It seems trite, at first: a ghostwriter meets a ghost and then decides to write a collection of ghost stories. Hollywood would make the metaphor insufferable, casting a mediocre actor in a no-doubt uninspired production relying on CGI and wispy, ethereal images of a drafty Gothic manor where the ghostwriter seeks inspiration and fusses with his typewriter. Isn’t there anybody in Hollywood who’s sick of that old cliché?
Thankfully, the ghostwriter in “Black-Eyed Women”—the first short story in Viet Than Nguyen’s The Refugees—has no such pretensions. She lives with her mother and likes to write in the dark in the middle of the night, preferring not to go outside if she can help it. Her life is small and quiet, conducted primarily in front of the computer screen, with little excitement or terror except in the stories she writes; so it’s fitting that when the ghost finally comes it’s not as a poltergeist from a B horror film, not as Casper or Marley or even the Stay Puft marshmallow man but as her brother, a more-or-less benevolent spirit who suddenly appears one night, twenty-five years after he was killed on a boat while trying to protect his sister, the narrator, from being raped by pirates. It has taken him this long to swim alone across the seas and find his family. When he arrives, he’s soaking wet, and his sister offers him dry clothes.
What’s most striking about the ghost in “Black-Eyed Women” is that it has no agenda. Its primary goal appears to just be rejoining its family before finally moving on into the spirit world; there’s no indication that it seeks revenge or closure, and its arrival doesn’t coincide with a major change in the narrator’s life, unless you count her increasing notoriety as a ghostwriter—if such a thing is even possible. The ghost’s visit inspires her to give up ghostwriting and take ownership over her stories, but this seems incidental, unintentional, the byproduct of the somewhat cryptic conversations the narrator has with her brother’s ghost, who tells her sadly that she died that day, too; she just doesn’t know it. In this, there is a certain blunt cruelty, of the kind that only brothers and sisters can dish out when they’re each feeling at their most vulnerable. The ghost doesn’t stay to help the narrator work through her trauma and doesn’t ever allow himself to be seen again. Not even when the narrator begins “hunting for the ghosts, something [she] can do without ever leaving home.”
Haunting, as Nguyen suggests, is both something that happens to us and something that we intentionally seek out: because it interests us, perhaps; because we need to carry the weight of the past inside us to understand the import of the present; or simply because it defines us, this haunting, since trauma is one of the most fundamental human experiences, and there are few lives that end without it. This is especially true for refugees.
Most of the characters in Nguyen’s collection are refugees or the children of refugees (the notable exceptions being former B-52 pilot James Carver in “The Americans” and gambling addict Arthur Arellano in “The Transplant”). Nguyen’s refugees fled Vietnam and the oppressive communist regime there, which exerts so much pressure on its citizens that one father can’t write honestly to his son for fear of being targeted by the Viet Cong. This son, Liem, immigrates to the United States in 1975, when Saigon is on the verge of falling to the Communists. As a refugee, he waits to be sponsored by an American who will help him transition into society. That sponsor, Parrish Coyne, lives in a two-story house in San Francisco, where he worked for many years as a corporate accountant before quitting his job to become a political activist. Thanks to him, Liem is able to settle in, find work, and send money to his family in Vietnam. But this doesn’t prevent Liem from becoming infatuated with Parrish’s live-in boyfriend Marcus, a twenty-something student, who evidently has no qualms bedding Liem while Parrish is away on business. Staring at his reflection after, Liem “see[s] right through himself,” though the pale outline of his cheeks, his pretty face, and watches two men walk down the street. Metaphorically speaking, Liem is a ghost in this moment, and to become a person again he must face some harsh truths about his sexuality. Like the ghostwriter in “Black-Eyed Women” said, there are many different kinds of ghosts.
Death comes in various forms in The Refugees—some literal, some figurative, some solely bringing about the death of dreams that needed to die anyway. In “The Transplant,” for instance, the tragic death of Men Vu (a Vietnamese widower killed in a hit-and-run) gives Arthur Arellano the liver he needs to survive his autoimmune hepatitis. In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” the reader finishes the story knowing that Mr. Khanh, the former professor suffering from Alzheimer’s, will most likely die having forgotten everything: his wife, his children, his love of books. None of the presumed or offstage deaths is quite as affecting as that of the narrator’s brother in “Black-Eyed Women,” and nothing in The Refugees is half as gruesome as the scene where he’s murdered and the narrator is gang raped.
But there’s one story that serves as an unexpected foil for “Black-Eyed Women”: the final story in the collection, “Fatherland.” In it, Phuong meets her old sister Vivien, who moved to America when her father’s first wife left him. Phuong wants to be just like Vivien. Or, at least, just like the Vivien described to her in letters. But near the end of Vivien’s visit it is revealed that Vivien isn’t a pediatrician after all; that actually her life is in shambles, and she got fired from her job as a receptionist after having an ill-fated affair with her boss. Phuong’s dreams of moving to America and becoming like her sister die—which is just as well, because if she had turned into her sister Phuong would’ve had to sacrifice her identity, becoming a ghost of her self. In the end, she realizes that this isn’t really what she wants. Perhaps the most important lesson of this story, and of The Refugees as a whole, is that you don’t have to live like a ghost.