The Refugees

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“Black-Eyed Women” Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

The narrator of “Black-Eyed Women” is a ghostwriter, a person who is hired to write the stories of other people but who does not receive credit for the work. At thirty-eight, she lives with her mother in the absence of her father and older brother, both of whom have died. The narrator’s most recent client is Victor Devoto, the sole survivor of an airplane crash that killed one hundred and seventy-three other people, including his wife and children. The narrator notes that although his body survived the crash, little else remains of the man.

The narrator awakens one night to her mother’s voice telling her not to be afraid. Her mother then mentions the name of the narrator’s deceased brother and insists that his ghost was just in their living room. When the narrator touches the carpet in the living room, she finds that it is still damp; the narrator’s mother insists that her son came because he needed to see his younger sister.

The narrator’s mother has told her the stories of the ghosts she has seen for many years. She claims that her aunt Six came to visit her just after dying as she made her rounds to say farewell to her loved ones.

Now, sitting in the kitchen with her mother, the narrator asks how her brother could have gotten to their home. Her mother responds matter-of-factly: “He swam.” She goes on to say that he looked exactly the way he did the last time she saw him, because ghosts never change.

The narrator flashes back to the last time she saw her brother, his open eyes never flinching as his cheek pressed against a boat’s deck. She returns to bed, but when she closes her eyes, she sees her brother’s open eyes every time she closes her own. Her brother had been her best friend, and as children she had followed his voice whenever he called.

In her childhood, the narrator had hidden in the family’s bomb shelter with her brother as war planes shrieked overhead; he had whispered ghost stories into her ear as a distraction. He obtained his stories from the “blacked-eyed women” from the market, who told him tales of Koreans and Americans who had died horrific deaths on Vietnamese land.

At 6:35 p.m., a knock awakens the narrator. She knows that it is her brother before she opens the door. Recalling how her brother sacrificed his own life to save hers, she tells herself that the least she can do is to open the door for her brother’s ghost. The narrator finds her brother on the other side of the door, looking bloated and pale. He wears black shorts and a tattered gray T-shirt, and he says her name. His voice is hoarse and raspy, and a purple bruise highlights his left temple. The narrator invites him in and offers him dry clothes, as his own clothes are soaking wet. After changing, he acknowledges that he had to swim his way to her and that it had taken a long time to do so. The narrator is relieved to hear the front door opening and tells the ghost of her brother that their mother will want to see him. When she and her mother return, however, her brother is gone, and only his wet clothes remain.

After waiting for a while, the narrator’s mother eventually goes to bed. The ghost of the narrator’s brother returns shortly thereafter, and the narrator welcomes him. He reminds her that as children they always knew that ghosts existed, but she confesses that she had her doubts....

(This entire section contains 1383 words.)

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She asks why he has returned, and he tells her that he has never left this world. The narrator replies that she has tried to forget the details of his death but has been unsuccessful.

The story then flashes back to the fateful day of the brother’s death. After spending four uneventful days at sea, the boat that had carried their family and others was spotted by pirates. The narrator’s brother had acted swiftly, cutting off her hair with his pocketknife and binding her breasts before covering her with his own shirt. The pirates took the passengers’ gold, jewelry, and valuables before turning their attention to the women and girls aboard. All of the female passengers were taken, screaming, to the pirate ship, and the narrator breathed a sigh of relief as the final girl was thrown onto its deck. Unfortunately, the last pirate noticed her and commented on how “handsome” she was; her brother quickly stabbed the pirate with his knife. The man swung his machine gun around, knocking the narrator’s brother in the head. He fell hard, and blood oozed from his temple onto the boat’s wooden deck.

Returning to the present, the narrator asks her brother’s ghost if his head still hurts. He says that it doesn’t and then asks if the memory still hurts her. She says that it does and once again recalls that day at sea, when the man who had killed her brother threw her to the deck and raped her along with the other pirates as her parents watched, unable to help.

Eventually, the narrator asks her brother’s ghost the question that has haunted her since that day: Why did she live while he died? Her brother replies with conviction: “You died too. You just don't know it.” The narrator weeps for herself and for her brother, torn with grief over a future they were never able to share together. She also grieves for all the women and girls who never came back that day, including herself.

Victor Devoto’s story is published, and critics are approving. As his ghostwriter, the narrator finds her that her reputation grows a little, and she is even offered another memoir. But she tells her agent that she must decline the new offer because she is now working on a new book of her own—one of ghost stories.

The narrator’s mother tells her that her brother’s ghost is never coming back; he has said all he needed to say. The narrator doesn’t feel this same sense of closure and insists that there is more she needs to say herself. After asking her mother to tell her a story, the narrator begins writing down the details of this tale. She concludes by considering the ghostlike way in which stories leave their remnants to be found in a world outside their own.


The narrator has chosen to be a ghostwriter, seemingly compelled to write stories for others that are borne out of great pain: kidnappings, tragedies, and humiliating scandals. In this profession, she is constantly linked to the “ghosts” of the past, those tragedies that forever shape the course of people’s lives. Her own life has been shaped by calamity, and she has been unable to forge a new path separate from that pain. At age thirty-eight, the narrator still lives with her mother, feeling that motherhood is “too intimate,” as are relationships that last more than a night. She sleeps during the days, often consciously avoiding daylight since the day of her brother’s murder, which was also the day when she stared into the sun as men raped her.

It is the ghost of her brother who points out to the narrator that she died on the same day he did. She has effectively become a ghost, haunted by questions she cannot answer and by a past that has forever changed her. Likewise, there are others whose lives have been changed by their own ghosts, such as Victor Devoto, who hears the voices of the family he lost as he navigates his daily life without them.

The ghostwriter has become a ghost in her own life because she has never fully confronted the pain of her past. In many ways, she realizes that it is impossible to recapture what was lost that day, and she thus resolves to tell the stories of others who have survived but endured great loss. Through writing, the narrator brings the ghosts of the past into the world of the present as tangible reminders of the “garments shed by ghosts.”


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