June 20, 2017

Reading : Books about Refugees

Since my parents and brothers are refugees, I obviously like stories about the refugee experience.  I feel both very connected to it because of my family, and disconnected because I was born in America.  In general I think most people are interested in narratives about movement and change, because we all experience and appreciate displacement to varying degrees. Here are some books I've read this year on this theme.


The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This is a collection of short stories that I read after I tried unsuccessfully to finish his other book, The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize and got rave reviews.  I stopped after about 100 pages of that one; I just couldn't get into the narration and it was taking me forever to read in ten page intervals.  So I tried The Refugees instead, which is a very quick read.  With stories that feel like vignettes, the book shares how people have experienced Vietnam and the Vietnam War from different perspectives: a family who escaped the communist regime by boat and lost a child to a pirate attack; an American pilot who fought in the war and visits the country after his daughter moves there to teach English; a young man sponsored to live in the United States by an American couple; half-sisters who grow up apart, one in Vietnam and the other in America.

I like how the book speaks very little about the war itself, which can feel distant to both the characters and the readers.  Instead, it describes the subtle ripples of that event on people living at that time and the people who followed. I generally really like story collections that do this, because it connects our day to day with the past, and puts our lives in the context of a spectrum of history (my favorite is Murakami's After the Quake about the earthquake in Kobe in 1995).  I wasn't blown away by the language or storytelling in The Refugees, but I really value the voice and intent.

(Note: I've started The Sympathizer over and trying to finish it this time, because everyone is saying it's one of the best books about the Vietnam War yet.  Sometimes, I feel like this hype is more related to the topic but I'll have more of an opinion when I finish it. If you have curiosity about the subject, I'd start with The Refugees or The Best We Could Do, below).

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
I've read Moth Smoke (enjoyed) and The Fundamentalist (not as much) by Mohsin Hamid, and had heard great things about Exit West. It's my favorite of the three and would be my first recommendation if you haven't read anything by him before.  It tells the story of a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, living in an unnamed country where a civil war between the government and religious rebels forces people to flee their homes for fear of their safety.  

The dangers and violence are concrete, which contrast with the unreal way Saeed and Nadia escape their country and enter others: through magic doors that transport them to Greece, England, then America.  This seeming ease of migration is undercut by the obstacles of assimilation that Saeed and Nadia face in each place.  As their environment changes, they change as individuals and as a couple.  I love how intimate their story feels, even as they traverse large spans of time and geography:

"Saeed and Nadia knew what the buildup to conflict felt like, and so the feeling that hung over London was not new to them, and they faced it not with bravery, exactly, and not with panic either, not mostly, but instead with a resignation shot through with moments of tension, with tension ebbing and flowing, and when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be."

Hamid is an amazing writer, and this book has the perfect combination of powerful story with powerful words.  He has this unbelievable skill of packing abstractions into sentences that feel close, real, and beautiful even when they are hard because they're so true.  The sentences are long, carrying along until you start to feel breathless too.  I listened to the book on audio, and as some of you know I tend to listen to audiobooks at increased speed.  But the language in Exit West was so loving that I listened to it at normal speed, and I often listened to it without doing anything else at the same time.  Also, Hamid narrates the audiobook and besides having the perfect voice to match the story's depth, it's always an added layer to hear the story told by the source.  If you haven't tried an audiobook before or have had bad experiences with it in the past, this one is rich and beautiful, and it's short so it's easy to get through (though I was sad it was so short).

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This book takes place in Chechnya, a republic of Russia I knew very little about before reading this. Chechnya fought two wars with Russia in the 90s and early 2000s.  Chechnens suffered awful brutalities that forced hundreds of thousands of them to escape.  There aren't many Chechnens in America, because we resettle very few refugees from that area.  Most of us probably first heard of Chechnya after the Boston Marathon bombings, orchestrated by two Chechen-American brothers, in 2013.  By then, Chechnens had been tortured and killed for decades.

