Did you hear about Mrs Binh?

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
    Corsair, 209 pp, £12.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 4721 5255 8

These eight stories, by the author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathiser, are clear-eyed and effective, uniform in length, evenly pitched in tone. Viet Thanh Nguyen dedicates the book to ‘all refugees, everywhere’, but his focus is on those who came from Vietnam and settled in California. There are nuances of displacement, and in some ways the Vietnamese experience of exile was a special case. The traumatised state of those arriving in America found an echo in their host country, unused to defeat, still less defeat without honour.

The Refugees amounts to a composite portrait of a community at various stages of assimilation, and resistance to it. The narrator of the first story, ‘Black-Eyed Women’, has found a place for herself as a sort of entrepreneur of trauma, ghostwriting the stories of those involved in terrible events, such as the only survivor of a plane crash in which his family died along with all the others, or the father of the perpetrator of a high school massacre. The publishers want these stories rushed to market while they are still current, but loss has its own timeline, as the ghostwriter discovers when her brother, killed by pirates as the family was escaping from Vietnam, puts in an appearance a quarter of a century later. Her mother explains the delay in terms of the traditional lore about ghosts – he had to swim all the way – and it’s true he’s bloated and pale, his clothes soaked.

She remembers her brother telling her of other ghosts: ‘The upper half of a Korean lieutenant, launched by a mine into the branches of a rubber tree; a scalped black American floating in the creek not far from his downed helicopter, his eyes and the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water; and a decapitated Japanese private groping through cassava shrubbery for his head.’ The brother himself is a tentative, gentle presence, not even much wanting to be remembered.

The narrator of ‘War Years’, by contrast, has no memories of the war, and finds Vietnamese identity a performance, almost a chore. He loves the classroom,

where, for seven hours every day, I spoke only English. I liked school, even summer school. It was like being on vacation from home, and at three o’clock, I was always a little disappointed to walk the four blocks to the grocery store my parents owned, the New Saigon Market, where English was hardly ever spoken and Vietnamese was loud.

He has imbibed his fears from the American tradition: memories of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and the fear of meeting ‘someone undead’ propel him past his parents’ bedroom door to his own room, so that all he hears of a troubled late-night discussion is his mother saying: ‘I’ve dealt with worse than her.’

She’s talking about Mrs Hoa, who is collecting money for ‘the fight against the communists’, except that it’s 1983 and the communists have won. Supposedly the money will go to train guerrillas in the jungles of Thailand, but Mrs Hoa’s approach seems more like extortion with menaces, a protection racket wrapped in the flag of a country that no longer exists. ‘Did you hear about Mrs Binh?’ Mrs Hoa says. ‘People say she’s a communist sympathiser, and all because she’s too cheap to give anything. There’s even talk of boycotting her store.’ The New Saigon Market generates a livelihood but hardly a fortune: ‘People haggled endlessly with my mother over everything, beginning with the rock sugar, which I pretended was yellow kryptonite, and ending with the varieties of meat in the freezer, from pork chops and catfish with a glint of light in their eyes to shoestrings of chewy tripe and packets of chicken hearts, small and tender as button mushrooms.’

Life in a community of expatriates seems to combine the disadvantages of both city and village, and suspends the inhabitants somewhere between the past tense and the present. The cause for which Mrs Hoa collects doesn’t exist outside her fantasy, though the threat she presents is real enough. The narrator’s parents have adapted to America, but their previous life has taught them to hoard their assets, expecting ruin at any moment. They contribute to their church, wire funds to relatives in Vietnam and keep money in the bank. They also hide gold in the rice jar and jewellery in a fireproof safe hidden in the crawl space under the house. Fear of burglars persuades them to leave out tempting decoys, so that intruders will just grab and run – a conspicuous vase full of coins on a shelf near the front door, gold bracelets displayed on a dresser in the bedroom.

Vietnamese refugees of that generation are described as having ‘shadows under their eyes so pronounced they looked as if someone had punched them again and again’. But then, as the narrator of another story remarks, ‘Life, like the police, enjoys beating people now and again.’ These people tend to be self-effacing – one mother, asked whether her daughter is studying at Harvard or Yale, replies, ‘Another one,’ unwilling to attempt the tricky pronunciation of Bryn Mawr. Asked if her daughter’s subject is law or medicine, she lowers her eyes when she must own up to the shaming truth – it’s philosophy. The English language is physically alien to them, however indispensable as a medium: ‘Whenever she spoke in English, her voice took on a higher pitch, as if instead of coming from inside her, the language was outside, squeezing her by the throat.’ These parents want the best for their children but also dream of how things might have been, should have been: ‘If we hadn’t had a war, we’d be like the Koreans now. Saigon would be Seoul, your father alive, you married with children, me a retired housewife, not a manicurist.’

