The Diasporic Aesthetic: Spectral Knowing in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘Black-Eyed Women’

This was originally presented at the MELUS conference in Cincinnati, OH 2019


            The first story in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection The Refugees is entitled “Black-Eyed Women.” A thirty-eight-year-old ghost-writer and her mother, two Vietnamese refugees living in America, are visited by the son of the family. The ghost-writing protagonist has a specialty in writing memoirs of victims who have survived horrible tragedy, her current project that of a man named Victor whose entire family was killed in an airplane crash along with 170 others. The ghost of the narrator’s brother visits the family home three times total, each time trying to force his sister to acknowledge one big thing she has tried to forget: the tragedy that befell their family on the boat taking them from Vietnam to asylum. She was raped and her brother was killed by pirates who boarded just before the boat could make it to an island.

This paper addresses the question of the refugee experience in narrative form through a close reading of “Black-Eyed Women.” Does Thanh Nguyen’s story mimic, unsettle, give commentary to, relate, or compress the titular figure of his collection’s experience? If so, how? This paper contends that “Black-Eyed Women” plays on the act of storytelling and the figure of the ‘ghost’ in order to thematically and structurally reify the liminality and precarity of ‘the refugee experience’ while still giving commentary to this kind of naming as itself a construction. Thanh Nguyen’s work is best situated in conversation with various pieces of criticism on borderlessness, statelessness, the “migrant” and “refugee” “crisis” as well as scholarship on the Vietnamese diaspora in studies of South Asia- and Asia-America. The story complicates and undermines any normative consensus of these terms or experiences, a consensus which is rooted in a reductive understanding of the ‘refugee’ as a figure in fiction and the Vietnamese/Asian-American in the American literary consciousness. Thanh Nguyen’s work is a particular focus for me because it brings to light the complexities that exist in the narratives of every refugee, using very specific narratives rooted in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American diaspora.

The analysis of this essay builds on the work of Geetha Ganapathy-Doré and Helga Ramsey-Kurz in On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English, which unfortunately does not take up the Vietnamese diaspora despite being rooted in understanding post-colonial and post-communist nation-building. In addition to On the Move, this paper is alongside the work of Mimi Thi Nguyen, Jacques Rancière, Yến Lê Espiritu, and some of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s own criticism.

This essay points the significance of the work of Thanh Nguyen, who, having won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has begun the process of bringing refugee narratives to the foreground of American literary culture.

The representation of the refugee figure thematically occurs in the act of storytelling. Storytelling in “Black-Eyed Women” acts as an important act of performing a pieced-together or more cohesive narrative, as an act of generational connection, and as an act of giving reality to the otherwise untold or silenced. Helga Ramsey-Kurz in On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English notices a “lacerated quality of [Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces] as an expression of the daunting incompleteness characteristic of the Jewish diaspora’s collective memory” (29). These “disparate fragments” are “waiting to be pieced together by the reader, to be assembled and reassembled into different life stories” (28).

In “Black-Eyed Women,” the protagonist, as a ghostwriter, makes a living piecing together disparate narratives into coherent tragic memoirs. This process operates distinctly as “entering into fog,” Thanh Nguyen writes, “from this world to the unearthly world of words” (12). The moments in the story when she writes Victor’s memoir are spread across the surface level of the action plot. While this represents, as being on the surface level, a linear passage of time, the aesthetic is still thus: “disparate fragments…waiting to be pieced together by the reader” (Ramsey-Kurz 28). The narrative of writing Victor’s memoir, then, seems to be aesthetically representative of a diasporic assemblage. But Victor is not a refugee. Yet, he is a ghost. Throughout the story there are plays on the word “ghost” and the figure of the ghost beyond just the actual ghost of the brother that visits the two women. Having undergone such tragedy, Victor is described as “spectral, the heat of grief rendering him pale and nearly translucent” (10). Tragedy, then, seems to dice up linear narrative into fragments. These fragments become both indicative of structural tragedy, namely what caused or staged the tragedy (the war in Vietnam, for example) and an aesthetic performance of diaspora itself. This is certainly true of the protagonist’s story, who is revealed to have been raped and witness to her brother’s murder only after the ghost of her brother visits a third time. Only after this can the protagonist write a book of her own. This new collection of ghost stories for the protagonist is just the cohesion required after the visit from her brother’s ghost. The “unearthly world of words,” as she calls it, is only opened up or made accessible by a visit from an unearthly figure, the ghost (12). We will come back to the figure of the ghost. But the point remains that storytelling itself finds a cohesion even in performing disparate or what I have dubbed diasporic narrative.

