Publication Date: February 7, 2017
“I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they are outside of time, are the only one with time.” – prologue
What a timely book! With the public debate about immigration in the forefront of everyone’s mind, with the executive and judicial branches of government battling out the legality of banning people from certain countries, the timing is perfect! America’s history has been built upon accepting refugees from various countries. Between 1975 and 1995 over 480,000 people had immigrated to the United States. Of the “boat people,” it is estimated that at least a third died. This is exquisitely written, profoundly moving compilation of short stories, each one touching on the theme of immigration from Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen says he is writing these stories for the ghosts. The first story in this book is most directly to that point. The narrator is a ghost writer, telling other people’s stories not coming to terms with her own story until the ghost of her brother comes to visit her. At that moment she confronts the trauma of her past. Her brother risked his life to try to hide her as a boy when pirates raided their boat. He was killed for it. She was gang rapider front of her parents. Her parents lamented her brother’s death, but never mentioned what had happened to her. She carried the burden of her own trauma as well as of her brother’s death. She was made to feel it was her fault. She finally realizes she died too. She is a ghost of the past and can write her own story.
The writing is incredible. The stories themselves are beautiful, emotion-laden, with excellent character development and complexity. The true nature behind the characters are revealed in unexpected ways. The tension created by the juxtaposition of vietnamese culture in affluent America (as well as the converse) are explored. These stories are not simply an exploration of Vietnamese culture and the refugee experience, but transcend that with the stories evoking so much truth about humanity that simply involve refugees as characters.
Rather than detail each short story, I highly recommend reading this brilliantly written grouping of 8 stories. It is brief book, but packs a powerful punch. These are stories that will move you and stay with you. They are simply amazing!
- Who are the ghosts in each story? Why is it important to remember them?
- What does the term refugee mean? How does it compare to expat or immigrant?
- Why does the father name his first and second set of children the same names in “The Fatherland”? Discuss this.
- Nguyen also quotes James Fenton from the German Requiem in the prologue: “It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all your life.” How does this quote resonate with the stories contained in the book? How do forgotten memories haunt characters within these stories?
- Liem, in “The Other Man,” sees his mirror image and does not recognize himself. Why?
- What does this statement mean in “The Americans”: “Smiling at your relatives never got you far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances sometimes did.” Why does Claire feel more at home in Vietnam than she did in America?