Failure to have children is obviously one way to end a tradition, but there are others. Mrs Khanh, a woman married to a retired professor in ‘I’d Love You to Want Me’, has mixed feelings about her eldest son’s Americanised body – ‘The edge of her hand could have fitted into the deep cleft of her son’s chest’ – wishing that he called in on his parents as often as he visits the gym. He’s a good son, even so, this Vinh (she uses his American name, Kevin, only when vexed with him), hardworking and you could even say dutiful, though he comes as the representative of all six of Mrs Khanh’s children to urge her to retire from her part-time job at the local library, where she sorts the stock of Vietnamese books and films, so as to look after their father full time. Professor Khanh’s memory is being nibbled away by dementia, and their lives are closing in.

The culture clashes between generations are delicate and tinged with irony. A harmonious blend of cultures can even be an asset in the world of these stories, with Vietnamese women in America looking for a husband who is neither too American nor too Vietnamese. In effect, Vinh the professor’s son is pushing his mother into a conventional caring role, while she clings to the independence of her little job, though there was a time in his adolescence when he saw her as intolerably traditional, shouting that she knew nothing about love. How could she, when her own marriage was arranged? But no one is proposing that the professor be put in a home. The children say their parents must be prepared for the worst, to which the professor replies: ‘We’ve seen much worse than you. We’re ready for anything.’ The children may not even remember the days at sea without water, when the family escaped three years after the war ended, crowded onto a fishing trawler with sixty strangers.

There is artistry in The Refugees, but it doesn’t manifest itself in literary virtuosity. Figurative language is erratic and often overpitched. When the narrator of ‘War Years’ describes his mother’s breasts undulating behind her nightgown ‘like the heads of twin eels’ the image is startling but not actually expressive, distracting from the drama of the moment (a man with a gun has entered the house). It doesn’t ring true either, in ‘Black-Eyed Women’, that the narrator’s pain during a sexual assault (even viewed 25 years after the event) should be caused not by the weight of the men on her, but by ‘the light shining into my dark eyes as I looked to the sky and saw the smouldering tip of God’s cigarette, poised in the heavens the moment before it was pressed against my skin’.

Nguyen’s less strenuous comparisons are more successful. In ‘War Years’ the young narrator sits astride a ‘dike’ of sacks at the back of the shop, inhaling ‘the clean carpet smell of jasmine rice’. Rice in its cooked state is described as having a ‘warm, wet sock odour’, and later on, while his mother confronts Mrs Hoa in her shabby home, the boy, perhaps embarrassed, studies ‘the patterns in the beige carpet, shapes of a frog and a tree, trapped there along with odours of garlic and sesame, sweat and moisturiser’. It’s a satisfying cluster of associations: household dirt, bodily smells, home cooking, cleaning-product perfume, everything redolent of reassurance and entrapment.

The book’s themes are reflected and refracted with the same subtlety. Whenever Professor Khanh’s memory lets him down, he writes down the mistake in a notebook set aside for the purpose. There’s a sly parallel here with the father in another story, who lived in Vietnam through the years of communist rule. The labour camp was bad enough, but the worst part was the compulsory confession. ‘Every week I had to come up with a different way to criticise myself for being a capitalist. I wrote enough pages for a whole autobiography, but every chapter said the same thing.’ The country was required to forget its history and invent a new past.

When the homeland becomes a memory, memory becomes the homeland. Not only did the professor preserve a sharp recollection of the country he had left, he could remember its previous cultural layers – when Vung Tau was called Cap Saint Jacques, when Dong Khoi was rue Catinat, before it became Tu Do. The slow departure of the professor’s memory leaves his wife too without a past, or with an invented one.

The more she listened to him, the more she feared her own memory was faltering. Perhaps they really had eaten ice cream flavoured with durian on the veranda of a tea plantation in the central highlands, reclining on rattan chairs. And was it possible they’d fed bamboo shoots to the tame deer in the Saigon zoo? Or together had beaten off a pickpocket, a scabby refugee from the bombed-out countryside who’d sneaked up on them in the Ben Thanh market?

The professor starts calling her by a name that isn’t hers, leaving her to wonder if there was another woman in his life, someone she knew nothing about. He brings her a rose, when it was his habit to give her improving books rather than romantic ones, books she never read although she appreciated the elegant calligraphy of his inscriptions on the title pages. She’s not impressed by the rose, understanding that true love isn’t about such things but about ‘going to work every day and never once complaining about teaching Vietnamese to so-called heritage learners, immigrant and refugee students who already knew the language but merely wanted an easy grade.’

