The refugees, p.1
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       The Refugees, p.1

           Viet Thanh Nguyen
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The Refugees


  Also by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  Fiction

  The Sympathizer

  Nonfiction

  Nothing Ever Dies:

  Vietnam and the Memory of War

  Race and Resistance:

  Literature and Politics in Asian America

  Transpacific Studies:

  Framing an Emerging Field (coedited with Janet Hoskins)

  Grove Press

  New York

  Copyright © 2017 by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  Versions of the stories collected here were originally published in the following publications: “Black-Eyed Women,” in Epoch, 64.2; “The Other Man” (published as “A Correct Life”), in Best New American Voices 2007; “War Years,” (published as “The War Years”) in TriQuarterly, 135/136; “The Transplant” (published as “Arthur Arellano”), in Narrative, Spring 2010; “I’d Love You to Want Me” (published as “The Other Woman”), in Gulf Coast, 20.1; “The Americans,” in the Chicago Tribune, December 2010; “Someone Else Besides You,” in Narrative, Winter 2008; “Fatherland,” in Narrative, Spring 2011.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove Atlantic, 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or permissions@groveatlantic.com.

  First Grove Atlantic hardcover edition: February 2017

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Printed in the United States of America

  ISBN 978-0-8021-2639-9

  eISBN 978-0-8021-8935-6

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available for this title.

  Grove Press

  an imprint of Grove Atlantic

  154 West 14th Street

  New York, NY 10011

  Distributed by Publishers Group West

  groveatlantic.com

  For all refugees, everywhere

  Contents

  Black-Eyed Women

  The Other Man

  War Years

  The Transplant

  I’d Love You to Want Me

  The Americans

  Someone Else Besides You

  Fatherland

  Acknowledgments

  I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.

  Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp

  It is not your memories which haunt you.

  It is not what you have written down.

  It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

  What you must go on forgetting all your life.

  James Fenton, “A German Requiem”

  ame would strike someone, usually the kind that healthy-minded people would not wish upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, suffering humiliation in a sex scandal, or surviving something typically fatal. These survivors needed someone to help write their memoirs, and their agents might eventually come across me. “At least your name’s not on anything,” my mother once said. When I mentioned that I would not mind being thanked in the acknowledgments, she said, “Let me tell you a story.” It would be the first time I heard this story, but not the last. “In our homeland,” she went on, “there was a reporter who said the government tortured the people in prison. So the government does to him exactly what he said they did to others. They send him away and no one ever sees him again. That’s what happens to writers who put their names on things.”

  By the time Victor Devoto chose me, I had resigned myself to being one of those writers whose names did not appear on book covers. His agent had given him a book that I had ghostwritten, its ostensible author the father of a boy who had shot and killed several people at his school. “I identify with the father’s guilt,” Victor said to me. He was the sole survivor of an airplane crash, one hundred and seventy-three others having perished, including his wife and children. What was left of him appeared on all the talk shows, his body there but not much else. The voice was a soft monotone, and the eyes, on the occasions when they looked up, seemed to hold within them the silhouettes of mournful people. His publisher said that it was urgent that he finish his story while audiences still remembered the tragedy, and this was my preoccupation on the day my dead brother returned to me.

  My mother woke me while it was still dark outside and said, “Don’t be afraid.”

  Through my open door, the light from the hallway stung. “Why would I be afraid?”

  When she said my brother’s name, I did not think of my brother. He had died long ago. I closed my eyes and said I did not know anyone by that name, but she persisted. “He’s here to see us,” she said, stripping off my covers and tugging at me until I rose, eyes half-shut. She was sixty-three, moderately forgetful, and when she led me to the living room and cried out, I was not surprised. “He was right here,” she said, kneeling by her floral armchair as she felt the carpet. “It’s wet.” She crawled to the front door in her cotton pajamas, following the trail. When I touched the carpet, it was damp. For a moment I twitched in belief, and the silence of the house at four in the morning felt ominous. Then I noticed the sound of rainwater in the gutters, and the fear that had gripped my neck relaxed its hold. My mother must have opened the door, gotten drenched, then come back inside. I knelt by her as she crouched next to the door, her hand on the knob, and said, “You’re imagining things.”

  “I know what I saw.” Brushing my hand off her shoulder, she stood up, anger illuminating her dark eyes. “He walked. He talked. He wanted to see you.”

  “Then where is he, Ma? I don’t see anyone.”

  “Of course you don’t.” She sighed, as if I were the one unable to grasp the obvious. “He’s a ghost, isn’t he?”

  Ever since my father died a few years ago, my mother and I lived together politely. We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk. She constantly fed me gossip and stories, the only kind I enjoyed concerning my father back when he was a man I did not know, young and happy. Then came stories of terror like the one about the reporter, the moral being that life, like the police, enjoys beating people now and again. Finally there was her favorite kind, the ghost story, of which she knew many, some firsthand.

