The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

IMG_5912I always seem to forget how much I love short story collections until I pick one up and read it in one sitting. I picked up The Refugees from the library under a vague notion that I had heard something good about it and read it first of my stack because its recent release date meant I only had two weeks to read it. I finished it within a day.

In one sense, I love The Refugees because it’s a great short story collection, akin to some of my favorite collections like Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr and In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. Each story is contained and packed with detail and a strong sense of place. However, in a much needed departure from my typical short story reads, Nguyen uses Asian and Asian American narrators to tell complex stories about heritage, culture, family, love, and war, sometimes against a familiar American backdrop made new through refugee eyes, and other times in foreign locales like Vietnam, only mentioned in history courses as an opposition to “Americanness.” And just as America is made new, Asian and Asian Americans are transformed from tired stereotypes movies and TV shows rely on, into complex people that feel authentic. Nguyen’s characters are beautifully flawed in ways that impact the story, rather than are flaunted just for show. And in other ways, Nguyen depicts several kinds of flawed father figures, dictated by masculinity which ultimately blockades themselves from true connections with their children.

I’m going to reread The Refugees again because these stories warrant multiple readings. They explore the quiet racism against the “model” minority, the suffocation of hypermasculinity, the failures of communism and capitalism alike, coming-of-age and coming-out stories alike. Really, it’s something that I think every adult should be reading. 

Do you enjoy short stories, or prefer novel-length literature? What is your favorite short story (singular or collection)? What other books by Asian Americans should I be reading? 

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