VIET THANH NGUYEN — THE REFUGEES — 2017
This collection of short stories deserves more than just a skimpy desultory look or glance. There is something a lot more global than just anecdotic stories about various Vietnamese refugees in the USA. They are like the smoldering tip of God’s cigarette just before God lowers it onto your skin, into your flesh, just before God lowers it onto the flesh of your newborn baby, or is it going to be its eyes, in front of you, tied up as you are to some unmovable post and your baby hanging from one leg tied up to a beam. These stories are going to be the best ever answer to any ban on immigrants for any reason whatsoever. Refugees are the responsibility of the USA since the USA bombed and destroyed so much in Vietnam, both north and south. We could widen it to all colonial and imperialistic powers, France, Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Russia and a few others. They are directly responsible for the flow of migrants that have occurred over the last seventy years or even more. At times these migrations were forced deportation of the colonized or previously colonized people. Just accept to be deported to exploitation and segregation in the motherland to be allowed to survive and help your family survive in the colony or ex-colony. There is always a backlash in history after any crime against humanity and the invasion of countries like Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria, and who knows which one tomorrow, is a crime against humanity.
The Vietnam war (and the Indochina war before) is a constant reference in this book and you will not be able to understand the tremendous pain in these characters if you forget about it. And what’s more that war (with the other one in the background) was useless, defeated, absurd. The west has been engaged in all kinds of wars in colonies, ex-colonies and other countries in the third world as they call it. Where are the victories? The Falklands (with an English ship sunk by a French missile); Granada; Panama. And then where? The defeats or the non-victories: Korea; Vietnam (and Indochina before); Algeria; Suez; the independence for ALL colonies, except some small islands in the Caribbean Sea, or in the Indian Ocean, or in the southern Pacific Ocean, and a couple in South America. For how long anyway? The assassination of Mosaddegh has led to the mess of today in Iran. The assassination of Lumumba has led to the mess of today in Congo. The bringing down of Saddam Hussein has led to the mess of today in Iraq and Syria. The bringing down of the Talibans has led to the mess of today in Afghanistan. And look at Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and a few other ex-colonies. We manipulated the Arab Spring and look at what it has led to, both the Arab Spring and our manipulation of it. And look at the mess in Libya where we decided to bring down Gadhafi.
This collection of short stories looks at this mess from and through the point of view of some Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam either after the French Indochina war or after the takeover of Saigon by the Communists. Quite a few surviving boat people who have managed by pure luck to go through the ocean, the thirst, the hunger, the pirates, the human traffickers, etc. The first story will give you a taste of a boat full of boat people being taken over by pirates: looted first and then all girls taken away probably to bring new flesh to the prostitution rings in some countries like Thailand. At the same time there was a nice young teenager (twelve mind you) and he will be used by all the pirates after killing his elder brother who tried to protect him and before leaving, the boy well used but still alive. Imagine the mess. All that in front of his parents.
And some in the USA organize extortion rings to get money from those who have managed to get to something in the Vietnamese communities, to open a profitable store or commerce or service. Pay for some fictitious, fantasized guerrilla warfare unit being trained in Thailand to free the Vietnamese motherland. And on that traffic families of eight to twelve people live very decently. That extortion money does not even go where it is supposed to go. And no one will go to the police mind you.
And then you have these importers of counterfeited goods who have to find some kind of place to store them away since they cannot open any official store: a garage in the home of some Vietnamese chap they can hold by the tail with some charade about being the son of the old man who donated his liver to him. And at the same time the family business of that man is employing a lot of illegal undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. So a little bit of blackmail on top of it and the underground business can go on. Assuming that it remains discreet.
And the poignant old professor who is being invaded by Alzheimer and starts calling his wife Yen. The jealousy at first and a very slow understanding that the professor is losing his short memory and only keeps his very distant memory, and thus the woman he is living with becomes the girl friend he may have had and he remembers from when he was a teenager, his high school crush for example. And in such a situation there is no guilt, no conscience, no unfaithfulness, just loss of memory and Alzheimer patients have to be “flattered” in their ranting.
And what about the black pilot who bombed Vietnam from his base in Japan and married a Japanese women and whose daughter decides to go to Vietnam to teach something useful to make up for the crimes of her father’s and she falls in love with a Vietnamese young man and she “becomes” Vietnamese. Imagine the visit of her parents to her in the small place where she works and lives in what is seen by the father as some kind of treacherous act against him and his past that he is not able to criticize since he would have to accept the criminal dimension of his military period. How many people, children, women, pregnant women have his bombs killed?
And what about a young man who is lost in front of the impossible rootless life he has with a mother who was chosen by his father’s father in an arranged marriage. She is dead now but there was no love lost or wasted in that couple and family. And the father had affairs all his life and is having one more after his wife’s death and that girlfriend, the widow of a senator, does not even realize that man will cheat on her because he cannot but cheat. And the son was married but his wife, Sam, wanted a child and he was not sure he wanted one, lost as he was in his rootless family. So the wife goes away and gets a quick divorce and the young man finds out a few months later that she is pregnant. She had managed him so that he made her pregnant without him knowing. Easy, isn’t it, in these days of pills that you can just forget and condoms that are not used in a married couple that lives that kind of pill-taking ritual.
The last story is the most surprising. It is centered on a girl Phuong and her parents, plus two brothers. The mother is the father’s second wife because his first wife left with the first three children while the father, a shoe factory owner, was being reeducated after the fall of Saigon. He named the second batch of three children with the same names as the first batch. The story becomes fascinating when the first daughter, the daughter of the exiled mother called Vivien in their Chicago context, announces her visit. You can imagine the brutality of the confrontation of the fate of a refugee in the USA who lives the hard life of a poor working class girl who is spending her severance allowance from the job she has been fired from, to visit her father just for some nostalgic and slightly perverse reason; with the would-be refugee-dream of the Vietnamese daughter, Phuong, who only dreams of going to the USA, in her poor conditions of little means, crowded apartment, nearly compulsory, at least unescapable, jobs, and other limitations due to the poverty of the country that invest in tourism to make western tourists more or less cry or empathize on the lot of Vietcong soldiers who won the war by living in underground tunnels. Claustrophobia in these tunnels and agoraphobia when coming out in some public place not recommended. The end of the story will leave you puzzled. Is Phuong getting rid of her emigration dream or is she deciding to do it on her own and with no help from her half-sister in Chicago who had anyway said she could not get bothered with a sister in her very precarious financial situation.
That’s the type of feeling and experience the famous travel ban executive orders were playing with as if it were just some superficial and valueless anecdotic folklore. There is such a lack of empathy in a man like Trump that this book should be treated by us like a bible of the world of tomorrow that will have to accept and recognize the reality of our past and present, and particularly that our past crimes require some sharing because we have to repair and because sharing should always have been the basic human value, not humanoid motto for the rich.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU