The Refugees Summary

The Refugees is a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants and their children, many of whom fled Vietnam after the communist regime took power.

  • In "Black-Eyed Women," a ghostwriter sees her deceased brother's ghost, forcing her to confront her survivor's guilt.

  • In "The Transplant," Arthur attempts to contact the family of the man whose liver he received in a transplant and is instead duped by a con man.

  • In "I'd Love You to Want Me," Mrs. Khanh struggles to care for her aging husband, who has begun to call her by another woman's name.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1540

Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote the stories in The Refugees  over a period of two decades. His characters are for the most part Vietnamese immigrants, and many of them have fled Vietnam in order to escape the communist regime. In the first short story, the narrator—a ghostwriter specializing in so-called memoirs for...

(The entire section contains 3316 words.)

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Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote the stories in The Refugees over a period of two decades. His characters are for the most part Vietnamese immigrants, and many of them have fled Vietnam in order to escape the communist regime. In the first short story, the narrator—a ghostwriter specializing in so-called memoirs for survivors of tragedies such as airplane crashes and kidnappings—sees the ghost of her long-dead brother. He arrives unexpectedly one night, soaking wet from his swim to America. He was killed when pirates raided the boat on which the narrator's family was fleeing to America. Fearing that the narrator would be raped, her brother bound her breasts and gave her his shirt so that she would look like a boy. When one of the pirates paused to examine her closely, the narrator's brother stabbed the pirate but was then killed for his efforts to save his sister. Haunted by the death of her brother, the narrator writes ghost stories that defy the conventions of the genre (much like Nguyen's story does). Ghosts, the narrator knows, don't always seek revenge for wrongs done to them in their lives. Sometimes ghosts are quiet, like her brother, and accept a change of clothes when their own get wet.

In "The Other Man," quiet, sensitive Vietnamese immigrant Liem moves to America, where a rich gay activist named Parrish Coyne sponsors him. Liem lives with Parrish in a nice two-story house in San Francisco. Parrish's boyfriend, a student named Marcus in his twenties, lives with them like a kept man. Liem, meanwhile, finds a terrible job as a janitor at a liquor store in order to send money back to his family in Vietnam. While Parrish is gone for the weekend in Washington, D.C., Marcus takes Liem to a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown, where Marcus talks about how he was outed to his strict, conservative father—an executive at a rubber company—when a vengeful ex sent his father photographs of Marcus in compromising positions. Intimate conversations like this lead the men to have an affair. That same weekend, Liem receives a letter from his father, who is afraid of the communist regime in Vietnam and cannot speak freely in his letter for fear of being targeted by soldiers. Even though he loves his family, Liem feels removed from their world and doesn't recognize his own reflection. America has changed him.

In "War Years," the unnamed narrator reflects on his childhood. On Sundays, he attends mass with his parents, devout Christians, and then works at New Saigon, the family-owned grocery store. He hates working there and saves all his money for comic books and candy. One day, Mrs. Hoa walks into the shop and demands money to help the rebels fighting the communist regime in Vietnam. In the moment, the narrator's parents refuse to pay, but Mrs. Hoa's appearance sparks fierce debate in their household over whether or not they should give—and if so, how much. Mrs. Hoa asked them for $500, but the narrator's mother doesn't want to give the full amount on principle. When the young narrator suggests that they should pay the full $500, his mother says, "Are you going to be the kind of person who always pays the asking price?" In the end, however, the narrator and his mother visit Mrs. Hoa and give her a portion of the money.

In "The Transplant," middle-aged gambling addict Arthur Arellano undergoes a liver transplant as a result of his autoimmune hepatitis. His hospital mishandles the records, and the name of his liver donor, Men Vu, is revealed to him after the fact. Men Vu was a widower and grandfather killed in a hit-and-run. Hoping to thank Men Vu's family for the liver, Arthur begins calling all the Vus in the phonebook, hoping to find someone related to Men. This leads to a kind of partnership with Louis Vu, a vendor of knock-off designer bags, shoes, and clothes. Part of the deal requires that Arthur hide these counterfeit items in his garage. This causes problems in his marriage, which was already in trouble prior to his illness. In fact, Arthur's wife, Norma, briefly moved out on account of his gambling before he was diagnosed. When they discover that Louis is not, in fact, related to Men Vu, Norma demands that Arthur remove the counterfeit goods from the garage. Unfortunately, if he turns Louis in, Arthur will be arrested for aiding and abetting. This leaves him helpless.

