Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees


Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at

What is currently described as the refugee crisis has taken up much of our political, media, and social attention, given the sheer numbers of people who are moving about the world today. However, the phenomenon of human migration and acculturation to new environments is a constant, going all the way back to our hominid ancestors.

This collection of very human stories is perhaps a strong reminder that we are all in some sense migrants, and even refugees, as we face the challenges of cohabiting with each other and living with ourselves., building and shedding our cultural markers.

The characters in this collection of narratives are not taken from the current waves of Middle Easterners, North Africans, and Latin Americans fleeing from homelands to cross strange borders for survival and security. Rather they are bits and pieces of ongoing stories related to those who fled Vietnam at the end of the war and the subsequent generations abroad and at home. This context reminds us that we should not frame refugees and asylum-seekers only in their flight, the miseries of their passage, or their acceptance or rejection by a host society. Rather, their experience extends to the second and third generation in a new homeland, and this book explores the ongoing process of acculturation to life and to the diverse others we share it with on an everyday basis. There is much pain and vulnerability in the characters walking through these pages and, willy-nilly, we often discover them as giving voice to parts of ourselves.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, recipient of the 1916 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is an extraordinary writer, not only in his ability to capture the inner feelings and the everyday behavior of the characters he describes, but also in how his choice of words, similes and metaphors give life to the environments and contexts in which they find themselves. His words, expressions and phrases frequently leave the reader open-mouthed in both amazement and recognition.

The Refugees was given to me on my birthday by a former Vietnamese intern, and I began to read it as a possible resource for the kind of work other intercultural colleagues and I have been engaged in, assisting and forwarding the acceptance and acculturation of today's immigrants. Little did I expect it to stir up the spirits of my immigrant ancestors, present, but usually dormant in my sense of self, reminding me of their stories and how entwined they are with my own. It was a surprise gift of self-knowledge, imparting a different meaning to wishes for “many happy returns”, a gift for which I must say again, “Thank you.”

Publisher: Grove Press. 2017. ISBN-10: 0802126391, ISBN-13: 978-0802126399

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