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Short Story Month, Day 17: Viet Thanh Nguyen


Photo of author Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen

"The Americans" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I read this story in his story collection, The Refugees, earlier this year, and I'm kicking myself for taking so long getting to his work. Every story in the collection is better than the last—or, if not better, equally good in a different way. Seriously, just when I thought there was no way Viet could top one story, he went ahead and did it with the next. Picking a story to highlight here was hard, and I considered "I'd Love You to Want Me" but ultimately decided against it because it was printed (under the title "The Other Woman") in Gulf Coast and I'd already linked to something from that journal last week (note to self: read more Gulf Coast).

I made the mistake of looking at Goodreads reviews of The Refugees, which occasionally include non-Asian people saying things like "it's not Asian enough" or "I don't know how this is about refugees. The characters could be anyone," and I want to shake these people and say, "Yes! Exactly! Refugees can be anyone!" This is one of the reasons I like "The Americans"; it defies conventional ideas about stories and who get to be our main characters. Here, that character is American Vietnam War vet James Carver, whose name and background, right down to the Japanese wife, suggest whiteness. It's not until we're several pages into the story that Nguyen reveals that Carver isn't white, though he wastes no time telling us that Khoi Legaspi, the boyfriend of Carver's daughter, is an Asian man with non-Asian parents. Race in these stories, as in real life, is never a given.

There's a lot in "The Americans" to explore about names and labels and identity, but I also like the cultural intersectionality that exists in Carver because he is, for the reader, American—just American, not some hyphenated-racial-minority-American, even though that's exactly what he is. When he talks to his son about what's considered honorable work in the Air Force, he sounds like an American military dad, but he also sounds like an Asian-American dad, though he's not Asian. His obstinate criticisms of his daughter, Claire (also a well-chosen name), and his animosity towards Khoi and Vietnam should chafe against his understanding of what it means to be a minority, and yet there is so much he fails to recognize. It's a good reminder that even other minorities don't necessarily understand what it means to be another minority, but I think that regardless of a reader's background, everyone can find a way to identify with the characters in this story. What dazzles in this and Nguyen's other stories is not the differences between us but the universality of our experiences.

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