In "I'd Love You to Want Me," aging professor Mr. Khanh suffers from what is likely Alzheimer's disease. One day, at a wedding banquet, he calls his wife by the wrong name: Yen. When she corrects him, Mr. Khanh becomes confused and refuses to explain who Yen is and what she meant to him. His wife worries that he doesn't recognize her and that he's mistaking her for another woman—someone he might have loved. Mrs. Khanh tries many times to remind him of her identity. Meanwhile, their children grow concerned that Mrs. Khanh won't be able to care for Mr. Khanh as his illness progresses. He gets lost one day—the day she retires from her job at the public library. She drives all around their neighborhood, calling his name, only to return home and find him in their own library, where she keeps the books he has given her over the years. She decides to finally read them.

In "The Americans," Vietnam War veteran James Carver visits Vietnam with his wife, Michiko. Carver didn't want to go on this trip, but his wife and daughter, Claire, cajoled him into it, and he is attempting not to look miserable. However, he is not supportive of Claire's new job as an English teacher in Hue, a city in central Vietnam, or her new boyfriend, Khoi, who has received funding from the Department of Defense to design robots that remove landmines. Khoi attempts to ingratiate himself to Carver by listening to jazz with him, but Carver picks a fight over Khoi's work with the DOD, asking if the young man has thought about the broader implications of his work in robotics. He argues, "Some brilliant guy at a university working on a defense contract will figure out a way to put a landmine on that robot." Carver storms off, is caught in a monsoon, and falls gravely ill with fever. His daughter visits him at the hospital, even though she was angry at him for asking her to leave Vietnam. When she has to help him to the bathroom, he begins to cry.

In "Someone Else Besides You," the narrator, Thomas, works two jobs—one as a customer service manager for a company that sells hearing aids and another as a watchman at a luxury high-rise. He has become obsessed with his ex-wife, Sam, who divorced him in part because she wanted to have children and he didn't. He is afraid that his children will turn out like his father, Mr. P, inheriting the DNA of a man who cheated on his wife and regularly made his children run until they vomited, ostensibly to toughen them up. Not long after Thomas's mother died, his father began dating Mimi, a thin, middle-aged woman with a perm. This upsets Thomas, who is still reeling from his divorce. One day, his father insists that they go visit Sam, only to discover that she's pregnant with another man's child. Sam invites them in and shows them photographs of her trip to Vietnam the previous summer but doesn't reveal the identity of the father. After they leave, Mr. P hurls a rock through Sam's windshield. The next day, Sam comes to Thomas's apartment to scream about the car repairs. He gives her enough money to pay for the new windshield, then offers to be the baby's father and to raise it as his own. She's surprised but doesn't turn him down.

In "Fatherland," Mr. Ly names his second set of three children after the first. His first wife left him when he was banished from Saigon thanks to the New Economic Zones program, which displaced millions of Vietnamese people between 1975 and 1980. He didn't learn about his wife's flight from Vietnam until midway through his five-year sentence, and at that point there was nothing to do but divorce his first wife and marry his mistress, the second Mrs. Ly, with whom he had his second set of children. When the story begins, Mr. Ly receives a letter stating that his firstborn daughter, who has taken the name Vivien—after the Hollywood actress Vivien Leigh, the star of Mr. Ly's favorite film, Gone with the Wind—will be visiting Vietnam soon. In previous letters, the first Mrs. Ly said that her daughter Vivien was a successful pediatrician, and Mr. Ly's second family is excited about meeting her. But Vivien isn't a pediatrician; she's a receptionist, and she was recently fired after an ill-fated affair with her boss. She tells her sister, Phuong, about this but hides the truth from the others, using the money from her severance check to pay for her trip and fancy dinners. In the end, Phuong burns the photos of the trip that Vivien has sent back to Vietnam.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1776

Author: Việt Thanh Nguyễn (b. 1971)

Publisher: Grove Press (New York). 209 pp.

Type of work: Short fiction

Time: Late twentieth century

Locales: Vietnam, California

This collection of eight stories, published in periodicals before Nguyễn’s novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, focuses on Vietnamese refugees navigating the differences between their homeland and their new home in the United States.

