Viet Thanh Nguyen (2018), The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, New York: Abrams Press, ISBN-978-1-4197-3511-0, 207 pages.

Author:   Viet Thanh Nguyen
Publisher:   GRFDT
Reviewer:   Angelo Gianturco Coletta
Designation:   Intern

Viet Thanh Nguyen (2018), The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, New York: Abrams Press, ISBN-978-1-4197-3511-0, 207 pages.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the right of seeking and enjoying asylum has been granted to people fleeing their country due to conflict or persecution. Even though the subsequent convention on refugee law (1951) and its Optional Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967) clearly highlights the definition of a refugee and the principle of non-refoulment, there is a growing need to rethink and readapt these laws to current refugee natures and needs.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a bigger picture inside refugees and their stories, detailing their struggles to adapt to their new lives, setting the bases for an enhancement of our current refugee system.

Nguyen is a Vietnamese American Pulitzer Prize winner novelist, currently serving as the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California.

The Displaced gathers 20 refugee short stories from different cultural backgrounds and regions, deriving into anecdotical qualitative data that support the need to advocate for refugees and their protection.

The book starts with a heartful introduction by the author and his family's struggles as a Vietnamese refugee since he was 4 years old. He described how he went from his hometown to the Philippines before arriving in Pennsylvania in the USA, and how being a refugee determined most of his family's social and even economic life. Even though he acknowledges he would hardly be considered a refugee now, the author refuses to detach from the word and all its related challenges, on what could be considered an advocate position on his part. He states:

Those displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from; unwanted where they are.; and unwanted where they want to go.” Pp.17.

Nguyen then moves on to discuss the concept of borders and how they have played a major factor in our history and legal scene, how the proximity of bringing different cultures together could enrich humanity and, at the same time, be terrifying. Stressing the importance of the refugee stories to come in the next chapters and, even more, the importance of hearing those refugee voices to create a world of social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities.

Despite of the majority of the writers are now occidental countries nationals, through its 20 stories, The Displaced approach how being a refugee shaped the writer's life. Joseph Azan, Afghanistan describes his identity journey once arrived and lived in the United States, and how he decided once becoming an American citizen to choose a more Americanize name. David Bezmozgis, an ex-Soviet Union refugee from Riga, narrates how despite having relatives in other countries, the UN refugee system allocated him and his family to Canada, and how the separation from other loved ones severely affected his family. Fatima Bhutto, a Pakistani refugee because of his father's political persecution, connects through a virtual reality exhibit of the gruesome experience of crossing the US-Mexican border. A graphical representation of refugee life by Thi Bui, a Vietnamese refugee. Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean immigrant who found hopefulness in a Latin American supermarket in the US from former president Donald Trump’s politics. Lev Golinkin, an once child refugee from Soviet Ukrainefled with his father to Austria states how the transition from regular citizen into a refugee does not happen overnight “…it is a gradual process, a bleaching out, a transition into a ghostly existence.” (Pp. 76).Marina Lewycka, born in a refugee camp narrates how her UK identity was a challenge after the spurts of anti-immigrant sentiment. Mazza Mengiste, originally from Ethiopia, and her unexpected connection with a black immigrant sentiment in Italy. Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong refugee, writes his memory of the children in the refugee camp and how they constantly fought for their life. Reyna Grande, now a successful American writer, narrates her family migration story from Mexico to the United States, a decision made “…not for their lives, but for life—seeking economic refuge from a country that couldn’t or wouldn’t give them the means to provide for her family” (Pp. 82), and how that decision ended up with her abandonment from both her parents, and destroying the remanence of her family.

Overall, the book aims to give voice to more than 26 million refugees worldwide, hoping to raise awareness among the general public through engaging stories, simple in structure, yet profound in content, providing a much-needed context on the subject. The author successfully introduced and framed the bases for a proper understanding of refugee matters, inducing the readers' empathy in the stories to follow. Tackling the justice versus law contradiction, Nguyen invites us to reflect on needed reforms to prevent those who seeking refuge, fleeing from conflict and persecution, ending up as “criminals” for crossing borders without proper documentation, or even without the possibility to applied for refugee status, as the case of Reyna Grande where her family should have been consider as“economic refugees”, and how only a global community based on empathy and understanding can help us achieve a durable solution.

The Displaced is not indented to offer any new approach, nor solution to alleviate refugee struggles. And despite lacking quantitative information, it does portray in a raw narrative way how the refugee “tag” chases and shapes their life. Nguyen goes further to state that even when the United Nations cease to use the word refugee after a new and permanent home is assigned, detaching from what it meant to be a refugee is not an easy task for those who experience it. The implied and constant feeling of loss chasing refugees forever, loss of loved ones, countries, identities, and even themselves.Due to its literature nature, and engaging structure, The Displaced reaches a broader audience, from social science scholars to avid readers, offering a fast immersion into the refugee crisis while promoting the critical thinking of the readers.

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