Yến Lê Espiritu’s project in Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) is a critical account of the “cross-generational transmission of historical memory” that, in the American consciousness, has been silenced—rebranded as a means to justify the war in Vietnam (147). The nature of storytelling for refugee families, according to Espiritu’s anthropological study, is in a distillation of memory or carrying out of collective memory. This is to say that storytelling, as an act, is a motion of cross-generational connection and respect and a motion of silence.

In “Black-Eyed Women,” the narrator repeats the phrase “she would say once, twice, or perhaps three times” (21). The narrator’s mother tells several ghost stories and “tales of woe” (7). “In a country where possessions counted for everything,” she says, “we had no belongings except our stories” (7). A story, then, is a vessel for familial connection and the sustenance or presence of the family. In other words, telling stories unite or sustain familial bonds, like at the end of the story when the “nightly ritual” becomes mother and daughter sitting and telling stories. They also establish legitimacy to the family itself. In having no other belongings but stories, the family exists as its stories and the stories themselves are proof the family exists. The presence of the family, then, is maintained only in the telling stories. Despite the son and father of their family being dead, they each live on not only in the memoir the protagonist decides to write at the end of the story, but in the story we read, “Black-Eyed Women.” When her mother asks “Why write down what I’m telling you,” her daughter replies “Someone has to” (20). This imperative statement makes storytelling and recording a requirement. This is to say that storytelling and story-recording is important in maintaining the presence of a family in a given space and in re-establishing familial bonds within the space of the family. Without this, stories remain in their original space and pop like bubbles, disappearing just as quickly as they are brought into existence.

As a representation of the refugee family, this storytelling is not only in what is told but what remains untold. In “Black-Eyed Women,” the narrator notes that “for all the ghost stories [my mother] possessed, there was one story she did not want to tell, one type of company she did not want to keep. They were there in the kitchen with us, the ghosts of the refugees and the ghosts of the pirates, the ghost of the boat watching us with those eyes that never closed, even the ghost of the girl I once was, the only ghosts my mother feared” (19-20). The ghost stories, then, may be the ghosts themselves. In the same way the family’s existence can be affirmed by the telling of stories, the existence of ghosts can be affirmed in telling ghost stories. However, in saying these ghosts are the “type of company [mother] did not want to keep,” the narrator seems to suggest that her mother does not tell some ghost stories. This does not negate those stories’ existence or the existence of those ghosts. Despite the protagonist and her mother ignoring the ghosts of their tragic past, they still exist. This ruptures the connection between orality and story-recording. Whereas storytelling here requires orality, the telling of the story (from mother to daughter or vice versa), acknowledging some ghosts and some stories exist even despite remaining untold divorces the power that storytelling has in sustaining the existence of ghosts from oral performance.

Ghosts haunt. Ghosts exist outside of stories or despite stories being silenced. If the project of storytelling, though, is in maintaining one’s own existence in the same way that families exist by telling stories, “Black-Eyed Women” seems to suggest ghost stories must also be told. If for no other reason, ghost stories must be told to legitimize ghosts’ existence. Their haunting does not go away because we ignore their telling. This we know from the final exchange between the narrator and her brother’s ghost: “I’ve tried to forget,” she says (14). “But you haven’t,” he replies (14). “I can’t” (14). Ignoring ghost stories does not make them disappear. However, the cathartic nature of giving them reality, as we see happening in “Black-Eyed Women,” is significant in the thematic representation the refugee.

This brings me to the final act of storytelling. Storytelling, as Espiritu notes in the final chapter of Body Counts, is legitimizing of memory and in that way can become even more generative (171).

Viet Thanh Nguyen in “Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique” says, “The study of Southeast Asians in the United States is therefore an effort to recall a history of war that most US citizens remember imperfectly, if at all…It is the ghosts of the past, present, and future countries that haunt the study and the stories of Southeast Asians in these United States” (914-5). Storytelling gives reality to untold or silenced narrative. It also makes deeper the shallow. While throughout the story there are moments that subtly tell of the tragedy that befell the family on the boat, the entire story is not revealed until the third visit from the ghost of the narrator’s brother.