  “Aunt Six died of a heart attack at seventy-six,” she told me once, twice, or perhaps three times, repetition being her habit. I never took her stories seriously. “She lived in Vung Tau and we were in Nha Trang. I was bringing dinner to the table when I saw Aunt Six sitting there in her nightgown. Her long gray hair, which she usually wore in a chignon, was loose and fell over her shoulders and in her face. I almost dropped the dishes. When I asked her what she was doing here, she just smiled. She stood up, kissed me, and turned me toward the kitchen. When I turned around again to see her, she was gone. It was her ghost. Uncle confirmed it when I called. She had passed away that morning, in her own bed.”

  Aunt Six died a good death, according to my mother, at home and with family, her ghost simply making the rounds to say farewell. My mother repeated her aunt’s story while we sat at the kitchen table the morning she cl
aimed to have seen my brother, her son. I had brewed her a pot of green tea and taken her temperature despite her protests, the result being, as she had predicted, normal. Waving the thermometer at me, she said he must have disappeared because he was tired. After all, he had just completed a journey of thousands of miles across the Pacific.

  “So how did he get here?”

  “He swam.” She gave me a pitying look. “That’s why he was wet.”

  “He was an excellent swimmer,” I said, humoring her. “What did he look like?”

  “Exactly the same.”

  “It’s been twenty-five years. He hasn’t changed at all?”

  “They always look exactly the same as when you last saw them.”

  I remembered how he looked the last time, and any humor that I felt vanished. The stunned look on his face, the open eyes that did not flinch even with the splintered board of the boat’s deck pressing against his cheek—I did not want to see him again, assuming there was something or someone to see. After my mother left for her shift at the salon, I tried to go back to sleep but could not. His eyes stared at me whenever I closed my own. Only now was I conscious of not having remembered him for months. I had long struggled to forget him, but just by turning a corner in the world or in my mind I could run into him, my best friend. From as far back as I can recall, I could hear his voice outside our house, calling my name. That was my signal to follow him down our village’s lanes and pathways, through jackfruit and mango groves to the dikes and fields, dodging shattered palm trees and bomb craters. At the time, this was a normal childhood.

  Looking back, however, I could see that we had passed our youth in a haunted country. Our father had been drafted, and we feared that he would never return. Before he left, he had dug a bomb shelter next to our home, a sandbagged bunker whose roof was braced by timber. Even though it was hot and airless, dank with the odor of the earth and alive with the movement of worms, we often went there to play as little children. When we were older, we went to study and tell stories. I was the best student in my school, excellent enough for my teacher to teach me English after hours, lessons I shared with my brother. He, in turn, told me tall tales, folklore, and rumors. When airplanes shrieked overhead and we huddled with my mother in the bunker, he whispered ghost stories into my ear to distract me. Except, he insisted, they were not ghost stories. They were historical accounts from reliable sources, the ancient crones who chewed betel nut and spat its red juice while squatting on their haunches in the market, tending coal stoves or overseeing baskets of wares. Our land’s confirmed residents, they said, included 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. These invaders came to conquer our land and now would never go home, the old ladies said, cackling and exposing lacquered teeth, or so my brother told me. I shivered with delight in the gloom, hearing those black-eyed women with my own ears, and it seemed to me that I would never tell stories like those.

  Was it ironic, then, that I made a living from being a ghostwriter? I posed the question to myself as I lay in bed in the middle of the day, but the women with their black eyes and black teeth heard me. You call what you have a life? Their teeth clacked as they laughed at me. I pulled the covers up to my nose, the way I used to do in my early years in America, when creatures not only lurked in the hallway but also roamed outside. My mother and father always peeked through the living room curtains before answering any knock, afraid of our young countrymen, boys who had learned about violence from growing up in wartime. “Don’t open the door for someone you don’t know,” my mother warned me, once, twice, three times. “We don’t want to end up like that family tied down at gunpoint. They burned the baby with cigarettes until the mother showed them where she hid her money.” My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.

  When knocking woke me, it was dark outside. My watch said 6:35 in the evening. The knock came again, gentle, tentative. Despite myself, I knew who it was. I had locked the bedroom door just in case, and now I pulled the covers over my head, my heart beating fast. I willed him to go away, but when he started rattling the doorknob, I knew I had no choice but to rise. The fine hairs of my body stood at attention with me as I watched the doorknob tremble with the pressure of his grip. I reminded myself that he had given up his life for me. The least I could do was open the door.

  He was bloated and pale, hair feathery, skin dark, clad in black shorts and a ragged gray T-shirt, arms and legs bony. The last time I had seen him, he was taller by a head; now our situations were reversed. When he said my name, his voice was hoarse and raspy, not at all like his adolescent alto. His eyes, though, were the same, curious, as were his lips, slightly parted, always prepared to speak. A purple bruise with undertones of black gleamed on his left temple, but the blood I remembered was gone, washed away, I suppose, by salt water and storms. Even though it was not raining, he was water-soaked. I could smell the sea on him, and worse, I could smell the boat, rancid with human sweat and excreta.