Việt Thanh Nguyễn introduces the theme of the short stories in The Refugees in two opening epigraphs: a quote from Roberto Bolaño, who said he wrote his novel Antwerp for “the ghosts” for they are “outside of time,” and a passage from James Fenton’s poem, “A German Requiem,” lamenting that it is not memories that haunt one, but rather what one must forget and go on forgetting throughout one’s life.

The Refugees

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Courtesy of BeBe Jacobs

This recurrent theme of inescapable ghosts of the past is emphasized both metaphorically and literally in the opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.” In it, a refugee’s brother sacrificed his life trying to save her from pirates while fleeing Vietnam to come to a country—where she says they had no belongings “except our stories.” Twenty-five years later, the central character lives with her mother, with whom she shares a “passion for words.” While the daughter is a ghostwriter, the mother tells horror stories, mainly about life in Vietnam during the war. The black-eyed women of the title are crones who relate many of the horrifying tales. The dead brother first appears to the mother, whom the daughter thinks is suffering from dementia, until she sees the young man herself, looking just as he did at the age of fifteen, except that he is bloated and pale, dripping sea water.

Nguyễn knows the haunted world of Vietnam from stories that he has heard and books he has read, for he was young when his parents brought him to the United States in 1975. His connection to Vietnam is thus the world of words. The female narrator of “Black-Eyed Women” says writing was like entering a fog, “feeling my way for a route from this world to the unearthly world of words.” The story ends with the narrator writing down the stories her mother tells her—calling the practice hunting for ghosts, as she searches for the revenants of her haunted country.

The ghost theme is echoed in the story “War Years,” in which a passionate anti-Communist whose husband and two sons died in the war and who now lives in California tries to get money from her fellow refugees to fund a hopeless overthrow of the government in South Vietnam. The narrator-protagonist is a thirteen-year-old whose parents own a Vietnamese market in San Jose. The boy has no memories of the war or of being driven out of Vietnam after the Communists marched into Saigon in 1975. However, he knows that the still-grieving woman, Mrs. Hoa, is haunted by both the dead and the living. His mother says she hates the Communists as much as Mrs. Hoa, but that she is not throwing her money away on a lost cause. Only when Mrs. Hoa threatens to turn the community against the boy’s mother and ruin her business does the mother give Mrs. Hoa some money. The story ends with a sense of helplessness that runs throughout the collection—in this case, the boy feels helpless to do anything about what happened to Mrs. Hoa and his mother and the others who were killed or driven out of their country.

In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” a retired Vietnamese community college professor slowly becomes a ghost to his wife, as he succumbs to dementia. The professor and his wife escaped from Vietnam on an old fishing trawler three years after the end of the war. The wife works in the Garden Grove, California, library, managing the collection of Vietnamese books and movies for the residents of Little Saigon. The professor has begun making mistakes typical of those who experience the onset of dementia—such as putting salt in his coffee and sugar in his soup. But the wife is most upset with him calling her by an unknown woman’s name. She counterfeits her husband’s handwriting and writes in his notebook: “Today I called my wife by the name of Yen . . . This mistake must not be repeated.” Ironically, the professor keeps another notebook detailing what he thinks is the mental deterioration of his wife. The professor’s loss of memory serves as a metaphor for the loss of the past in Vietnam, for when the couple return to visit their old house in Saigon, they find the street has been renamed, just as Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City.

“The Americans” focuses on James Carver, a sixty-eight-year-old Vietnam War veteran originally from a small town in Alabama, who dropped bombs on the North Vietnamese. His Japanese wife talks him into visiting Vietnam after the war, where their daughter Claire is teaching. Carver scorns his daughter’s desire to identify with the Vietnamese in her thinking and has no time for her boyfriend, who has helped to design crude robots that can safely locate minefields. When Claire says she has a Vietnamese soul, he shouts at her that her idea is stupid, a judgment he has often made in the past. Carver likes to distance himself from everything and everyone, which is why he always liked flying, for he feels that everything looks more beautiful from a distance. Caught in a monsoon, Carver apparently must learn a lesson about strength and weakness.

