The Refugees Summary
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Refugees Summary

The Refugees is a collection of short stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen 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. This forces 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. He is instead duped by a conman.

  • In "I'd Love You to Want Me," Mrs. Khanh struggles to care for her Alzheimer's-afflicted husband. When he calls her by the wrong name, she fears that he is disappearing.

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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, 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 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?" Then one day a man forces his way into the house and tries to rob them. Terrified, the mother runs out of the house, knocking the would-be robber on the shoulder and disorienting him enough...

(The entire section is 1,589 words.)