Book Review: The Displaced
The Displaced by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a book of essays by refugee writers. These essays give a voice to the individuals in the burgeoning refugee crisis, specifically in reaction to Trump’s anti-refugee policies. The Displaced is a book of harrowing escapes but also of the people who are called refugees, their identities, their journeys, and their inner lives.
“We should remember that justice is not the same as law. …[If] borders are legal, are they also just?” -Viet Thanh Nguyen
By definition refugees are people fleeing their homes because of war, famine, or political threats. As a person who grew up in the most diverse city in the U.S., my family always had people in our lives who were refugees. My godmother fled Cuba as a child because her father was a target of the Castro government. Houston is home to largest Vietnamese community in the U.S. outside of California, and I went to school with a large number of the children of refugee parents. We have a friend who fled Guatemala during the Civil War there, and another friend from El Salvador. I can’t imagine uprooting your family and fleeing your country. I know how rooted we are, and when I think about what it would take for me to find it necessary to seek refuge, it makes me want to take in every single refugee. How could they be refused? Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who is also a refugee, wanted to amplify the voices of refugees so that they could be heard. In the introduction, he tells his own story of fleeing Vietnam as a child and being in a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, then later moving to California where his parents opened a grocery store (razed by San Jose to build a parking lot).
The Displaced lets refugees tell their own stories. There are stories from all over the world, addressing not just the origin and destination of their journey, but including everything from choosing a name (“Last, First, Middle” by Joseph Azam) to the expectation that refugees constantly express gratitude to their host country (“The Ungrateful Refugee” by Dina Nayeri). It is a well-edited collection of essays. I could see this being a good text for a high school or college class, or a gift for someone who enjoys reading personal stories. And while you may want to give this book to your racist uncle (go ahead and do that! Your racist uncle needs to broaden his horizons, though it is sadly unlikely he will open the book), it’s really for everyone. The essays I mentioned above, by Azam and Nayeri, really stuck in my brain for a while and made me reflect on the inner lives of refugees in a foreign country (our country!) in a way that I hadn’t before. So don’t think that this book won’t reach the eyes that need to see it. We all need our eyes on this book, if only for that glimpse into another person’s life that gives us a new perspective on our own. I will never forget my own (not-at-all-racist, very cool) uncle giving me a book for my high school graduation with stories of Rescuers during the Holocaust, it was eye-opening in such a good way.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys hearing the stories of other people (are you a fan of Humans of New York?), and for anyone who would benefit from contemplating the experience of humans forced to leave their homes and make a new home in a foreign country. In other words, everyone should read this book.
I am grateful to Netgalley and Abrams Press for providing an abridged digital copy (containing 10 of the 17 essays) of this book free of charge. My opinions are my own.
If you are interested in this book, you might also be interested in my review of How to Think by Alan Jacobs.