“To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss — the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves,” writes Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen in an essay collection, “The Displaced.”
With more than a dozen essays on refugees from writers throughout the world, the collection — edited by Nguyen — attempts a vital task: to give voice to the oft-silenced and to redirect the current stream of anti-refugee rhetoric and sentiment in a more just and humanizing direction. The end result is an accessible and engaging dialogue that mines memories, many of them traumatic, and delivers on its global message of displacement and loss.
The collection begins with Joseph Azam’s touching “Last, First, Middle,” at once a tribute to the Afghan grandfather who named him and a reflection on how the first name, Mohammed, became “a billboard for [Azam’s] foreignness.”
Azam’s family fled Kabul for New York in the “early days of the Soviet Occupation, a period marked by raids on civilians and the razing of entire towns.” Coming to a new land often requires different permutations on a full name — this is the crux of the essay; this is the reality for many refugees.
Like Azam’s, the best essays — among them Porochista Khakpour’s “13 Ways of Being an Immigrant,” Dina Nayeri’s “The Ungrateful Refugee” and Fatima Bhutto’s “Flesh and Sand” — draw from direct personal experiences as refugees. They limit projections and function more as vestibules through which the refugee is made more real within a wider societal frame — a frame made richer in the collection by Ariel Dorfman’s “How Succulent Food Defeated Trump’s Wall Before It Has Been Built” and Marina Lewycka’s “Refugees and Exiles.”
Other standout essays such as Vu Tran’s “A Refugee Again” and Reyna Grande’s “The Parent Who Stays” work to define the elusory experience of being a refugee — “a refugee is like a ghost. … she’s come from another world, an obscure and incomprehensible world, and now resides in the shadows.”
Although more immigrant than refugee, Grande makes helpful distinctions between the two modes of entry into a new country; she also identifies possible similarities — “the trauma that propels us to this land, and the traumatic experiences that await us.”
Minnesota writer Kao Kalia Yang’s “Refugee Children: The Yang Warriors” revisits what is perhaps the most disturbing of such traumas, that which is inflicted on a displaced child. Her essay, which closes out the collection, centers on a group of Hmong children who escape a Thai refugee camp in search of food. It is an elegiac yet lovely meditation on the loss of innocence and restoration of a young girl’s faith in humanity.
Currently, as the tide recedes from inclusion and empathy — the Economist reports that the United States is on track to welcome the fewest refugees since 1980; for Muslims that figure could go down by 85 percent — it goes without saying that Nguyen’s collection, with its unapologetic repositioning of the refugee front and center, couldn’t have arrived at a more critical time.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based book critic and award-winning fiction writer.
Edited by: Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, 190 pages, $25.