“Someone Else Besides You” is narrated by a thirty-three-year-old man whose father, a high school guidance counselor and Vietnamese veteran, lives with him. The narrator was born in a refugee camp in Guam, where his father was in military service, and when the protagonist was a child, his father forced him and his brothers to do push-ups and sit-ups and practice marksmanship with a BB gun. The narrator, now grown, is divorced from his wife, and his father wants them to get back together. At the father’s insistence, they visit the ex-wife and find her pregnant, much to the infuriation of the narrator’s father. The narrator responds far differently, and unexpectedly, to both his ex-wife’s predicament and his father’s reaction. The story ends with all three of them waiting for what is to come.

The title of “Fatherland” has a double meaning, for while it recounts the visit of a daughter to Vietnam, the focus is on the father, who has a second family. The central character, the eldest child of the second family, shares the name Phuong with the eldest of the first family, who now live in America. But the American daughter has adopted the name of Vivien, after Vivien Leigh, the actress who played Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. It is their father’s favorite film, and Phuong thinks it is not farfetched that the ruined Confederacy of the American South is like South Vietnam and her father’s resentment of the country’s loss of identity. Phuong envies Vivien, a successful unmarried pediatrician who has traveled widely. Yet, when Phuong tells her half sister that she wants to come to America and be a doctor and help people, too, she discovers that Vivien is not a doctor but a receptionist who lost her job and that Vivien’s mother does not own a beauty salon, but rather works for a beautician. As a result, Phuong becomes disillusioned with her half sister, with their family, and with the idea of America.

“The Transplant” focuses on Arthur Arellano, a fifty-year-old Californian who has a garage filled with counterfeit Chanel, Versace, and Givenchy products. The items belong to Louis Vu, whose father saved Arthur’s life by donating his liver to Arthur, and Arthur allows the items to be stored in his garage as repayment. The story is complicated by Arthur being a compulsive gambler who has lost all his money and by Arthur’s discovery that Louis is not all that he claimed.

In “The Other Man,” a refugee named Liem goes to San Francisco to live with his sponsor, Parrish, and Parrish’s lover, Marcus. Liem works hard to make a place for himself in the United States, and he realizes that he too is gay in an encounter with Marcus. In this story, Liem being a refugee seems more incidental, making the story less compelling than the others in the collection.

In her New Yorker review of The Refugees, Joyce Carol Oates calls Nguyễn, one of our “great chroniclers of displacement.” Although reviewers have made much of Nguyễn being a Vietnamese refugee, he was young when he came to America and he grew up in California. Moreover, he is far from the struggling displaced Vietnamese who live in Orange County or San Jose, California. He has a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, holds an endowed chair of English at the University of Southern California, and has authored academic works of scholarship. Several reviewers and commentators have suggested an alternative contemporary relevance of these stories, citing the plight of Syrian refugees, and the debate over travel bans and racism in America. Megan Mayhew Bergman calls the collection “as impeccably written as it is timed,” reminding us of the current international human-rights drama.

Review Sources

  • Alvar, Mia. “Ghost Stories: Vietnamese Refugees Wrestle with Memory in a New Book by the Author of The Sympathizer.” Review of The Refugees, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn. The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/books/review/refugees-viet-thanh-nguyen.html. Accessed 24 Oct 2017.
  • Bergman, Megan Mayhew. “Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees Couldn’t Come at a Better Time.” Review of The Refugees, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn. The Washington Post, 1 Feb. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/viet-thanh-nguyens-the-refugees-couldnt-come-at-a-better-time/2017/01/31/675e0e92-e7fb-11e6-b82f-687d6e6a3e7c_story.html. Accessed 24 Oct. 2017.
  • Li, Yiyun. “The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen Review–Stories of Anger, Humour, and Hope.” Review of The Refugees, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn. The Guardian, 27 Jan. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/27/the-refugees-viet-thanh-nguyen-review. Accessed 24 Oct. 2017.
  • Long, Karen. “In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, Wistfulness Is an Anthem of Displacement.” Review of The Refugees, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn. Los Angeles Times, 9 March 2017, beta.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-refugees-viet-thanh-nguyen-20170223-story.html. Accessed 24 Oct. 2017.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. “Refugees in America.” Review of The Refugees, by Việt Thanh Nguyễn. The New Yorker, 13 and 20 Feb. 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/refugees-in-america. Accessed 24 Oct. 2017.
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