Mrs Khanh broods over her perhaps imaginary rival, Yen, and starts to forge entries in the professor’s dementia notebook – ‘Today I called my wife by the name of Yen. This mistake must not be repeated’ – taking care to imitate the flourishes of his penmanship. The stratagem has no effect, and even backfires. Later she finds entries in the notebook that worry about ‘Yen’ not knowing who she is any more. This is the story that comes closest to being an autonomous aesthetic object, free of the obligation to bear witness, but it’s pulled back before it can shed its function of chronicle. Nguyen toys with reflexivity, having Mrs Khanh revise her low opinion of the short story as a form when her husband’s attention span makes longer works impossible to absorb, but opts to keep faith (as you might expect from someone who has written non-fiction about the cultural politics of race) with the reality of circumstance.

*

The stories in the second half of the book, without thickening in texture, dramatise issues of identity more freely, with Vietnam featuring for the first time as a location you can go to as well as be from, though naturally the tourist destination and the place of traumatic origin overlap only notionally. Those are not the only possible Vietnams: James Carver, the central character of ‘The Americans’, doesn’t want to experience at ground level a country he knew only from forty thousand feet as a bomber pilot. It’s his wife, Michiko, who wants to visit, convinced by Japanese relatives who had already made the trip that Vietnam looked as her own country had before postwar reconstruction daubed ‘Western make-up on Japanese features’. To their daughter, Claire, Vietnam is a place where she can atone for her Western advantages by teaching English to the underprivileged, trying to discard the prosperity so coveted by most of the world. It isn’t all penance, though, since she has acquired a Vietnamese boyfriend, Khoi Legaspi, the incongruous surname deriving from his adoptive parents.

The dynamic of this extended family plays out as a long game of rock-paper-scissors. Carver’s narrow dogmatism is trumped by Claire’s love of making herself useful, Michiko’s response to tension is always to seek common ground, and Legaspi’s mine-removal project, harnessing a mongoose to a robot so as to locate buried devices, seems like a worthwhile contribution to the future of the country until Carver points out that it’s supported by the US Department of Defense, a body less interested in clearing minefields than in developing robots that can deliver explosives to terrorists in their lairs without risk to American flesh.

There’s a parallel competitiveness in the matter of identity and entitlement. Carver, an African American from Alabama, never felt welcomed as he struggled to make his way in the world, whether he was studying in the one-room library of the town five miles from his home, or at Penn State on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship, or in uniform, flying first for the air force and then for Boeing. Michiko has her own dry take on displacement (‘Try being a Japanese wife at a Michigan air base in 1973’), while Claire feels hers is a special case: ‘There was always a place for you somewhere. But there’s never been a place for me.’ Perhaps there is now. She feels she has ‘a Vietnamese soul’, a fantasy of belonging that Carver finds infuriating but can’t dislodge. Legaspi, playing the role of deferent potential son-in-law, doesn’t refer to his own difficulties, though being adopted is in itself a form of exile from family. Of the group, it’s the American male who has the shakiest sense of self.

The family set-up in the last story, ‘Fatherland’, is more intricate. The first Mrs Ly learned that her husband had a mistress soon after the war, when the other woman came asking for money. (By this time Mr Ly was serving a five-year sentence in a New Economic Zone.) She took her three children out of the country and started a new life in America. Mr Ly divorced her and married his mistress. He gave the three children of this second marriage the names already given to the first set. The main character of the story is the oldest child of the second group, Phuong, whose namesake sister (who goes by the Americanised name of Vivien) is paying a first visit to her relatives in Saigon. Vivien is thirty, Phuong 23, though Vivien’s cosmopolitan experience makes the age gap seem greater.

For once in the book the set-up seems forced: it’s an unnecessarily elaborate device to point up the contrast between two women with shared genes but no overlap of outlook, though sympathy and bafflement flow in both directions. Phuong feels sorry for Vivien, a martyr to Western styles of dress who in jungle conditions flagrantly exposes flesh unprotected by mosquito repellent. (In the same surroundings Phuong wears elbow-length gloves and tights under her jeans.) Vivien in turn feels sorry for Phuong’s dowdy clothes, particularly the ‘granny things’ she wears next to the skin, scratchy, full-bottomed cotton items bought for her by her mother in packs of a dozen. Vivien has brought her half-sister presents in a Victoria’s Secret bag, saucy items including pants that are ‘nearly non-existent’. Phuong’s response isn’t immediately enthusiastic: ‘I can’t wear these! They’re scandalous!’ But revealing lingerie has an inflaming effect on the imagination, even if you can only wear it when alone.

