Perhaps the most appropriate analogy or metaphor for the eight short stories collected in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees” is that of a film reel: If the story of a person’s life – from his or her perspective – can be thought of as a single film reel, then the stories in the book recount a very specific and short snippet of that reel, with the occasional flashback to or juxtaposition of a snippet from the past. Tying these stories together, furthermore, is the experience of being a (Vietnamese) refugee or being connected with a (Vietnamese) individual who is dealing with or has had contact with immigration and displacement in the United States. And because of the intimately character-driven plots, the reader experiences the lives and struggles of the characters from their perspective.
The analogy or metaphor of the character’s snippets brings to mind Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” and Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” – both of which I read earlier this year – because the emphasis is not necessarily on fleshing out their lives from start to finish, on providing resolutions or offering closure, or foisting definitive narratives on what it means to be a refugee or to interact with a refugee. Instead, Nguyen’s short stories are a kaleidoscope of varied lived experiences, and the best of these stories expound upon the emotional struggles and adjustments of his characters, converging upon familiar themes of family and romantic relationships, culture and traditions (including superstitions), as well as geopolitical development (in and surrounding the country of Vietnam).
Not all stories in “The Refugees”, however, are equally compelling. “Black-Eyed Women” (on the dangers of escaping their homeland by sea and on survivor guilt), “The Other Man” (on homosexuality and its familial and cultural compatibility), “I’d Love You to Want Me” (on the many emotions associated with a long-term, cross-cultural marriage, complicated by a husband who has Alzheimer’s disease), and “Fatherland” (on the implications of the politics in Vietnam and the different perceptions that Vietnamese living in the United States and Vietnam have of each other) are stand-outs, whereas the rest are usually marked by a tangential or contrived link to Vietnam. “The Transplant” and “Someone Else Besides You”, in particular, feel a little out of place. But even so, the overall collection is thought-provoking, especially when the reader is forced to confront and to empathise with the reality of some of these challenging circumstances.