How would you summarize “Black-Eyed Women” from The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen?
“Black Eyed Women” is the first story in The Refugees. It is narrated by an unnamed thirty-eight-year-old woman who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when she was a teenager. She is a ghostwriter (someone who writes material that will be published under another person’s name) who specializes in tragic stories and memoirs. The narrator is visited by the ghost of her brother who died during the journey to the United States. She reveals that he was killed when their boat was attacked by pirates. Her brother disguised her as a boy in an attempt to stop the pirates from raping her; however, when one of the pirates began to look at her more closely, her brother attacked him to protect her and was killed. The pirates then raped the narrator. When the ghost of her brother shows up, he is sopping wet from his swim in the ocean. The arrival of the ghost forces the narrator to deal with her past trauma and move on with her life. The story ends as the narrator decides to start writing her own stories instead of the stories of others.
The plot of the story is pretty simple. The narrator is a woman who is a ghost writer. She is a refugee from Vietnam who has come the United States to live with her mother, who works in a salon. One day, the ghost of her dead brother appears at their house. He is wet, because he has swum all the way from Vietnam. Her brother died, years ago, protecting the narrator from pirates that had attacked their boat; he disguised her as a boy, and when she was found out, he fought to protect her and was killed. The ghost returns, not to scare anyone, but to seek closure by returning to his family. The narrator asks the ghost, “Why did I live and you died?” but the ghost says, “You died too, you just don’t know it.” This encounter inspires the narrator to stop writing books for other people (called ghostwriting) and to start writing her own books about ghosts.
The ghost’s comment, and the story, has more to do with the nature of love and memory than actual haunting. The narrator is not actually dead; what is meant is that the person she was that day on the boat died with her brother.