“Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer was one of the most widely and highly praised novels of 2015, the winner not only of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but also the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the California Book Award for First Fiction. Nguyen’s next fiction book, The Refugees, is a collection of perfectly formed stories written over a period of twenty years, exploring questions of immigration, identity, love, and family.
With the coruscating gaze of The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.
The second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, 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.”
My Thoughts: Long-time readers will know I don’t love short stories. I like my books long and complicated, the more description and backstory the better (hello, Charles Dickens!). Yet one cannot ignore the stellar short stories collections out this year. I started the year with Roxanne Gay’s Difficult Women and moved into Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of short stories. I am so glad I did.
Each one of Mr. Nguyen’s short stories is a microcosm of what I love about reading. The characters are real and surprisingly well-developed in spite of the brevity of their stories. Their everyday lives are memorable in their mundanity. Their stories are equally unremarkable. Yet, they are captivating in their normalcy.
The Refugees is a collection of stories about the people who left behind their lives in a war-torn country to start fresh in a new one, sometimes at great peril, in a country that will provide them more freedoms than they ever could have had should they have stayed. These are the stories of people who represent just one more generation of people seeking refuge on our shores, who remind us all of the original settlers in this country.
Mr. Nguyen’s ability to drive to the heart of each of their stories in a few short sentences embodies each word with significance. His prose makes the entire collection immensely readable. You find yourself drawn into each story, compelled to keep reading, and highly disappointed when it ends. Yet you move on to the next story to find yourself fully engaged once again.
The Refugees puts a human face onto the political hot potato that has become immigration and asylum in recent weeks. It is a reminder that refugees are not looking to infiltrate our country but just looking to escape their own. One cannot recommend this collection highly enough not only because of the storytelling but also because of the poignant reminders for empathy each story gives us.