The Refugees

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The Refugees
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Corsair
209pp
$32.99 AU
Published February 2017
ISBN 9781472152558

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s latest publication, The Refugees published this year by Corsair, is a collection of stories, all of which contain a tale of mistaken identity. This insightful and illuminating work strikes candidly into the heart of life for many refugees and is intrinsically linked to the idea of personhood and self-actualisation. I experienced a number of certain misjudgements or misappropriations during my reading of each story. I made false assumptions as a reader, and each of these errors are representative of wider, more social misapprehensions of the immigrant experience.

Below is a brief summary of a few key moments contained in the stories which frame my reading:

    • Black-Eyed Women: at the opening of the story we mistake the narrator for a man. However in discussing a brother, now dead, we learn that the narrator is in fact a woman. In this way the classical trope of the double, common to many ghost or gothic stories, is subverted. Although the siblings appear as mirror images of one another, the fractured nature of their story is revealed not only through the outcome of their lives, but in the revelation of their gender.
    • The Other Man: I was unsure of not only Liem’s sexual preference, but also of his opinion of the homosexual relationship between the two men he lives with (p. 28-29). False assumptions such as Liem’s and also of our understanding of Liem’s sexuality, are common to the refugee and immigrant experience.
    • The Transplant: this is a story of fraud and opportunism. In many ways the refugee is often stripped of their own identity and free to pursue another. Whilst this can be an opportunity for growth, it can also deeply complicate a person’s relationship to their homeland. I know that as a second generation immigrant I have often been conflicted as to the depth of my feeling or sense of responsibility to the country of my heritage, from which I am absent.
    • I’d Love You to Want Me: this case of mistaken identity is particularly brutal because it not only affects how Mrs. Khanh is seen through the eyes of another, in this case her husband, but also how she looks at her own life and the identity she has built around being The Professor’s wife. In this story we come to understand that the fragility of personhood is universal, to the extent that there is even a moment where we doubt Mrs. Khanh’s grip of reality.
    • Fatherland: the final story in this collection delves deeply into the motif of the double. The relationship between Phuong and Vivien operates as a binary, reflecting the missed opportunities of Phuong’s life to herself. However, it is not Phuong, the one who never left Vietnam, who has missed out. Instead we appreciate, alongside of Phuong, that it is Vivien who has never fully realised her own chances.  

As a reader experiencing these subversions and twists, I can see the difficulty of reading the stories from my own background. Additionally, I find that the confusion felt rather adds to my experience of each story and heightens an awareness of the importance of perspective. Viet Thanh Nguyen has said he writes for a Vietnamese audience, one which necessarily understands his writing on some level; “Therefore, I would not have to translate, and anybody who didn’t know what I was talking about would have to read more carefully and be more attentive”. Therefore, if these mistakes in identity and perspective are common to my reading of his stories, perhaps the key is not to look at them so much as errors, but rather as keys into an understanding of each tale which would be otherwise inaccessible.

Reading in this way, I found it possible to move through my ignorance not only of the historical events but also of the many various layers of life and identity inherent within each individual refugee experience. Like so many of the mirrors in the written worlds of Jorge Luis Borges, the stories of The Refugees open like windows into an array of parallel universes. Where each one exists in connection to another, in urban settings all throughout America and all over the world.  

La Bête humaine

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La Bête humaine
Emile Zola (1890)
Folio, 1977

This is an incredibly sensual book, almost to the point of vulgarity. Not in the sense that it is overtly sexual or violent even, just that the atmosphere is palpable in every scene.

All of the characters feel as though they are just centimeters from one another: living, breathing and viscerally gutting themselves all within close proximity. Even when Severine and Jacques take their weekly dalliances to Paris, it feels as though Paris herself has become but another suburb of Rouen.

The image of the ripe neck is persistent and laden with connotations of lust, death and some form of culmination, either murderous or sexually inclined. The image of the body is extended to non-organic objects, such as the train and we see a kind of self-mutilation in the horrific accident which occurs before the book’s denouement.

The motif of modernity feels like a powerful force which keeps pulling these desperate creatures towards some pre-ordained demise, all the while the pace is painfully slow, as though the fact that it is inevitable means that their end is in no way urgent, seeing that it is given.

The Story of a New Name

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 8.58.43 PMElena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Book Two: The Neopolitan Novels
Text Publishing Melbourne Australia (2012), 2015

All through the reading of this book I was struck with an unrelenting and repetitious questioning of the identity of the possible Lila in my own life. Is she the great friend I had who never let me down but for whom I had such high hopes? Each of which were never actualised but rather exposed as superfluous in contrast to the deep reality of her daily life? Or rather is she found in anyone for whom we have respect? Then, is it Lenù herself which is the real Lila? Never fully realising her own strengths and living in the imperturbable shadow of a creation of her own imagination. But as a I read on, I became more and more convinced that neither Lila nor Lenù can represent one single person, they are only real in the reflection which they project on one another. Lila would be nothing without the weight placed on her by the fatal expectations of her friend Lenù. Just the same as Lenu is nothing but that which she has built from her own enforced comparison with Lila. It is not a question of them needing one another, rather that they simply do not exist as separate entities.

