This is such an exciting time in American literature that we can enjoy the gorgeous language and careful craftsmanship of really very fine short stories and novels in English in the American tradition but from traditionally silent participants in our nation’s pageant: immigrants and people of color. These voices began speaking up some time ago, but if you looked at the award lists until recently, people of color weren’t often on them. That has changed, and right now, before cultures become indistinguishable from one another in the wealth churn, the special character and individual voice of different groups is our bounty to reap.
Nguyen just wows me with his capture of the immigrant experience from so many different directions in this collection of stories. Not only is his language clear and expressive and to the point, his stories are rounded and fulfilling. They tell us something, like dispatches from a new world.
A story called “The War Years” is not actually about the war we usually think of. We’re in L.A., in Little Saigon, in a grocery store where we breathe in the smell of dried cuttlefish and star anise in the crowded aisles. Father (Ba), mother (Ma), and Long (do I need to say?), a thirteen-year-old for whom school, even summer school, felt like a vacation, worked at the store every day, even Sundays after Mass.
Ma is the real deal: waking everyone up in the mornings, keeping house, making meals, counting cash. She owns seven pastel outfits, and with makeup and a squirt of scent (gardenia), she is ready to man the cash register. We hear the scratch of her nylons as she rubs one ankle against the other. She knows the margins on every item in the store, even the 50-lb bags of rice in the loft above kitchenware.
Mrs. Hao visits the store regularly to ask for contributions to “fight the Communists,” but Ma thinks that fight is over. She follows Mrs. Hao home one day to confront her and discovers a fight that is all too real.
The story is so richly told, its depths just keep churning up new insights. And yet it is not alone. “The Transplant” introduces us to Arthur Arellano, a man with several overlapping and reflexive problems—problems which influence each other. Despite “transplant” bringing to mind “immigrant,” in this story the word has a more literal meaning.
The characters in all these stories have complex problems, complex attachments, complex lives. In “Someone Else Besides You,” a thirty-three-year-old man lives with his father after his own divorce, but his widower father, despite his own proclivities for mistresses, is constantly urging his son to pursue the former wife. See what I mean? Complex.
One story, “The Americans,” depicts a twenty-six-year-old woman who has been teaching English in Vietnam for two years already, living in a town that also hosts a nonprofit engaged in demining. She invites her parents to visit, to meet her boyfriend, to see her housing, her life. The email inviting them is addressed to Mom and Dad, but James Carver, recently retired as a commercial airline pilot, knows it is mostly meant for her mother, who dreams about Vietnam's “bucolic” countryside. “He knew next to nothing about Vietnam except what it looked like at forty thousand feet.”
Nguyen conveys the silent, withheld anger and confusion that men can often exhibit: an inarticulateness that keeps them angry without them even knowing exactly why. James was so proud when his son graduated from Air Force Academy, but he marks his own decline from that moment: he felt he was growing stupider rather than wiser as he aged. That was just the moment that the torch passed, and it is a new world, not his own. If he could but speak his fears, he’d find he was not alone: the world could still be his, he’d just be sharing it.
His daughter Claire is just like daughters anywhere, thinking they know more than they do, speaking and acting so carelessly, so casually hurtful.
“Although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend any such feeling to him.”Being a parent is tough stuff. One has to have the hide of a rhinoceros.
The technical skill manifest in this story is breathtaking. We are never explicitly told the man is black, married to a Japanese woman while stationed on Okinawa. Their children have grown up loved by their parents, but confused about their identities and disparaged by their schoolmates. James has endured a lifetime of confusion, including his job flying a bomber jet. Unspoken, unresolved resentment is the minefield.
Nguyen’s stories are feasts of insight, generously shared. We’re lucky folk, to have such a talent writing for us. The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel out last year, was a big novel is every sense. He shows us here he can write engaging, enduring short fiction, and his nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has likewise garnered critical attention. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has received residencies, fellowships, honors, awards, and grants from a wide range of admiring and grateful organizations.
You can buy this book here: Tweet