot of potential for encapsulating a great deal of Vietnamese history and feeling in one family story.

Rumpus: In an interview with CBC Radio, you talk about the degradation of the term ‘boat people,’ how it is demeaning, how it relegates refugees to an abject status, and how, in response to this, you really wanted to show the complexities of Vietnamese life in your writing and allow readers to see what it’s like to be a refugee. Is there a story or character in the collection that most embodies these complexities?

Nguyen: Each of these stories tackle the different aspects of what it means to be a refugee, but the autobiographical story “War Years” is the story in the collection that most condenses that refugee experience. It melds the narrative of one family with the politics and the trauma of the war and of fleeing the country and leaving people behind. What I did in that story was bring together events that were located across a broad spectrum of time in my family’s life and condensed them all into a few days.

This story shows how the refugee experience impacted people but in disparate ways. Both of the women in the story are trying to survive, but Mrs. Hoa is taking her loss out on other people. That was very typical in the Vietnamese refugee community either through actions against people suspected of communist sympathies, through blackmailing, which did happen, from what I was told, or through other kinds of intra-Vietnamese violence and antagonism that were taking place. The Vietnamese people could not take out their feelings on white people because they knew that there was a boundary they couldn’t cross, so they turned against each other emotionally and, often times, physically. And that’s one of the consequences of what it meant to be a refugee: the community internalized its trauma and took it out on each other.

Rumpus: I’d like to ask about your writing process. In an interview with Charlie Rose, you talk about how writing your novel The Sympathizers was a great pleasure—it only took you two years—but that the story collection was a big struggle and a horrible experience. Why was the collection so difficult, and were there particular stories that were more challenging to write than others?

Nguyen: I started writing fiction seriously in graduate school and I chose the short story form because that was the kind of form that was being taught in writing workshops. I also thought they should be easier to write than a novel. I’ve always wanted to write a novel ever since I got to college, but I thought I would start off with short stories. But writing short stories was actually much more difficult than I ever thought they would be. By the time I figured this out, it was too late. I was trying to write a short story collection and I was stubborn, I didn’t want to just give it up and move on to a novel.

I was also a writer who wanted to say a lot about politics and history, and I did not know how to do that in the context of a short story or a short story collection. No one was teaching me how to do it (that’s a whole separate issue about form and politics) so I had to figure out how to do it myself. And even after I finished the short story collection, I felt no love for the form because writing the novel felt more natural to me. The short story still feels like an alien art. I’m just relieved with having gotten done with it. I don’t want to go back to it.

Rumpus: Are your parents supportive of your writing?

Nguyen: My parents are supportive in a passive way; maybe “tolerant” would be a better way of putting it. They never opposed me being a writer, but that’s also because I never talked about being a writer with them as a subject of conversation. Every now and then I will come home and say, “Here’s a story that’s been translated into Vietnamese,” or when I have books, I’ll bring them the books. But we don’t talk about the content of those works.

For my father, the major issue is the political sensitivity of these works and how dangerous they are to the family. For example, when I wrote Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, I said to him that I wanted to dedicate this book to you and mom, and I need to know how you want your names to appear, because they changed their names legally and there are also different ways to arrange Vietnamese names in Vietnam versus in the United States. He said, “Don’t put our names in it because that history [of the war] is not over.” So the dedication of the book is to my father and mother but their names are not there.

The flip-side to that though is, when The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize, my dad was ecstatic. He rarely gets happy. For him the significance of books are purely about their social significance but not necessarily about the subjects of the books.

Rumpus: You fled Vietnam at a very young age and therefore remember almost nothing of the country. But as a refugee, you grew up with secondhand memories of Vietnam and the war.

Nguyen: My parents told me certain stories about their life in Vietnam, but they didn’t tell me everything. But what they did tell me, they told me repetitively because a story had an impact on them for a number of reasons. Very fragmentary memories have become a part of me—that’s what it means for them to become secondhand. I don’t have a very good grasp of the details. But because they’ve been relayed to me, they become a part of me. And the way I know that is because these memories have left emotional residue in me. There are times where I’ll find myself talking about the past and feel myself caught up in emotion because of the legacy of these secondhand memories and the feelings that they’ve created.

I’ve heard from other Vietnamese American readers of The Sympathizer that they experienced this too but even more so than me. A Vietnamese American woman from San Jose said she has experienced PTSD from these secondhand memories even though she hasn’t experienced them herself. This woman tells me she found it really hard to get through the novel because the scenes in the book would bring up too much emotion for her, even though she was even younger than I am. The feelings that the parents have felt in the first generation were so intense that they left a deep imprint on the second generation.

Rumpus: What are your thoughts about the current plight of Syrian refugees?

Nguyen: It’s always been important for me to assert that I’m a refugee and not an immigrant. A segment of the Vietnamese community has been successful, so it’s easy to forget we are in fact people who fled from somewhere in order to come here. It’s easy for Americans to forget this history of how it is that they feared the presence of Vietnamese refugees.

And to think that Syrian refugees are a new kind of problem that the United States and other Western countries can’t deal with is wrong. We do have more capacity to absorb many more refugees from Syria and other places than we are currently doing. There is both a moral and political obligation given the history of the United States and Europe in shaping the Middle East. It’s also part of the obligation of refugees who have been lucky enough to survive a refugee experience like the Vietnamese people have to extend that empathy to newer refugees.


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