In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the story goes back and forth in time and in characters' point of views, but its anchor is set at a hospital run by a surgeon named Sonja.  She's the only doctor for all the patients, who are rebels fighting in the war and refugees trying to escape the war.  A one-woman factory, she cuts off limbs and digs at wounds with rapid precision.  The immediate physicality of her work reminds me of how lucky we are here.  I often complain about how healthcare doesn't prioritize primary care enough, but we're really lucky that our society is structured so that it's even important to advocate for long-term primary care.  That we expect that we'll have time--years--with our patients so that their chronic illnesses matter.  I can't imagine a life where none of that even matters because thousands are dying daily from acute injuries and trauma.

Sonja reluctantly takes in Akhmed (another, much less skilled doctor whose real calling is art) and an eight year old girl named Havaa whose father, Akhmed's friend, has been abducted by the Russian government.  The plot is complicated as Marra introduces the nature of the characters in piecemeal and their connections take time to mainfest: Sonja's sister Natasha who is forced into prostitution and whose disappearance is one of several running mysteries in the book; Ramzan, the informant who is responsible for the capture of Havaa's father; Khassan, Ramzan's father who writes a thousands-page-long history of Chechnya that no one else cares about.  They each live and cope with their inhuman circumstances in ways that are never judged by Marra, only observed and shared.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
I was lucky to receive a signed first-edition copy of this graphic novel, because the author is the sister of one of my co-workers.  This is the first graphic novel I've read (!), and whenever doing something for the first time it helps if there's a sense of familiarity (choosing a book you've already read for your first audiobook, writing your first story about something that happened to you in real life). I didn't get too distracted by the new medium of art in a novel, because it was so easy to personally connect to this book. It's an autobiographical account of the author's family history--her mother's story, her father's story, and how they converge into hers.  It reads the way we wonder: about who our parents were before us, how they brought us here.  In Bui's case, this is forcefully impacted by the Vietnam War and her family's escape from the communist regime.

The book couches the individual stories within the larger context of the Vietnam War in a way that feels like how it might have been lived: with the big explosions of war, and the quiet ones of family struggle.  There are so many details sewn into this story that are concrete parts of my family and my life: the way Bui's parents dealt with her live-in boyfriend situation by pretending it didn't exist (my parents did this for so long I started to think they really didn't know I was living with a boy), how people changed their birthdates at refugee camps to make themselves older or younger (my mom did this too).  As much as I relate on an emotional level to all sorts of books about all sorts of people, there's something extremely powerful about seeing these very specific details of your personal life and cultural background expressed in something published and public.  In my daily work, we're so focused on trying to understand our patients' lives that we forget that it's important for us to feel understood too.  I forget the effect of growing up in a way that can feel foreign to most people I meet.  I usually don't feel the absence of shared experience until I'm surprised by its presence.

I've been especially grateful this year for being able to relate to characters in books and TV (I could go on and on about my love for Aziz Ansari's Master of None, but luckily the internet has amplified this sentiment a hundred times over.  I might still go on and on about it at some point in the future).  Recently, I had a conversation with a friend where we talked about how growing up in a white-centered environment affected us.  I've always felt incredibly lucky to grow up in the Bay Area, which is not only diverse but values diversity.  Still, when I was a kid, I remember consciously wishing I were white because everyone on TV and in books is white and if I wasn't white, how could I be pretty and popular?

So I'm really grateful to Thi Bui to writing this story and making it visual, rendering tangible so many elements of my background that really are often kept in the background.


I'm happy that these books are popular in large part due to their foreignness, that people value and are interested in stories of lives grown elsewhere and among circumstances different from theirs.  At the same time I know that personally we're seeking stitches of ourselves.  For me, I want to stay connected to the things that led me here before I was aware of them.  Seeing how others followed the same trajectory makes it feel less unique in a way that's much more filling than being special.  And learning how the trauma of displacement can persist and resurface makes us remember that place isn't always grounded, that people aren't always whole, and that we need to be there for each other in whatever piece we find each other.


  1. I'm so glad you loved Exit West, too! Btw I tried to get into The Sympathizer before A was born and just couldn't do it. I also read a spoiler accidentally so that didn't help. Will try The Refugees, maybe short stories is the way to go right now until I have more sleep/more capacity to attempt longer reads.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I returned the Sympathizer...I got through about 200 pages and just couldn't do it before it was long overdue!


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