Books by and about Refugees
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s life and work was forged in the crucible of the refugee experience. His family escaped from Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War and came to America, where his parents labored to pay for his upbringing and education. The arc of his experience has informed an impressive body of literature – his novel The Sympathizer won almost every prize in the American literary pantheon, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence.
The Sympathizer was a sleeper hit – Nguyen was relatively unknown when it came out. Its nameless narrator is a man with a divided heart – he is the illegitimate son of a teenage Vietnamese mother (whom he loves) and a French Catholic priest (whom he hates). Educated in the United States, he has learned to speak English flawlessly. He has a love-hate relationship with his new country as well.
As the reader progresses through The Sympathizer, the reader learns that during the Vietnam War, the narrator was a double agent – ostensibly working as a spy for the south Vietnamese, he was actually a communist mole. Eventually the story moves to America, where the plotting and counterplotting only intensifies. The Sympathizer is many things – it’s a thriller with a mystery embedded it, but it’s also a searing psychological portrait of a man whose wartime experiences have given him a permanent case of double vision.
Nguyen is a professor at the University of California, and he recently published a more scholarly look at the Vietnam War experience and how it has affected those who have lived through it.
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War is what Nguyen has described as a “critical bookend” to his fiction. It documents how the Vietnam War has lived on in the memories of people and countries – Vietnam, the United States, Laos, Cambodia and South Korea. It’s a penetrating examination of how wars are remembered – or forgotten – and how those reframed memories determine how war will be fought – or not fought – in the future. He looks at art, literature, film, cemeteries, war memorials and even video games to find common threads in this memory-shaping process.
Different participants in the Vietnam War remember it in different ways. The current Vietnamese government portrays the war as a great victory, led by the revolutionary saint Ho Chi Minh. Exiled refugees from the former South Vietnam remember it as a history-altering catastrophe and memorialize their version of the war and their former home in their refugee communities (Nguyen grew up in one of those communities, in San Jose, California).
Nguyen convincingly argues that adversaries in war must learn to look at war from all sides, acknowledging both their sacrifices and those of their enemies. Only in weighing the true cost of war on all parties will America lift itself out of the cycle of what he calls “perpetual war,” which our country has waged in one form or another since the late 19th century.
Many great books have been written about the refugee experience – Nguyen estimates that today the worldwide refugee population has swelled to 60 million people. One such book is City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlance. Rawlence, who worked for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, tells the story of Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, where nearly 500,000 people fleeing civil war in nearby Somalia live in a refugee compound the size of Atlanta.
He tells the story through the lives of nine people caught in the camp, from a former child soldier and his wife to everyday people struggling to escape poverty and violence. Bribery, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and cultural clashes are common, and the world’s concern is fleeting and intermittent. This book vividly portrays at what cost people leave their homes for the unknown.
Dave Eggers, who wrote the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has written many other interesting books. One of the best might be What is the What.
He co-wrote this book with its subject, Valentino Achak Deng, one of about 20,000 children who fled their destroyed villages in war-torn southern Sudan and walked hundreds of miles to the refugee camps of neighboring countries. Deng was eventually resettled in America. He collaborated with Eggers to create a story of an incredible escape, and of what came after.
Finally, I can’t leave this topic without mentioning the novel Little Bee by British writer Chris Cleave, a Well Read guest who excels at portraying humans swept up by world events.
Little Bee features two very strong women, though from wildly opposite parts of the world. There’s Bee, a 16-year-old Nigerian immigrant who washes up on the streets of London. She has fled civil war in her own country, but eventually she is thrown into one of Britain’s notorious detention centers for illegal immigrants.
In Nigeria, Bee had a chance meetin with Andrea, a British magazine editor, and Andrea’s husband. After a terrible incident on a West African beach the husband’s wallet was left behind. In London, this becomes the link for Little Bee to find Andrea, who is dealing with a tragedy all her own. This budding friendship between two women of different backgrounds testifies to the necessity to remain human and connected, even in a fractured, globalized world.