Book review

Reading a Pulitzer winner’s stories about refugees is particularly piquant in the Trump era

Reminders that lost homes and a past can never be truly left behind.

A meme bearing a much-cited Naguib Mahfouz quote has been doing the internet rounds recently: “…Home is where all attempts to escape cease.” Words that seem particularly relevant and poignant at this juncture, with the world facing a refugee and humanitarian crisis, admittedly the most critical, since the World War II years. A crisis made immediate by television images and only aggravated by related, startlingly ill-thought governmental acts.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stories in The Refugees tell of the piquant situation refugees find themselves in. Nostalgia for a home lost is necessary but remembering just isn’t enough. It brings pain and heartsickness as memories may be unwanted then and hard to let go. A refugee is someone who lives between homes, someone who seeks refuge, but home is never the present, it is also the home(land) of the past, and even a future state of being, when one hopes that (one’s) memories will be safe, even bearable. But that is difficult, as it appears for most of the narrators in Nguyen’s stories.

Memories and living

In his work of nonfiction on the Vietnam War, called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), Nguyen recalls the words of the French historian Paul Ricoeur on the necessity to remember so as to live, but the equal importance of forgetting and of how too much of both can be “fatal” for human well-being in general. Moreover, remembering and forgetting are intertwined. “It’s a double helix making us who we are, one never without the other”.

Ricoeur, as Nguyen writes, had written of unjust and just ways of forgetting, just as there are similar ways for remembering. “Unjust ways of forgetting are much more common than just ones. They involve leaving behind a past that we have not dealt with in adequate ways”. Nguyen talks of his parents, who made a new life for themselves in California and rarely spoke of the two decade Vietnam war (1955-1975), though “their lives exuded the force of memories of which they rarely spoke”.

There were many, like his mother, with such memories, unable to articulate them. Yet, they will never be numbered among the war’s casualties. Nguyen, however, doesn’t go so far as to talk of the guilt over the possibility that some refugees know they are lucky to survive when others have perished.

Contradictions and complexities

It is this unspeakable contradiction, the conflict in the heart, that can at times lead to a dualism in behaviour: remember the “sympathizer”, the eponymous narrator in Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, who understands both sides and so is unable to choose sides. In much the same way, memories impose a strange burden – why and how we remember and forget and the choices that we make. Nguyen writes about this struggle in spare and yet heart-stopping ways.

In “Black Eyed Women”, a ghostwriter meets the ghost of her brother who had apparently perished in the act of saving her, his sister, from pirates during the long boat ride out of the war zone in Vietnam. Those lost or those dying an untimely death always revisit. The narrator realises in time that her ghost brother will no longer return after his initial visits. But the living retain the ghostly presence of a past that can never be changed.

Both the narrator and her mother “see” the brother/son, but never, as it appears, at the same time. He tells the narrator during one such visit that it is she who, not being able to live, is in fact dying. In almost the same way, the words and gestures of the man – the only surviving member of an air-crash that killed his entire family – whose story the ghostwriter-narrator is writing, resonate with the latter.

The survivor sits in an airless room, windows closed, as if to preserve even the quality of air his family had breathed before the untimely disaster. As an experienced ghostwriter, the narrator also knows of memories that emerge later, with retelling, or even suddenly, and that the most cherished memories are those that weren’t even deemed worth remembering to begin with.

Remembering is also forgetting

On the other hand, there is the remembering that seems liminal, or that, as Nguyen has written in Nothing Ever Dies, “line” the state of forgetting. In “I’d Love You to Want Me”, the professor who is losing his memory constantly refers to Mrs Khanh, his wife, as Yen. There is pity in his wife’s response to his fading mind, and jealousy – as she writes of his lapse in the professor’s diary where he makes a note of his daily slips, even copying his illegible scrawl – and then there is also love. The title, based on a song they had danced to, could almost be Mrs Khanh’s own longings and uncertainties about the man she is married to, despite a lifetime spent together.

