“Yours is a lucky generation.”
“I wouldn’t say we were so lucky,” Phuong said.
“You’ve never appreciated what you have.” Her father waved his hand over the meal and Phuong squeezed her glass, bracing to hear the stories of her parents one more time.
“Phuong was bemused at how these tourists would want to spend their money and their day here, instead of at the beach, or at a fancy restaurant, or in a hammock at a rustic riverside café. The reason for such behavior, her father said, was that the foreign tourists knew only one thing about this country, the war.”
I’ve put off writing this review because I don’t know where to start. So I guess I’ll start here. The Refugees tells the stories of Vietnamese refugees in America – from mothers who lost children during their escape from the communist regime – to the children of these parents, who grapple with the lasting scars of the split of their parents’ lives: the before and after.
In this series of short stories, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer prize winning author of “The Sympathizer” shows us snippets of lives affected in some way by the Vietnam war and the subsequent escape and relocation of these families. The most poignant stories are from the perspective of the children of these refugees, who were either born in the US, or were too young to remember much about fleeing their homeland.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, so much of popular culture and literature in America was told through the lens of the returning soldier. How the experience of fighting and dying there was brutal, heroic. How blood and loss and the futility of fighting bonded these men together. How this war changed a generation of Americans. But it was completely one-sided. Sure, at times there were parts of the weekly episode of China Beach or Tour of Duty that dealt with the fallout on the local population, but it was never, or hardly ever, from the perspective of the Vietnamese people. I grew up fascinated by these stories, basically any stories, that offered a view into this period of history. As a GenX kid, so much of my childhood was influenced by this bizarre, hyper-military-focused soap-opera style entertainment.
The Refugees was one of the first books selected for my book club, and tore through it in a couple of days. The writing is so beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever read an author who can sketch a character so well that, when they say or think the briefest of phrases, the meaning is felt so entirely.
The good: The point of view of the characters is everything. It felt as if I was inside the story.
The bad: I can’t think of anything bad to say other than I wish that there were twice as many short stories in this collection.