Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his début novel, The Sympathiser. The Refugees is his first collection of short fiction and it is truly magnificent.
The title is a clear enough indication of what to expect – stories about the refugee experience – except that Nguyen provides a variety of point of views on the subject. These are stories told from the perspective of the refugee looking to start a new life in a new society, the children of these refugees searching for their own identity, and those who never get to leave, who dream longingly about joining those who are ‘free’. The experience here is specific to Vietnamese refugees coming to America post the war, but clearly it resonates with what we’re seeing now in the Middle East. Nguyen do not gloss over the fact that refugees bring their culture with them, that they may never truly assimilate. And, as he illustrates in a couple of the stories, this does create a challenge for the children who are, to some extent, looking to integrate with the broader community.
What’s also powerful about this collection is that it deliberately does not sensationalise the horrors of leaving a war-torn country or – more importantly – doesn’t overhype the racism and prejudice that refugees face in their new home. In other words there are no strawmen here. (That’s not to say refugees and immigrants don’t experience racism and discrimination, it’s just that Nguyen isn’t interesting in tackling what, to some degree, is an obvious symptom of coming to a country and not fully adopting that country’s values… or at least the food they eat). This is a book that shows, with great clarity and poignancy and some gorgeous prose, that the refugee experience is more than just a narrative of horror and drama and tension of escape and the promise of freedom, but rather the almost mundane practicalities of what to do once you get there.
Expect to see The Refugees on literary awards lists later in the year.