Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Trigger Warning: Non-explicit sexual assault, death of children, racism, homophobia, representation of dementia, depictions of the refugee asylum process that may be especially difficult for those impacted by family separation through deportation

I read The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen to fulfill the “read a book about a refugee” category in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

This novel is comprised of a series of vignettes featuring characters whose lives were impacted by the Vietnam war. There is little I can say about the book without spoiling it but I can say that it is incredibly well written and heartwrenching. Nguyen gives the reader glimpses into the lives of different characters who live in varying degrees of separation from the Vietnam war. Some characters are Americans who served, some are direct refugees from the conflict, some are second generation Vietnamese Americans trying to grapple with the ghosts of their past. Nguyen himself is a refugee and the two essays at the end of the novel provide excellent context for the novel itself and I highly encourage you to read them though they are not directly connected to the novel itself.

This book is important to read even years past the Vietnam war because it is easy to draw a pattern in how America reacts to refugees. America is quick to create or join a conflict that suits its needs but the fallout from those conflicts, namely human lives, is left to others. I remember studying how America has treated immigrants in the past and this maltreatment is always treated like a sin we’ve atoned for and moved away from instead of a continued policy we weaponize against people of color. Vietnam refugees, like the characters in this book, are facing a backlash as are Syrian and Mexican refugees. There is no doubt in my mind that these actions will one day be taught with the same detached criticism that our treatment of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century are today. But it is not enough to look back and be regretful. The only genuine apology is changed behavior and if the US does not change its inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers we will continue to be a shameful mockery of the values we claim to represent. Worse, more and more human lives will be traumatized and lost.