I’ve been reading some really long novels recently so I like to keep a book of short stories to read on the side. I’m very glad I picked up this new collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen despite not having yet read his debut novel “The Sympathizer” which won multiple awards including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. All of these stories touch upon the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America from different perspectives – frequently with characters forced to leave their native country. Many involve people who were directly affected by the Vietnam War or people who are still affected by it second hand based on the experiences of their parents. Their day to day lives are still weighed down by the recent history and trauma of severing ties with their native land to create a new life for themselves in America. This produces fascinating situations where characters wrestle with finding a cohesive sense of identity based on economic status, nationality, race, sexuality and gender. These exquisite stories are so impressive for being both profound and compulsively readable.
Generational clashes often play an important factor such as the story ‘The Americans’ where a former air force pilot locks horns with his daughter Claire who settles in an entirely different culture. Or in ‘Someone Else Besides You’ a regimental father who vandalizes the car of his son’s ex-wife demonstrates a different form of emotional repression. But these stories also show a tremendously moving fluid sense of identity where people are caught between their Vietnamese and American selves. Nguyen shows this so artfully in his characters that range from a ghost writer, to a peddler in fake merchandise, to a young woman who was given the same name as her older American half sister to a young refugee who is taken in by a gay couple in 1970s San Francisco. Their dramatic situations play out the tension between paths in life laid out for them and ones which they forge on their own.
The economic disparity between nations and levels of society greatly influence the lives of these characters as well. Some characters are determined to compensate for what they were forced to leave behind: “His ambition was to own more books than he could ever possibly read, a desire fuelled by having left behind all his books when they had fled Vietnam.” Stories and story telling between the characters also play an important role. In ‘Black-Eyed Women’ it’s observed that “In a country where possessions counted for everything we had no belongings except our stories.” Part-factual/part-embellished tales of life in Vietnam are passed down through generations. There is a definite divide between the narrative of those who escaped persecution in their homeland and those who remained in oppressed circumstances where dissent requires time in “re-education” camps. The reader is prompted to wonder what is “authentic” about national identity or the lives we live particularly in the story ‘The Transplant’ where compulsive gambler Arthur receives a liver transplant from an Asian man and ‘Fatherland’ where a Vietnamese woman returns to her homeland to visit her father’s second family. How much do nations owe to compensate for the wrongs of wartime, what obligation do countries have to take in those that have been forced to flee their native land and how do you assimilate people caught between two wildly different cultures? These queries subtly raised throughout the stories feel highly pertinent to the broader discussions of many nations.
It’s interesting getting a different perspective of the long lasting effects of the Vietnam War after having read Robert Olen Butler’s novel “Perfume River” last year. This considered the aftermath of the war over generations from a white American perspective. Nguyen shows how some Asian characters living in the United States still feel the war in their day to day lives like in the heartrending story ‘War Years’ where the battle against the Communists is still very personal for an ardent woman struggling with irreconcilable loss. It leads the narrator to note how “while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” The overall effect of these stories is subtly haunting because the perilous positions and existential dilemmas of the characters feel so emotionally real. Nguyen skilfully plays out the ambiguities of these situations in which no one can ever feel settled or fully at home.