The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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How does The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen relate to immigration?

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Immigration is a main theme in The Refugees. It is immigration that brings the refugees of the story to the United States. Most of the characters are either first- or second-generation immigrants, having left Vietnam because of the war. These characters learn that the journey to the United States is not easy, and many of them—like the narrator of “Black-Eyed Women”—arrive with little money and are forced to live in rough neighborhoods. Several characters, such as Phuong and Liem, must rely on others to help them meet the financial demands of immigrating. The immigration journey itself is often perilous or traumatic; the unnamed ghostwriter from the first story recalls how she watched pirates kill her brother just before they raped her. In addition to the difficult adjustments that come along with immigration to a new country, The Refugees also explores how immigration affects one’s concept of home at a generational level. Some of the second-generation immigrants feel more comfortable in the United States and, unlike their parents, identify primarily as Americans. By telling the stories of these refugees, Nguyen explores how the experience of immigration intersects with one’s personal identity. 

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In The Refugees how does Viet Thanh Nguyen  remind readers of the effect communism, death, and immigration had on generations of Vietnamese?

Let’s start by clarifying what it means to say Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Refugees profoundly discusses “communism, death, and immigration and the effect they had on generations of Vietnamese.”

We can break that statement down into several pieces:

First, the novel deals with these serious, important topics in a profound way. That means that the author deals with the subjects with depth and clarity, with beautifully composed prose that illuminates new meanings and new connections.

Second, because of the way Nguyen has composed The Refugees, three elements (death, immigration, and communism) have blended together in the minds and memories of many people.

Third, thanks to the novel’s existence, that combination of death, immigration, and communism that lives in many people’s minds reminds everybody else, not just Vietnamese people who lived through those experiences, of how death, immigration, and communism colored the lives of an entire generation of Vietnamese people.

Now that we understand the statement to be discussed, let’s explore how you can find relevant quotes from the novel.

We know that you’re looking for important statements centering on the key concepts: death, immigration, and communism.

The Refugees is a short book, so I recommend taking the best possible course of action: skimming or even rereading the entire text, keeping a sharp eye out for every time Nguyen touches on the key ideas (death, immigration, and communism), highlighting the statements that seem most significant and serious, whether they appear in the narration or in the dialogue.

For example, when I start reading the first section, here’s the first passage that leaps out at me that relates to one of those key ideas—death—and seems to vibrate with profundity:

My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In...

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a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.

Here, the narrator was talking about ghostly, deathly, violent tales that his family members always repeated, and in this excerpt, he is telling the readers directly about how death, and stories of death, echoed in the memory of his family members, knitting them to each other.

As you’re skimming and highlighting, it’s a good idea to take notes about what the highlighted passage means, and how it relates to the topic you’ll discuss in your writing, just like I did in the paragraph above.

Now, don’t worry! If you don’t have time to skim or reread the entire text, you can take other, quicker approaches to finding the quotes you need.

One such approach is to read back through a summary of the book, and let the summary guide you to specific portions that you believe might be rich with relevant quotes. Then simply go to that spot in the text—a certain chapter, or a certain short story within this book—and skim only that section for important quotes.

For example, our summary reports that within this book, toward the end of the story titled “The Other Man,” Liem gets a letter from his dad, “who is afraid of the Communist regime in Vietnam and cannot speak freely in his letter for fear of being targeted by soldiers.” This event definitely has something to do with both communism and immigration. So, turn to the end of that story in your text, and start skimming for important quotes. Here’s something I found:

Suddenly the [stranger outside] raised his hand, as if to say hello. When his partner looked toward the window as well, Liem waved in return, and for a moment there were only the three of them, sharing a fleeting connection.

I feel that this quote is particularly important because it shows how Liem feels almost mystically connected to other people—right after he had been musing over the shared yet incomplete connection with his father, who wasn’t at liberty to communicate freely with him.

Keep going in this way and you’ll generate plenty of quotes to choose from when it comes time to write your essay.

However, it’s often the case that writers are in a rush, in need of a quicker method to find relevant quotes from a text. In that case, I recommend accessing a digital copy of the text and running searches on it for key terms, like “death,” “immigrant,” “immigrating,” “immigration,” “communist,” “communism,” and so on. Examine the text around each of your search results to determine whether you’ve found a good quote or not.

Of course, there are more ways than that to discover important quotes. You can discuss the ideas with your classmates, or even meet with your instructor during office hours for guidance. Keep at it, and let us know if you need help!

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