  When he said my name, I trembled, but this was a ghost of someone whom I loved and would never harm, the kind of ghost who, my mother had said, would not harm me. “Come in,” I said, which seemed to me the bravest thing I could say. Unmoved, he looked at the carpet on which he was dripping water. When I brought him a clean T-shirt and shorts, along with a towel, he looked at me expectantly until I turned around and let him change. The clothes were my smallest but still a size too large for him, the shorts extending to his knees, the T-shirt voluminous. I motioned him in, and this time he obeyed, sitting on my rumpled bed. He refused to meet my gaze, seemingly more fearful of me than I was of him. While he was still fifteen I was thirty-eight, no longer an exuberant tomboy, reluctant to talk unless I had a purpose, as was the case when I interviewed Victor. Being an author, even one of the third or fourth rank, involved an etiquette I could live up to. But what does one say to a ghost, except to ask why he was here? I was afraid of the answer, so instead I said, “What took you so long?”

  He looked at my bare toes with their bare nails. Perhaps he sensed that I was not good with children. Motherhood was too intimate for me, as were relationships lasting more than one night.

  “You had to swim. It takes a long time to go so far, doesn’t it?”

  “Yes.” His mouth remained open, as if he wanted to say more but was uncertain of what to say or how to say it. Perhaps this apparition was the first consequence of what my mother considered my unnatural nature, childless and single. Perhaps he was not a figment of my imagination but a symptom of something wrong, like the cancer that killed my father. His was also a good death, according to my mother, surrounded by family at home, not like what happened to her son and, nearly, to me. Panic surged from that bottomless well within myself that I had sealed with concrete, and I was relieved to hear the front door opening. “Mother will want to see you,” I said. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

  When we returned, we found only his wet clothes and the wet towel. She held up the gray T-shirt, the same as he had worn on the blue boat with the red eyes.

  “Now you know,” my mother said. “Never turn your back on a ghost.”

  The black shorts and gray T-shirt stank of brine and were heavy with more than just water. When I carried them to the kitchen, the weight of the clothes in my hands was the weight of evidence. I had seen him wear these clothes on dozens of occasions. I remembered them when the shorts were not black with grime but still pristine blue, when the shirt was not gray and ragged but white and neat. “Do you believe now?” my mother said, lifting the lid of the
washing machine. I hesitated. Some people say that faith burns inside them, but my newfound faith was chilling to me. “Yes,” I said. “I believe.”

  The machine hummed in the background as we sat for dinner at the kitchen table, the air anointed with star anise and ginger. “That’s how come it took him so many years,” my mother said, blowing onto her hot soup. Nothing had ever daunted her appetite or dented her cast-iron stomach, not even the events on the boat or the apparition of her son. “He swam the entire distance.”

  “Aunt Six lived hundreds of miles away and you saw her the same day.”

  “Ghosts don’t live by our rules. Each ghost is different. Good ghosts, bad ghosts, happy ghosts, sad ghosts. Ghosts of people who die when they’re old, when they’re young, when they’re small. You think baby ghosts behave the same as grandfather ghosts?”

  I knew nothing about ghosts. I had not believed in ghosts and neither did anyone else I knew except for my mother and Victor, who himself seemed spectral, the heat of grief rendering him pale and nearly translucent, his only color coming from a burst of uncombed red hair. Even with him the otherworldly came up only twice, once on the phone and once in his living room. Nothing had been touched since the day his family left for the airport, not even the sorrowful dust. I had the impression that the windows had not been opened since that day, as if he wanted to preserve the depleted air that his wife and children had breathed before they suffered their bad deaths, so far from home. “The dead move on,” he had said, coiled in his armchair, hands between his thighs. “But the living, we just stay here.”

  These words opened his last chapter, the one I worked on after my mother went to sleep and I descended into the bright basement, illuminated with fluorescent tubes. I wrote one sentence, then paused to listen for a knock or steps on the stairway. My rhythm through the night was established, a few lines followed by a wait for something that did not come, the next day more of the same. The conclusion of Victor’s memoir was in sight when my mother came home from the nail salon with shopping bags from Chinatown, one full of groceries, the other with underwear, a pair of pajamas, blue jeans, a denim jacket, a pack of socks, knit gloves, a baseball cap. After stacking them next to his dried and ironed T-shirt and shorts, she said, “He can’t be wandering out in the cold with what you gave him, like a homeless person or some illegal immigrant.” When I said that I hadn’t thought of it that way, she snorted, annoyed by my ignorance of the needs of ghosts. Only after dinner did she warm up again. Her mood had improved because instead of retreating to my basement as usual, I had stayed to watch one of the soap operas she rented by the armfuls, serials of beautiful Korean people snared in romantic tangles. “If we hadn’t had a war,” she said that night, her wistfulness drawing me closer, “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.” Her hair was in curlers, and a bowl of watermelon seeds was in her lap. “I’d spend my days visiting friends and being visited, and when I died, a hundred people would come to my funeral. I’d be lucky if twenty people will come here, with you taking care of things. That frightens me more than anything. You can’t even remember to take out the garbage or pay the bills. You won’t even go outside to shop for groceries.”

 
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