Viet Thanh Nguyen serves as editor for a short but impactful collection of essays about refugees and the refugee experience. I read a lot about immigration. I'm not entirely unaware that many of these stories are actually about refugees, but it's interesting that people often morph themselves into "immigrants," when in fact most of our families came from a refugee experience at some point. My father's family came in dribs and drabs to both coasts (and ended up with numerous spellings of our last name) because of the potato famine in Ireland. Nobody calls our family "refugees" but they were. It was just an easier time to be that when they showed up and pretended to have degrees in things like medicine... (true, but much too long a, story) So, given all of that, it's a willful political act for these writers to reclaim the identity of refugee -- especially given their successes and acceptance now in their new homes.
The tragedy is how these new homes forced people in a variety of ways to deny their original national identities. Some are more obvious than others, but all carry an almost unexplainable burden to the individuals, and I'm pretty sure to their new countries as well.
Many, but not all, of the writers are now living in the US, and all of them are successful, educated, prize-winning, feted authors. Interesting how willing countries are to claim these refugees now that they have proven their worth. They've come from all over the world and they have personal experiences that frequently left me tearing up. The overall effect is rather devastating. I'm not going to review each piece, because they are all worth reading more than once.
I wanted to LOVE this book. Showing up on every list of anticipated books for months, I waited for the release, ordered it from the library to make sure I'd be first in line, ran there the day it was processed, and loved the opening.
Then the character on whom we focus completely changed after the brief opening, and the story became a sort of Filipino in California Outsiders meets West Side Story without the romance, the dancing or the good story, so all we're left with is grit.
I was looking forward to a book about the immigrant experience from a Filipino view, especially given the timeframe in the 1990s, running from a dictator and brutality, a refugee experience, but none of this was examined in detail, if at all. Instead we get a play-by-play of "we went to dinner at this place" and "we saw these people" - very ordinary. While my life is exceedingly ordinary, and I have an interesting back story as well as some unique challenges, I wouldn't subject anyone to a book about my daily life, which is sort of how this read.
There were some slightly interesting parts involving her sexuality, which happens in most coming of age novels, and there were some gorgeously written passages, but overall, this book was not moving or compelling in any way. I'm still a bit stunned that I made it all the way through, and two months later I can only remember the broadest of themes, like her hands - which happened outside the covers of the book!
Thanks to some challenges I found in recent years (and directions from the web on how to read them,) I've finally taken graphic novels/comics as something I could understand and perhaps even like. This graphic memoir is a nice example of why it's worthwhile to open my TBR list up to yet another genre. (I can be poorly read in many genres!)
Thi Bui is an American kid born in Viet Nam. When the memoir opens, she's having her first child. As many parents will tell you, this is a time that often brings our own childhoods into focus. Her story is different from the stereotypical strict immigration story, and through the memoir we see that the family history is indelibly marked by Viet Nam's history and her parents stories are marked by their parents' stories. It's easy to get tied in a knot when we find fault with our parents. It's clear from her pictures and words that there was some anger and confusion exorcised by writing this memoir. While she may have been able to lay blame at one time, her title states her final view. It's Thi Bui's unique story with lots of room for empathizing readers.
Her simple-yet-resonant art conveys the emotional impact of her words. The combination is effective and moving. I lingered over this book for weeks, searching the pictures and immersing myself in her story (until the library demanded I return their copy.) If you, like me, aren't comfortable with comics or graphic novels, this might be a place to start for those who like memoirs or history or both.
First of all, I need to tell everyone who plans to read this that the audiobook is painful - not figuratively but literally. It hurt my ears. The voice is sharp and barking, which is perfect for the character, but my ears couldn't take it, so go with the printed version if you believe anything I have to say.
Zebra (formerly Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, AKA "Dame of the Void",) the main character, is quite a challenge, though she knows it so that makes her a bit more bearable. She's a nut, but a good nut. Zebra was born, quite literally, in a library among the books in Iran early in the war against Iraq. She is the last in a long line of autodidacts, all of whom pledge to “Love nothing except literature.” As an exile or refugee, it's hard to live and breathe literature. So they do it through memorization, and Zebra has committed to memory passages from every book imaginable. She takes her commitment to love nothing but literature very seriously, and she has no time to waste on people who don't share her passion for reason, which makes Zebra very alone if not lonely, with only an extremely crotchety bird making her life even more insane and helping to keep the people away.
Not only is she alone...perhaps, when she imagines her dead father counseling her against love, she is actually using literature as a defense against all of the crushing aloneness she's experiencing. (She, very reasonably, fears love, but she will never - ever - admit that, so she's built the most literate psychological defense system ever to avoid all the trouble that comes with people. Books are so simple compared to people, I think we can all agree.)
Beckett, Blanchod, Borges are her creed. She constantly runs through all the advice she's memorized to reason herself back into the perceived "right" frame of mind. She has to advance the matrix of literature, she has to experience the void to figure out "what is [my] role in my miserly, ill-fated life?"
I can relate to a lot of this. I'm sort of well-known in my therapy sessions for assiduously avoiding talk about feelings and other unmeasurable squishy things by citing research and getting very worked up about my theories and plotting studies that must be done NOW. Zebra was a lesson for me in exactly how annoying I am. Zebra is sure she can create a statistical formula for life, for literature, and eventually for love. She is almost sure she's an oracle - the last bastion of hope in a world that forgets all of her important things, like every single quote ever about anything. Sentimentality is bad. Reason and knowledge are good. People are morons and deserve every scolding she gives them. This is what she molds her life around...until she meets Ludo.
"A soul that knows it is loved but does not itself love betrays its sediment; what is at the bottom comes up." -- Nietzsche
So, Zebra has some very basic lessons to learn, and Ludo mostly deals with her running away from him, diving back between the book covers. All the while she stridently barks quotes at the reader until this reader was ready to either submit or give up completely. What I decided to do was set it down for a week and pick it back up. That break was what I needed. It didn't hurt that Zebra herself was in the process of being broken down too. She finally figures out, painfully, that perhaps home and people and love of something other than literature might be worth it. "Had I been waiting in vain for my life to become legible?"
As I said, she's a good nut.