Viet Thanh Nguyen Tackles Issues of Race, Immigration, and Identity in ‘The Refugees’

Mar 6, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen‘s first novel “The Sympathizer” won a raft of awards — including the Pulitzer Prize. He’s just published his second book to great acclaim. It’s a collection of short stories called, “The Refugees.”

Many of the stories are informed by his childhood growing up the son of Vietnamese refugees in San Jose, but when Brendan spoke with him, Viet confessed he wasn’t above stealing the concept for his story “Fatherland” from someone else.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: This [book] is actually based on a true story. I met a woman and she told me about what had happened to her family and I thought, “This is a great idea! I’m gonna steal it from you.” Although I did ask her for permission and she said, “Yes, you can do it.”

So, the story is about a man and a woman, they’re married and they have three kids. And then the war ends, and the wife finds out that the husband’s been cheating and so she flees the country and takes those three kids with her while he’s in a re-education camp. And when he comes out of the re-education camp, he marries another woman and has three more kids and names them after his first three.

And the story begins when one of those children raised in America comes back to Vietnam to meet the sister who was named after her. And the sister who was named after her constructed all these fantasies about what the American lives had been like for her half siblings and it’s about what happens when she encounters the reality that this half sibling brings back with her.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This is a perfect device to kind of explore something which seems to lie at the heart of being an immigrant, which is the life one could have led. I bet you couldn’t have imagined your luck when you struck upon that story.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I’m always looking out for stories. I’m listening to people, observing people, and reading newspapers for interesting tidbits. But this point about having this feeling of the possibility of alternative lives and parallel universes has certainly always been with me, the idea that if I had stayed in Vietnam I would have lived a very, very different life. What would I have been like? Or in reverse, we left an adopted sister behind, what would her life had been like if she had come to the United States? And so, that sense of being haunted by other possibilities and by other people’s possibilities has always been with me and is a major theme in the book.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you’re mentioning being haunted, that’s a perfect transition for the other story I want to talk about.

The first story in this book is called, “Black Eyed Woman.” And it’s about a woman who is a Vietnamese refugee who has become a ghost writer. Her brother died when they were escaping Vietnam. She lives in America now and in the story she starts to get visited by his ghost. Do you remember how the notion of ghosts came to you and how that evolved into a story?


Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think Vietnamese people have always believed in ghosts. And I grew up with this idea that ghosts existed, that they did actually come and visit their survivors. And these kinds of ghosts were not necessarily scary ghosts. I mean their appearances to their relatives were actually often times welcomed because the relatives knew this was the final farewell.

So I wanted to write, literally, a ghost story that would accommodate that kind of non-frightening story and yet would also come to stand in for what it means to be haunted by the past. So this ghost writer literally deals with being someone who writes for other people, but she’s also haunted by this missing brother and it’s not simply something that’s emotional for her, but is also literal.

And I thought that so many people that have survived difficult histories of trauma, they literally are haunted. Ghosts might as well be real to them. I think as a refugee, growing up among refugees, the people that I witnessed were growing up steeped in a sense of melancholy and sadness and sometimes bitterness and rage. And it was these kinds of emotions that I wanted to try to explore in the stories.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it also seems like the past haunts people differently depending on their age and how old they were when the refugee experience happened.

In the story we were just talking about, “Black Eyed Woman,” one of the dynamics at play is kind of the immigrant child experience versus their parents. I wonder, can you talk a little bit about those relationships and why they appealed to you as an author.


Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, there’s only one autobiographical short story in the book which is “War Years,” but the entire collection I think is emotionally autobiographical.

When I was growing up, I certainly saw my parents and people my parents’ generation unable to let go of the past and the old country. And for me the old country, Vietnam and everybody we had left behind there were really abstract. Nevertheless I was impacted by the feelings that I witnessed and the stories that I heard.

And so I felt myself eventually to be the bearer if not of first hand memories that I had witnessed, the bearer of second hand memories. And I think many people of my generation, the 1.5 generation, and then later the second generation feel the same way, that they don’t really have any memory or very little memory of what had happened in the country that they come from, but they have been deeply shaped by what their parents have gone though.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s a dual nature to that because the parents aren’t only aware of the customs of the homeland, they’ve also been through a trauma. There’s instances in this book again and again where they’re very protective, they know that everything can disappear in a moment. There’s kind of a lingering disquiet.


Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, and I think that for refugee populations in the United States, they’re all marked by terrible, difficult experiences in crossing over to the United States. It’s a universal condition in what it means to be a refugee to have undergone that kind of trauma.

And that kind of pervasiveness of dislocation and all of the hardships and feelings that ensue from that is something that I think many Americans and many Europeans as well, when they’re facing new refugees, they’re unaware of what that means. And that was one of the reasons it was important for me to write this book.

Brendan Francis Newnam: As we are recording this interview there is a proposal of an immigration ban for certain countries that’s being argued, we don’t know how that’s gonna go just yet. But refugees have certainly been in the news and you’ve recently written some op-eds on this topic.

And you write not only do Americans not understand, maybe, what it means to be a refugee, but they’re almost repelled by them. I think what you’re getting at is that people don’t like to be reminded how fragile things really are.


Viet Thanh Nguyen: In the United States, I think even though we have ambivalent feelings about immigrants, immigrants are nevertheless a part of the American dream, the American mythology, and Americans can make sense out of immigrants, people who want to come here and make a life here.

Refugees, however, are not immigrants. They’re quite different. And it’s important to draw that distinction because refugees are forced to flee. And they arrive, basically, as homeless people who’ve lost everything. And that I think really does make Americans uncomfortable. Because I think Americans feel that it is un-American, to be a refugee.

Nothing in the American dream prepares Americans to believe that their lives can be totally shattered the next day by a catastrophe like war or natural disaster. And when refugees appear, they are living reminders of that possibility and that makes people uncomfortable.