Reportes Without Borders announced in December 2016 that 348 journalists were imprisoned worldwide – up six per cent from the previous year. Much of this is due to conditions in Turkey, but this should by no means reassure us. I haven't found any figures on how many writers are imprisoned or persecuted today, but three years ago, the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee had 900 cases on their list. Devoted Thanh Nguyen has not himself been reprimanded for his work, but his background has taught him that there is nothing to be taken for granted, and that the pen is a sword that should be used. When he was young, his family fled from Vietnam to California, and in his second fiction, The Refugees - he tells stories about Vietnamese who made the same journey.
The short stories are about all kinds of people, from a demented professor who addresses his wife by the wrong name, to a pragmatic petty criminal who hides his fake Louis Vuitton bags and Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses in the garage of a man in debt of gratitude. Their dramatic past is seldom retold in long passages, but oozes to the surface in their new lives. In the first short story, "Black-Eyed Women", we meet a shadow writer who is visited by his brother's ghost (the analogy obviously works better in English), and she thinks back to when he was shot in the head by pirates during his escape from Vietnam . In the conversation with the deceased brother, it emerges that life as a shadow writer is really a shadow life, because something in her went out forever when she witnessed her brother's death. In "I'd Love You to Want Me", a woman in her sixties talks about the travel plans she and her husband had discussed for retirement – and this is many decades after they arrived in the US by boat: "The only form of transport Mrs. Khanh had ruled out was the ocean cruise. Open expanses of water prompted fears of drowning, a phobia so strong that she no longer took baths, and even while showering kept her back to the spray. "
One would think it was banal to point out that the reactions to war are the same whether you live in Norway, Syria or Vietnam, but it is obviously not.
Immigration Prohibition. These flashes of trauma made me think of a friend who has been above average engaged in the Syrian refugees. When she was launching a book on the young Witnesses of World War II, she bought a copy for herself and one that she addressed to the Department of Justice and Emergency. She wanted to tell Sylvi Listhaug that war trauma is something you will never get rid of, and show the stark contrast between how we relate to the time witnesses then and now. One would think it was banal to point out that the reactions to war are the same whether you live in Norway, Syria or Vietnam, but it is obviously not. Several American critics have pointed out the timing of Thanh Nguyen's book, that it is urgently needed at a time when their president will impose an immigration ban and try to dehumanize an entire group.
When this dehumanization goes a long way, it is because empathy for those who are not close to us is difficult; prejudice belongs to the natural survival instinct. In the novel "Fatherland" Thanh Nguyen shows how these mechanisms work for more than megalomaniac businessmen. In Ho Chi Minh City, the young woman Phoung feels compelled to post pictures in her traditional costume because she works as a waiter, while her father feeds on playing the role of enthusiastic tour guide in the ruins of a war that deprived him of everything he owned. When she sees her father at work for the first time, she realizes that there is a connection between why her father gets away with the fake facts and why she never gets sent the photos the foreign restaurant customers promise her copies of: "We're all the Same to them, Phoung understood with a mix of anger and shame – small, charming and forgettable. ”
Decor and dignity. However, the Vietnamese refugees we meet in the short story collection are not always particularly charming – but they are all memorable. The language of Thanh Nguyen causes prejudice and stereotypes to crack, and it is precisely in the absence of strong means that his language becomes so effective. He shows how the refugees have the same deep human needs as everyone else, for security, independence, love and dignity. One of the finest examples of the latter comes from the aforementioned Mrs. Khanh when she thinks back to the family's voyage in a tired fishing trawler: "After the fourth day, here children were crying for water, even though there was none to offer but the sea's. Nevertheless, she had washed her faces and combed her hair every morning, using salt water and spit. She was teaching them that decorum mattered even now, and that their mother's fear wasn't so strong that it could prevent her from loving them. ”
Authoritarian regimes imprison and censure writers and journalists because they can reveal the regime's lack of democratic support for the people. It must be disheartening for a writer like Viet Thanh Nguyen to see that the country he fled to goes in the same authoritarian direction as the country he fled from, albeit with a different ideological sign. However, he encounters this development with another type of resistance – the one found in writers. To paraphrase Nordahl Grieg again: The Refugees gives us the belief in human worth.