The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's story follows an ageing African-American ex-soldier who fought in Vietnam grappling with his demonsby Viet Thanh Nguyen / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Viet Thanh Nguyen, who arrived in America as a Vietnamese child refugee in 1975, is an academic who has written on the cultural depictions of the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s first novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His new collection is The Refugees (Corsair), from which this story is taken. Nguyen says of “The Americans”: “I wanted to test the limits of my empathy by writing a story about someone very different than me—African American, an older man, a bomber pilot seemingly unrepentant about how he had carpet-bombed Vietnam. I hoped to illuminate a paradoxical America that could deliver both freedom and bombs.”
If it weren’t for his daughter and his wife, James Carver would never have ventured into Vietnam, a country about which he knew next to nothing except what it looked like at forty thousand feet. But Michiko had insisted on visiting after Claire invited them, her email addressed to Mom and Dad but really meant for her mother. Michiko was the one who wanted to see Vietnam, hearing from relatives who had toured there that it reminded them of Japan’s bucolic past, before General MacArthur wielded the postwar hand of reconstruction to daub western makeup on Japanese features. Carver, however, cared little for pastoral fantasies, having passed his childhood in a rural Alabama hamlet siphoned clean of hope long before his birth. He had refused to go until Michiko compromised, proposing Angkor Wat as the prelude and Thailand’s beaches and temples as the postscript to a brief Vietnamese sojourn.
This was how Carver found himself in September in Hue, walking slowly through the grounds of an imperial tomb with Michiko, Claire, and her boyfriend, Khoi Legaspi. Legaspi’s optimism and serenity irked Carver, as did the poor fit between Legaspi’s Asian appearance and his surname, bestowed on him by his adoptive parents. The young man, perhaps sensing this ambivalence, had been solicitous of him throughout his visit, but Carver found Legaspi’s attention patronising rather than helpful.
Before they embarked on their tour through the imperial tombs this morning, for example, Legaspi had attempted to sympathise with Carver by mentioning how his own father was forced to walk with a cane. “That’s worse than your situation,” Legaspi said. The…