Book Review: The Refugees

Anahita Padmanabhan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a poignant collection of short stories relating to the refugees from Vietnam. Each of the eight stories gives a glimpse into the lives of individuals, with point of views ranging from recent refugees to people visiting Vietnam, and each story sheds light on what life is like for refugees.

Photo Credit: Grove Press
Photo Credit: Grove Press

The most intriguing point of these stories is that they are all unique, engaging, and are not repetitive. With the general concept of looking at the lives of various refugees, the collection had the potential to reiterate the same story in different people, but rather than fall into that trap, The Refugees manages to find new perspectives without being obvious. All of the stories revolve around relationships and interactions, many between parent and child, some between siblings, and others between neighbors.

Nguyen’s The Sympathizerhis Pulitzer-winning debut novel, also focuses on identity in terms of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon. As a refugee himself, Nguyen provides a unique voice that creates the sense of realism throughout the novel. Each character is relatable and three dimensional. Anyone who has struggled with identity and a sense of belonging can relate to the characters, their flaws, and personalities. However, as each one relates to a personal attachment to Vietnam, it also shows readers how the identity of “refugee” is tied to their lives.

In the current political and historical moment, the lives and stories of refugees are incredibly important. Many of these people have lost agency, and their voices are vital in sharing their stories and in creating a more empathetic society. The stories of the Vietnamese refugees are especially important in America, and to have an author pen stories about these people is a truly significant piece of literature.

Photo Credit: The SF Chronicle
Photo Credit: The SF Chronicle

Despite all the stories being fictional, the prevailing thought throughout the novel is that these people could be real; they felt very real. The main theme of the novel is identity. As the case with most refugees, the feeling of belonging and of who they are is taken, and they are given the title of “refugee.” In the particular case of this book, the refugees in America find themselves drawn to each other in Little Saigon in California, and have created a new community, away from their homes. Besides California, the novel also features stories which take place in Vietnam, allowing for perspectives from both those who left the war-torn country, to those who stayed behind. The stories also show what life in Vietnam was like while the war was going on, and what it has become since.

The most emotionally compelling part of the stories was that no matter who the story was about, no matter where it took place, each one had the sense of being unable to disconnect from the war. Overall, Nguyen creates an incredibly compelling collection of short stories, that comes at a critical time in finding empathy and connection, and most importantly, seeing that refugees are not so different from ourselves.

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