In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes of the community of Vietnamese refugees living in Southern California after the fall of Saigon. “The most important thing we could never forget,” he writes, “was that we could never forget.” The narrator’s observation is made halfway through a story of remembering and forgetting, whose characters never feel at home. Their old country has pushed them out, their new country has not fully welcomed them, and living in between the two they are haunted by memory. They can never forget.
Nguyen now teaches English at the University of Southern California, but he also teaches something more. He teaches how to tell a true story. He followed The Sympathizer with a book of critical essays entitled Nothing Ever Dies, indicating in interviews that the truth of the war could not be told in either fiction or nonfiction but required both. The story of the harm that was done, the confusion that followed, the dream of home, and the haunting of memory could only be told through the imaginative reconstruction of fiction and the clear-eyed fact of nonfiction. I read and reread Nguyen’s work for its bearing on our city and the ways we have remembered certain things about our past and conveniently forgotten others. But I also read his work for its deep resonance with my own American story.
Viet Thanh Nguyen and I are the same age. When Saigon fell in 1975, he was a small boy whose family fled the South, becoming refugees. I was a small boy living in Hawaii whose family began to help with resettlement efforts, welcoming refugees. My father was pastor of a church on the island of Oahu, and he and other church members stopped what they were doing to help with the immediate need. They were on the front line of welcoming people who were tired, poor, and huddled in masses, in the words of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. It was a uniquely American story and a paradoxical one as we welcomed those who were fleeing a war we had been waging for years. Most of us have forgotten that war, but Nguyen is bringing it back to our consciousness with his storytelling and the questions it raises. Why do we forget things so easily? More importantly, why do we forget people?
The questions could not be more timely. As we read of the current administration’s continued attempts to ban refugees fleeing war-torn countries, as we hear the returned rhetoric of “us” and “them,” and as we see an outpouring of ordinary citizens stopping what they are doing to help in creative ways, we might ask ourselves if we can remember that we are talking about real people. Many of the current refugees are like so many of the Vietnamese were: former allies who served with our forces and protected them from harm. Many of them have waited years and been carefully vetted. Many of them have been separated from their families and seek reunion. Many of them have experienced unbelievable hardship and suffering, risking everything to get here. Yet the question of how we will meet them remains: with an order banning them or with the open arms of refuge?
In my experience, what makes this country great are the moments it overcomes its fear and lives into Emma Lazarus’ words of welcome. The Vietnamese-American communities I knew growing up were vibrant, rich, and generous. Shop owners always invited me in, monks taught me how to leave offerings and pray, and mothers slipped extra spring rolls into my bag because I was a growing boy. I cannot imagine my country otherwise, though the current administration is now asking that I do just that. My answer is to return to the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen. His new book The Refugees bears a simple inscription: “For all refugees, everywhere.”
I think I’ll send a copy to one of my dearest friends. He was my best man, in fact. We met in our twenties and quickly figured out that we had once lived just a few miles from each other in Houston. He is Vietnamese-American, and his family left around the same time as Viet Thanh Nguyen. Maybe I’ll ask him, once he has read the book, if it rings true. Maybe I’ll ask him what we have forgotten that the stories ask us to remember.