In another story, Liem does not have the refugee dreams of achieving success in a new land. Having just braved yet another perilous ocean voyage, first from Vietnam to Guam, then to San Diego and finally, San Francisco, he is just content to have a job, and make enough money to send home. He must never forget his family, as his father “warns” in his letter.

Yet, in the home of his sponsor, who is in a relationship, Liem, as one of this story’s “other men”, is frightened of the consequences of his actions. He envies the laconic freedom of the new country he has arrived in, yet cannot bring himself to claim it. He is not so much conscious of love, as he is of the obligations it imposes, the duties one must bear in the name of love.

“War Years” is about the lingering effects of war and what follows in its long aftermath, of divisions that continue to exist between people, the sides one must choose, and loyalties hard to let go of. The narrator’s parents manage a store in San Jose’s New Saigon, and he recounts his mother’s exchanges with Mrs Hoa, who comes by often to demand donations to fight the Communists who have invaded South Vietnam soon after the American exit. The narrator’s mother fears for their new-found freedom and riches, and sees Mrs Hoa as a threat to all this.

Things felt and left unsaid

Some of Nguyen’s fiction, complex and layered as it is, reminds one of detailed nonfiction work on the same themes. Mark Wolyns book, It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We are and How to End the Cycle (2016) refers to generational experiences with trauma. “Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings do live on”. This is indeed seen in the stories that make up The Refugees. Suppressed pasts, Wolyns suggests, are also passed on as legacies “encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language, and they play a far greater role in our emotional and physical health (than believed)”.

In “The Americans”, James Carver and his Japanese-American wife Michiko travel to Vietnam on a visit to their daughter Claire. She informs them while taking them around that “home” is where she is now, in Vietnam, for she has a Vietnamese soul. Claire has a boyfriend of Vietnamese origin and teaches English to local schoolchildren, but her father scoffs at her reply, in turn bringing up a surge of suppressed memories. Bitterness and allegations flow thick and fast, all beginning with a casual conversation.

This is a story more novelistic in its scope and in the themes it barely touches on. Carver, we learn, is Afro-American, and there are his own accumulated traumas. These, on the other hand, do not seem to afflict Claire, who accuses her father of bombing innocent villagers, during his time in the air force, a fact that he has never shared with anyone. But fiction can go where social science fails. It can hint at complexities and not try to resolve them, especially when one is on amoral ground.

In a couple of stories, some characters appear familiar though they may have different names. For instance, comical and clueless fathers, such as James Carver in “The Americans”, and Thomas’s father in “Someone Else Besides You”. The latter fairly bulldozes Thomas, his all-grown 33-year old son, to reunite with Sam, the latter’s ex-wife, for they are meant to “have a happy life together”.

Like Claire in “The Americans”, Thomas is aware of his own past and his father’s too, conscious always of his father’s betrayals of his wife, Thomas’s beloved mother, which commits him to some vague acts of atonement. But it is a guilt that leaves his father unruffled, as it does his father’s newest girlfriend, Mimi.

The competing, inexplicable pulls of love, which sometimes exist as a necessity, or despite themselves, appear in “Fatherland”, a title that denotes a return to the old country (Vietnam) and also Vivien’s desire to see her father and his other family, where his three children have the same names as Vivien and her siblings. The new life elsewhere doesn’t always prove to be a dream life, as Phoung, the other sister, realises, when her own dreams seemingly shatter.

The older women in these stories, in most instances, have a mind of their own, which invariably make them do the right thing. But for the younger narrators, living presents a complex art of renegotiation and balance. There are memories of being refugees, of escaping and losing love, even if one has not experienced these traumas directly. Such memories seep into one’s bloodstream, it is in one’s DNA, and the past that one thinks one has left behind is always present, as a constant companion, a necessary and beloved burden.

The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove/Atlantic Press.

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Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Also those looking to upgrade their TV to a smart one can get Rs. 20,000 off by exchanging it for the Sony Bravia 108cm Android TV.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and the super compact JBL Go Portable Speaker at 56% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of and not by the Scroll editorial team.