What happens in The Refugees?

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer. Nguyen's characters are Vietnamese immigrants and their children, and many of them fled Vietnam after the communist regime took power.

  • In "Black-Eyed Women," a ghostwriter sees the ghost of her dead brother, who was killed while trying to protect her from pirates. Seeing him forces her to work through the trauma of his death and face her own survivor's guilt.

  • In "The Transplant," middle-aged gambling addict Arthur Arellano attempts to contact the family of the man whose liver he received in a transplant. He's duped by Louis Vu, a man who claims to be related to the donor but is merely using Arthur to store counterfeit goods.

  • In "I'd Love You to Want Me," Mrs. Khanh struggles to care for her ailing husband, who's suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When he starts calling her by the wrong name, she fears that the man she married will disappear into his illness.

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Summary

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, we learn, 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 twenty-something student named Marcus, 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, DC, 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 himself in the mirror. 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...

(The entire section is 1,589 words.)