Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Refugees

In little over two years, Viet Thanh Nguyen has emerged as a leading figure in the literary world, winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his astounding crime / immigrant / Vietnam War thriller The Sympathizer and getting shortlisted for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Choice award in non-fiction for Nothing Ever Dies (which is an academic book intended to accompany The Sympathizer).

Nguyen has also been serving as the cultural critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, writing about literature and politics through a biting radical lens (which is refreshing when the literary world tends to be rather bland and liberal, even in these dark times of Trump).

For someone who has had his pulse on American cultural and political life, it is both fortuitous and fitting that Nguyen's new short story collection entitled The Refugees, dedicated to "all refugees,"is being released in the shadow of Trump's draconian ban on refugees from seven Muslim countries.

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories, offering insights into various refugee experiences, mostly focused on the Vietnamese diaspora that emigrated from South East Asia in the years after the end of the American war in the region. Nguyen touches on themes of regret and loss, of trying to outrun the experiences and memories that turned one into a refugee, of the political cultures that transposed themselves from home country to new home, and the struggles that refugees experience in their new countries, both of survival and dealing with expectations from those they left behind.

As with The Sympathizer, Nguyen's writing drives the forcefulness of his stories. He writes thoughtful sentences that layer on top of each other to create both atmosphere and mood but also complexity, making the reader dig deep into the text to understand the motivations and actions of his characters. The stories he gives us are painful and somber, yet also with a touch of outlandish humour he pulled off so well in his previous novel.

As the current US Administration seeks to vilify the refugee populations that were products of American imperial adventures, Nguyen's collection is both powerful and necessary. We need to hear the painful pasts that have driven people to leave their homes and families, to understand and empathize with their experiences and appreciate the stakes they (and humanity) face if we ignore them and further marginalize them.

For this reason alone, I urge you all to pick up the book. It's a quick and easy read, yet will give you the energy to keep on struggling for the rights of refugees now and in the future.
**I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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