Everyone is living up to a stereotype of one sort or another. Vivien behaves with solemn tourist dedication, ‘as if vacationing were a job in which to seek promotion’ – an implausibly shrewd insight for Phuong to have – while their father runs tours to the tunnels of Cu Chi, spouting slogans and striking poses for foreigners’ cameras (‘This is how we win our victory! We reunite our country through courage and sacrifice!’) as if he were a communist guerrilla rather than someone who was interned by the winning side. Vivien takes the family to dine in the fancy restaurant where Phuong has worked as a hostess for the two years since her graduation. Phuong experiences as a customer the spectacle offered up to foreign customers, her brothers in awe of the silk-bound menus (‘considerably more handsome than any textbook they owned’) while peasant food, elegantly presented, is served at tourist prices.

This is the food of Vietnam as fetish rather than nourishment, but Vietnamese food in America undergoes transformations of its own in the other stories – food being the richest cultural memory of the displaced. The professor’s wife orders cracked lobster in tamarind sauce for her husband in a restaurant, though at home she cooks eggs Benedict for a family brunch – the adopted food of the new country has become what’s eaten at home. A different balance is struck in ‘The Transplant’, with the connoisseur of Vietnamese cooking, Louis Vu, also being an advocate of capitalism at its most unscrupulous. He educates Arthur Arellano in delicacies such as

aromatic catfish caramelised in a clay pot, tender chicken sautéed in lemongrass and chili, a deep-dish omelette of mushrooms and green onions, wok-fried morning glory studded with slivers of garlic, everything meant to be dipped in a pungent sauce that was the lifeblood of Vietnamese cooking, a distilled essence of fish imbued with the colour of dawn and flecked by red chili pepper.

All this is cooked on a four-burner kitchen stove by a local widow who caters for two dozen bachelors, her son making the deliveries. In this case home cooking has left the home behind and become a small business.

Louis is a small businessman too, selling counterfeit goods that he stores in Arthur’s garage. Arthur is disconcerted by Louis’s philosophy that fake merchandise outranks the real thing. ‘Why own one of the originals,’ Louis likes to say, ‘when for the same price you could own a dozen, two dozen, even several dozen, of the better than genuine version?’ Louis (even his name is a knock-off of Louis Vuitton) has thoroughly internalised American self-belief. When Arthur asks him if he isn’t telling himself what he wants to hear, his reply has a certain corkscrew logic: ‘Of course I’m telling myself what I want to hear! We all tell ourselves what we want to hear. The point, Arthur, is this: Do you want to hear what I’m telling myself?’ In a book of almost spookily decorous immigrant behaviour – having been beaten up by life in a previous location, refugees tend to lie low – Louis’s pushiness and immunity from shame are oddly refreshing.

What alternative to family can be found by those who have left family behind? The answer given in the story ‘The Other Man’ is disconcertingly simple, though it takes Liem, the central character, some time to find it. He arrives at San Francisco airport where he meets his sponsor, Parrish Coyne, who turns out to be English by origin, hippyish in style (brown fedora, grey ponytail). Parrish is accompanied by a younger man, Marcus, originally from Hong Kong, who announces (testing his worldliness) that they are a couple ‘in the romantic sense’. Liem assumes this is an unfamiliar idiom expressing nothing more than close friendship, but then he has a lot to take in – the colour of the paintwork on the couple’s house, for instance (it’s in the Mission). ‘Purple?’ he asks, astonished, and Parrish says: ‘Close. It’s mauve.’

When the romantic couple start having rows in front of him, he understands he is fully part of the household. Marcus complains about Parrish’s self-righteousness (he’s an environmental activist, saving the world after a career as a corporate accountant) and Liem naively defends him. ‘But Parrish is a good person.’ Marcus isn’t impressed, saying: ‘There’s a reason why saints are martyred. Nobody can stand them.’ A complicity is established between the two of them, not based on love despite Liem’s expectations, since, as Marcus says, ‘Love’s just a reflex action some of us have.’ He promises Liem that in a year’s time any number of men will be telling him he’s too pretty to be alone. Hindsight will suggest to the reader that gay San Francisco won’t go on being a self-confident community much beyond the 1970s, but despite his callowness Liem has a survival instinct – one of the most painful things about living through the fall of Saigon was the discovery of ‘how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake’.

It’s over a meal in Chinatown that Marcus and Liem begin to understand each other, though Marcus’s displacement is a luxurious thing compared to Liem’s, based on being disowned by his businessman father after a vengeful lover sent him intimate letters and photos. Marcus watches approvingly as Liem sucks ‘the dimpled skin off a chicken’s foot, leaving only the twiggy bones’, saying: ‘Parrish won’t touch those.’