Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published February 2017
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.