The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

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Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul

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Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. A war is not just about shooting, but about people who make bullets and deliver bullets and, perhaps most importantly, those who pay for the bullets. Each ethnic group in the United States gets its own notable history by which Americans remember it: Vietnamese get the war.

That just about sums up the core of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $27.95, hardcover: $12.58 Kindle), an examination of the possibility of overcoming the residual scourges of war through discussing ethics, industries, and aesthetics. The book contains a continuous flow of truths and suppositions that merit support—or beg challenge.

From the opening pages, I recognized that Viet Nguyen’s philosophy of life differs markedly from mine. Consequently, I found the book difficult to read. However, I surrendered to the strength and persistence of his arguments and read every page. Throughout the book, I detected different voices in his style. Deep into the book, the voices grew more convincing. By the end, I felt loosely bonded with Nguyen’s arguments, but had reservations about what comes next.

Viet Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thuot in 1971. His parents had moved south from North Vietnam in 1954. His family came to the United States as refugees in 1975. He grew up in San Jose, California. At UC Berkeley, he earned degrees in English and ethnic studies and a Ph.D. in English. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His much-heralded Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing Ever Dies focuses on the Vietnam War, but the arguments extend to the war’s repercussions in Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Viet Nguyen has traveled extensively across the areas he analyzes. His observations are eye opening, such as when he compares cemeteries of Vietnamese war casualties buried in Vietnam with American names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. His message is that nations tend to remember their own losses and forget the deaths of their opponents, with military casualties taking precedence.

Nguyen says that remembrance of war is a debt fully paid only when soldiers and civilians from both sides are included in recollections of good and evil events. That process allows a war to truly end and peaceful relations to ensue. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

He chooses sides, favoring poor and weak nations that are victims of industrialized nations with more powerful armies. He stresses, however, that both sides overlook their ability to hurt others, which often results in inhumane actions. Forgiving inhumanities with emotions above the level of mere resignation is part of the remembrance process. In this regard, he analyses “the most horrific of horrors” inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian population, citing its difficulty to reconcile because “few are willing to acknowledge themselves as victimizers.”

Nguyen expands his idea of erasing the stigmas related to war by discussing war literature written by Vietnamese Americans. “Literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality,” he writes, “so long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge.”

He illustrates the benefits of war by explaining how participation by the South Korean army—and its 5,000 men killed in action in the Vietnam War—gave the nation a new role in global capitalization. He analyzes Korea’s post-war movies, masculinity, exploitation, and submission to “the American giant who has never learned to live outside his own world,” which has resulted in the “giant” recreating his environment wherever he goes. Faithful to his land of birth, Nguyen recalls the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese when Koreans ran prison camps under Japanese occupation during World War II.

The description of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum flashed me back to the awe I felt in 1987 while walking through Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Seeing Ho’s body as either “a heroic statue or a gruesome zombie,” Nguyen belittles the legendary leader as a “stage prop for the Communist Party.” Comparatively speaking, seeing Lenin’s body produced a quasi-religious experience within me, making me nod in appreciation of a man who changed a nation and the world. Of course, neither man had stolen my country from my me and my family.

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Award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

One disappointment was Nguyen’s reliance on analyses of Vietnam War films. Basing conclusions on directors’ interpretations of the war left me less satisfied than, let’s say, using memoirs of participants from both sides. But it is what it is.

Nothing Ever Dies is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. Nguyen also has earned several teaching and service awards.

—Henry Zeybel

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States. He teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of an academic book, Race and Resistance, and many short stories that have appeared in American literary magazines.

Karl Marlantes, the author of the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, tells us that Viet Than Nguyen’s new novel The Sympathizer (Grove Atlantic, 284 pp., $26), is “easy to read, wry, ironic, wise and captivating.” I agree.

The book’s narrator, the unidentified “sympathizer”of the title, grabbed me with his voice and attitude. Plus, if he hadn’t already gotten my attention, his ironic comment abut “the awfulness of Jane Fonda,” won me over. I loved the irony of a Vietnamese-American saying that. And it was funny—which this book is.

Funny in a very dark manner. If a book about the Vietnam War is funny, it would have to be in a dark manner.

The main character’s voice, wit, and point-of-view make the book a total delight, especially if you are interested in the Vietnam War. There is a witty turn of phrase on just about every page. That includes this observation about American excess: “a sheet cake big enough to sleep on.” The last Vietnam War novel I read that was this funny was Catch-22, which some misguided folks say is about World War II.

There is a brilliant section in which the protagonist is an adviser for a big- budget Vietnam War film in the Philippines, a movie that resembles Apocalypse Now in virtually every respect. The delineation of the megalomaniac director is a non-stop hoot, as well as a critique of all that is wrong with America when things “Oriental” are confronted and portrayed artistically.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The author’s American pop culture references are all spot on—except for his choice of dwelling on Nancy Sinatra’s very small success with the hit song “Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down.”  That song was written by Sonny Bono and sung by Cher (and by Nancy Sinatra) during the Vietnam War, but Nancy’s version didn’t get much attention till much later. She did get plenty of attention during the war for her 1966 song, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

The author pays tribute to Sgt Rock, dusty cans of Spam, Tarzan, dog eating, the Phoenix Program, hippies, Sophia Loren, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Agent Orange, getting outta Dodge, Alice in Wonderland, and many phrases and themes associated with the Vietnam War. He also comes up with a bunch of new ones: arthritic turtles, the Chinese acrobat of time, skunked by history, just to pick three good ones.

For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel.

I enjoyed every page of it. It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind. If the author wanted me to feel overwhelming guilt, he succeeded mightily.

The author’s website is http://vietnguyen.info

—David Willson