Book review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen


The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (first published in 2017 by Corsair)

Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese author Viet Thanh Nguyen grew up in The States. He’s beautiful writing captures the stories of people who live their lives somewhere between their country of original and their new homeland. This book shares experiences of Vietnamese refugees living in America.

Nguyen had me from the beginning - even before I started reading. A part of a German Requiem by James Fenton opens the discussion, it reads as follows:

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.

It’s a very specific kind of life, that of a refugee. Not quite the life of a Nomad or a traveller, it is not necessarily by choice, but most often out of necessity. The necessity for survival.

It is a life lived outside the rules of time as refugees are casualties of space and circumstance.

He captures the struggle with time so wonderfully in my favourite story in this collection of short tales. A Vietnamese refugee called Liem experiences culture shock as he goes to live with a gay couple, Parrish and Marcus, in San Francisco.

Liem turns in his space (his country of origin) because of circumstance for the opportunity to live a better life somewhere else.

However, his new life is pretty monotonous. Time is lost here as he can’t seem to find his footing.

He has no relationship to his new space and tries to make sense of it over time. And as we regard time in terms of the positive and the negative, memories are more often than not perceived as powerful, positive events lived while forgetting is usually perceived as negative.

But events lived, like memories, are not always positive, and forgetting events is not always negative.

When living between worlds, Liem must forget in order to go on and adapt – an act often easier achieved when memories aren’t too positive. Forgetting haunts, but also heals him and his new life lived in the between.

He holds onto forgetting, disregarding time as it helps him relate to his space in a more present way - almost as if he’s doing so for survival. A must read for anyone keen on learning about those living detached lives.

Purchase a copy of the book on

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