Sometimes this is how stories come to me, though her. ‘Let me tell you a story,’ she would say, once, twice, or perhaps three times. More often, though, I go hunting for the ghosts, something I can do without ever leaving home. As they haunt our country, so do we haunt theirs. They are pallid creatures, more frightening of us than we are of them. That is why we see their shades so rarely, and why we must seek them out. The talismans on my desk, a tattered pair of shorts and a ragged T-shirt, clean and dry, neatly pressed, remind me that my mother was right. Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.
What a perfect way to set the tone for The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a collection of stories. “The Black-Eyed Women,” where the above quote is from, is indeed a sort of ghost story in which the ghost of the narrator’s dead brother appears. We learn, eventually, that the brother died on the boat as the family was fleeing Vietnam. But it is not just this opening story that has a ghost, the entire book is filled with them, ghosts of the past, ghosts of things done or not done, a country that haunts those who have made a new life elsewhere. Sometimes the refugees themselves seem like ghosts.
The book even concludes with a different kind of ghost story. In “Fatherland” Vivien, a daughter of Mr. Ly, returns to Saigon to meet her father of whom she has no recollection. She and her mother and two brothers left Vietnam when the children were still small. Her mother divorced Mr. Ly and moved to the United States. The war happened, Mr. Ly lost all his money, but has managed to start over and make a new life as a tour guide to western tourists. He has married again and had three children, two boys and one girl, just like with his first wife. And he has given these new children the same names. So Vivien, whose given name is Phuong, visits Saigon. The story is told from the second Phuong’s point of view and is full of secrets and surprises and deep longing.
I’m not a big reader of short stories and I don’t know what to tell you about them. They were good. I enjoyed them. They are the kind of short stories that I like, the kind that have a definite beginning and ending rather then the slice-of-life kind or vignette sorts. While I liked them, none of them made me say wow, but I suspect that is not the fault of the stories. The trouble is they are, well short, and I want them to be longer even when they are complete as these were.
Each story is well-written and the voices and characters distinct, they were all different and didn’t “sound” or feel the same; something I appreciate since that is one of the troubles I have when reading short stories. And I really liked that even though they were all about Vietnamese refugees, the situations were all different and accounted for a variety of experiences.
I might not sound enthusiastic, but I am glad I read the book. Ngyuen won a Pulitzer for fiction in 2015 for his novel The Sympathizer that follows a Viet Cong spy in Los Angeles in 1975. I liked Nguyen’s writing and storytelling enough that if I get the chance, I will definitely read his novel. That must say something about these stories.