This short story collection is a must read. Whether it be that you enjoy Nguyen’s writing, elaborate yet short stories, or are interested in refugee stories, The Refugees should not be missed. (Also thank you to Alicia from A Kernel of Nonesense for giving me this book!)
Written over twenty years, The Refugees is a batch of short stories that are set in Vietnam and America with people who are in various stages of their lives. They range from direct refugees, to their children, to whole communities and perfectly encapsulate the conflicting feelings of living with two feet on opposite sides of the shore.
The entire refugee journey is a complex one, involving feelings of guilt, hope, and pain. Decisions to leave are full of turbulent emotions and often the leaving behind of something: family, a homeland, yourself. It takes our whole lives to piece out the feelings and memories. We are forever reminded through scent of our favorite dishes, evocative emotions, and tendencies. Our identity riddled with questions of nationality, loyalty, and the definition of home.
Each of these stories is haunting: both beautifully written, and bound to stay with you. It definitively feels worthy of re-reading as I am absolutely convinced that your feelings about these characters will change as you yourself change, our notions of identity and home transforming with new experiences. Taking up issues of refugees, diasporas, memories, and moving on, this short story collection does not shy away from conflicting and difficult feelings. In these moments, the characters shine and their true refugee experience unfurls. The variety of perspectives merely makes our experience richer as they contend with various shades of guilt and transition.
(My own personal note here is that I loved the mentions of food. Food is such a guttural reminder of home and family. Our memories tied up with food are sensory and deeply moving, invoking feelings of safety. The issues of starvation, family meals, and the selling of ‘ethnic’ food, are all dealt with in these stories.)
This book is essential for today’s society, giving us all a look into the experience that refugees have had while we look forward. The back cover summarizes this theme for us by saying, “The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives”. I unequivocally recommend this book to everyone as a discussion starter, emotional read, and a book that will make you look deeper at your own identity.
You can buy The Refugees on Amazon(US), add it to Goodreads, or visit the author’s website.
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2 thoughts on “Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen”
I really enjoyed his Pulitzer Prize winner: The Sympathizer. Have you read that book? How does it compare?
I do notice when foods are mentioned in books. I remember reading a book set in Japan and there were lots of references to the food and I felt it made the book so much more authentic. It felt like pop culture was explained.
I haven’t read it, I own it yet, but haven’t gotten around to it 🙁 As soon as I do, I’ll get back to you 🙂
It does feel more authentic! And it’s always for a specific reason. They don’t need to eat, because they’re fictional, and I’ve read books where food is barely even mentioned!