Literature of Exile: Viet Thanh Nguyen and the Vietnamese Refugee Experience

Unlike some of the other exiles mentioned on this blog, the story of the Vietnamese refugees is generally well- known in the United States, since the US was so directly involved in creating the crisis. After the fall of Saigon, over 130,000 Vietnamese with ties to the South Vietnamese government or the United States, escaped in boats; over the next decade as many as 1 million more attempted the journey, braving starvation, disease and pirate attacks. The UN High Commission on Refugees estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese refugees died at sea.

Many Americans consider the war to be a noble, if possibly flawed, example of American good intentions. And while there is some truth to that, it was also simply a continuation of French colonization, a war that was racist and imperialist at its roots and in its practices. As such, this war was just one manifestation of a centuries-long expansion of the American empire that began from its own colonial birth and ran through the frontier, the American West, Mexico, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and now the Middle East. – -Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was one of the survivors, 4 years old when his family fled to the United States in 1975. Though he has spent almost all of his life in America, his award winning fiction and nonfiction is steeped in the memories of that refugee experience, and of the struggle to make a new life in a strange country. In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer, Nguyen explores the mentality of a war time double agent, a half Vietnamese, half French refugee in the US who returns to spy for the North Vietnamese , betraying several close friends in the process.

The Sympathizer can be read as a satire on the absurdities of war: (“It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died. Imagine how many would have died without a truce!”) yet it also poses a mystery: why after living in the US does the Narrator choose to support North Vietnam? Right from the start, Nguyen supplies part of the answer:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

Like many exiles and refugees, the Narrator has a double consciousnesses, although unlike many characters we have met, he sees it as an advantage, a cynical tool for understanding the worst of both sides, and for exploiting them.

Hi bi-racial heritage is another marker of his dual nature, and of his cynicism. Bi-racial identity, like exile identity, can leave a person adrift, especially for the offspring of foreign soldiers and native women. As he says of a half Japanese prisoner:

After the war ended and he was freed, he thought he’d go back to his people, the way that he’d been told to all his life by white people, even though he was born here. So he went and found out that the people in Japan didn’t think he was one of them, either. To them he’s one of us, and to us he’s one of them. Neither one thing nor another.

The Narrator’s carefully contained anger at the white Americans who preach democracy after collaborating with French colonialists leads him to exploit in his turn. As he explains,

When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best. We, too, could abuse grand ideals!

Nguyen’s most recent work of fiction, The Refugees, is a collection of short stories , each exploring different aspects of the Vietnamese exile experience: loneliness, trauma, the lack of communication across generations. A young woman is visited by the ghost of the older brother who saved her life during their escape; when she asks him why she lived and he died he replies, “You died too…You just don’t know it”. An elderly woman learns to accept her husband’s worsening dementia; when their son pressures them to be “ready for the worst, his refugee father replies tersely, “We’ve seen so much worse than you. We’re ready for anything”.

And in a surprising twist, Carver, an African American Vietnam vet, and his Japanese American wife Michiko visit their daughter Claire, who has moved to Vietnam “to do some good and make up for some of the things you’ve done”. Hurt and angered, Carver realizes that

…although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and who would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend any such feelings to him.

Claire has exiled herself from her home and family, but for Carver being the Black veteran of an unpopular and perhaps immoral war is its own form of exile.

For more about Viet Thanh Nguyen:

“I love America. That’s Why I have to tell the truth about it.”

A conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen

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