The Trouble With Harry

the-trouble-with-harry-940x528-no-textThe Trouble with Harry
Reginald Theatre – The Seymour Centre
16 Feb – 03 Mar
Tickets: $42/$36
http://www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/the-trouble-with-harry/

So you’ve seen Moonlight, and now you need to see The Trouble with Harry. As much as Moonlight is the story of nuanced and sensual masculinity, Lachlan Philpott’s play The Trouble with Harry, currently showing at The Seymour Centre, is a telling portrayal of fluid identity and the movement between genders. Based on the real life events of Eugene Fallini (Wikipedia doesn’t even come close to doing her any justice) Philpott’s retelling is more mystery than history in this classic Australian story. Staged in the precocious Reginald Theatre right at the bottom of The Seymour Centre, producer and director Kate Gaul has hoisted this play onto the shores of an intimate landscape. The actors move freely within the confines of a tiered wooden stage, and give the illusion of being shipwrecked upon their own lives. Two lovers irrevocably intertwined, Harry Crawford (Jodie Le Vesconte) and his wife Annie Birkett (Jane Phegan) dance in unison towards their mutual demise where lies, fear and condemnation plague and eventually destroy them. To the sounds of an almost cinematic musical score, we see unfold at once the story of two lovers, their family and the people who watch them. The Trouble with Harry is a contemporary commentary on the vicious nature of rumor and the power of assumption, themes especially valid in today’s post-truth world.

Slaughterhouse-Five

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-8-01-55-pmKurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Vintage, London 2000

I thought Slaughterhouse-Five was a completely different book. I imagined that it would be a coming of age tale in a time of war, centered around five young lives and their discovery of a run-down slaughterhouse somewhere in Middle America. I imagined a scene where a dominant child takes to the emotional and even physical torture of another, whilst the others standby as onlookers. I imagined an allegory of war and of the wild and inhumane acts that people perform upon one another.

In many ways this picture is not wrong, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is not so different from my own. It is the story of horror and dread and inexplicable madness. It is also ominous for the greater part of the novel, a quality I saw inherent to my own fantasised version. However, it also tells of the circularity of life and the ever existing movement of life and death. I did not imagine my children of the slaughterhouse to engage so profoundly with the nonexistence of life in a universe where no one really dies: and so on… ad infinitum.

Billy’s idiot-savant approach to life recalls that of Dostoyevski’s Myshkin, and causes the story to unfurl in a manner similar to his unending stream of flashbacks and episodes of time and space travel. There is really no beginning to this story which starts by letting us know exactly how it will end, so that the ending never actually happens. It is as though with each step forward we take two steps back, further into the depths of Billy’s plundered mind.

I don’t know where I got the notion of another entirely different Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps it was from a cover I had once seen, on which five small children could be seen dancing infront of a red barn. Often with a book of such renown and popularity, the contents are often obscured and influenced prior to any reading. This was certainly the case for myself, I couldn’t help but think of Billy as any one of my invented slaughterhouse children, at once tormentor and tormented. In such a way, it is certainly a book to add to The Brief History of Books that do not Exist

Junky

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-9-01-11-pmJunky
William S. Burroughs
Penguin Books, 2009 (1953)

Junky as a title is misleading, for this is not the story of a man, a junky; but rather the story of Junk.

It is no surprise that I approached this book with the idea of an autobiography in the style of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. Junky‘s reputation certainly precedes it and having the advantage of over 60 years of fascinated readers, along with its place as a Penguin favourite, meant that I had heard more than a few opinions on its content.

However, Burroughs himself has no intention of fooling us, and makes sure to teach us right from the outset that:

Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life. (xxviii)

What is to come is no raucous trip through the ungrowth of a deep and mesmerizing world of addiction and inhibition, rather it’s the simple but solid fact that junk takes no prisoners. There is no one behind the junky and there is no story about the life behind the junk. All that we see is the stark image of the opiate: how it consumes, empties and retains the user.

None of what Bill does throughout the book has any meaning, nor does it give us any clues as to what motivates his story. The void is filled only by the Junk and its overwhelming power of effacement. Supposedly Bill has a wife and numerous sexual exploits occur, but these are all peripheral, they only exist by virtue of their coming into contact with Junk.

There is one point, towards the end, at which another spectre is given the chance to emerge. Given no name and defined as ‘neither a user nor a seller’, this is something worse than the junky and calls for one of the most descriptive and graphic portrayals in the book:

So this man walks around in the place where he once exercised his obsolete and unthinkable trade. But he is unperturbed. His eyes are black with an insect’s unseeing calm. He looks as if he nourished himself on honey and Levantine syrups that he sucks up through a sort of proboscis. 

What is his lost trade? Definitely of a servant class and something to do with the dead, though he is not an embalmer. Perhaps he stores something in his body – a substance to prolong life – of which he is periodically milked by his masters. He is as specialised as an insect, for the performance of some inconceivably vile function. (112)

What we see here is the description of a being no longer useful as seen through the lens Junk. The Junk has now assumed the role of narrator and tells of a horrible creature now devoid of any value through an absence of usefulness. It doesn’t crave the drug nor even try to control it in the way the Law might, it is a parasite of the ultimate order and now abhorred.

In comparison the junky is painted as a pleasing and degenerative soul for whom a passion for Junk is justifiable and even encouraged. In many ways the junky is simply another form of organic matter waiting to be consumed:

We are turning into plants. (147)

At first difficult to understand and even frustrating, Junky soon shows itself as but another rhythm of life, ebbing onwards at a slow and dull beat.