On page five, the narrator says, “I remembered how he looked the last time, and any humor that I felt vanished. The stunned look on his face, the open eyes that did not flinch even with the splintered board of the boat’s deck pressing against his cheek—I did not want to see him again, assuming there was something or someone to see” (5). Despite not wanting to see her brother again, she does. And despite not wanting to remember what happened on the boat, she cannot forget. The act of storytelling at this point in the story is more implicit than before. Instead of a character telling a story within the story, there is only revealed in a long passage the memory that cannot itself be pinned down any longer. After she is raped on the boat, she says “the world was muzzled, the way it would be ever afterward with my mother and father and myself, none of us uttering another sound on this matter. Their silence and my own would cut me again and again” (16). This is what remains haunting of the ghost the narrator has become. Her brother tells her “You died too, you just don’t know it” (17). It is the implicit act of revealing the story from the boat that makes real the catharsis of that grief. After this, the narrator sobs “without shame and without fear” sitting next to her brother’s ghost (18). It would seem the problems of being single and without children at thirty-eight, insecurities the narrator notes early on in the story, are related to the muzzling of reality after the day on the boat. Telling this story even to us, the readers, becomes cathartic by not only revealing the true horror of the day on the boat and in so doing representing the reality of the refugees’ experience, but also in maintaining the integrity of telling stories that continue to haunt. One is reminded of the second epigraph of Thanh Nguyen’s collection, from James Fenton’s “A German Requiem,” “It is not your memories which haunt you. / It is what you have written down. / It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. / What you must go on forgetting all your life.” What makes this implicit storytelling possible, though, is the figure of the ghost in the story. I lastly want to return to this figure to discuss the structural representation of the refugee in “Black-Eyed Women.”

The figure of the ghost opens up the sequence of events in the story. As the protagonist’s mother notes, “Ghosts don’t live by our rules.” Structurally, the ghost provides a space in which the past and present can be invoked outside of any austere linearity.

The first epigraph to Thanh Nguyen’s collection, from Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, reads “ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time.” In other words, because ghosts exist outside of any linear structure, they can operate inside both a present and a past simultaneously. As a figure in the story, the ghost of the protagonist’s brother gives Thanh Nguyen the ability to tell a story that is both in the present and in the past. We are both on the boat decades before the present and in the present, talking to the ghost and writing Victor’s memoir. The flashbacks in the story are opened up by the ghost in that every time the ghost is in-scene or mentioned in-scene, the possibility for a disruption of the linearity of the story exponentially increases. The narrator, at thirty-eight, is standing next to her brother, who has not changed since the day on the boat, when he was fifteen (8).

How does this relate to the refugee? One’s status as refugee insists both a present narrative and a narrative of a past: the event or set of events that create one’s refugee status. It is not necessarily ground-breaking to acknowledge that refugees, as people, have past and present narratives. However, it would be wise to remember that the majority of asylum-seekers are seeking asylum because of an event either indirectly or directly caused by the nations into which refugees seek asylum. This is to say that any denial of refugees by the nations which may have indirectly or directly caused the events which produced these refugees is also a denial either of participation in these events or a denial of these events ever happening. What the figure of the ghost allows in Thanh Nguyen’s story is, as a figure that disrupts time, the acknowledgement of time’s creation, structure, and the ability to have time usurped. In other words, time can be manipulated, or its trajectory can be denied or controlled. And it is. By state power. All the time.

In using the figure of the ghost and the act of storytelling, Thanh Nguyen’s story structurally introduces the reality of the refugee to mainstream literary culture. Much of my argument derives from Jacques Rancière’s understanding that form and politics are intertwined in not only a representative way but also in an aesthetic way and what Rancière calls a choreographic way. Namely, it is in storytelling itself and the structural recognition of borderlessness and manipulative nature of time that allow Thanh Nguyen’s writing to be politically and historically motivated on the aesthetic level. This is crucial. Espiritu notes the importance of academic inquiry into critical refugee study, perhaps as a discipline. Thanh Nguyen and other Anglophone writers of refugee narratives, then, provide an opportunity for the American university hegemony to reflect on Western Empire and postcolonial efforts to historicize the tragedy that has befallen the most precarious among us. Critical discussion of this literature provides what Claudia Rankine calls a “meditative space” to further understand our own participation and obligation in every and all human crises.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton Univ. Press, 1953.

Cabot, Heath. “‘Refugee Voices’: Tragedy, Ghosts, and the Anthropology of Not Knowing.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 45, No. 6, 2016, pp. 645-672.

Duong, Lan. “Diasporic Returns and the Making of Vietnamese American Ghost Films in Vietnam.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 153-170

Espiritu, Yến Lê. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es). Univ. of California Press, 2014.

Ganapathy-Doré, Geetha and Ramsey-Kurz, Helga, editors. On the Move: The Journey of Refugees in New Literatures in English. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Haley, Madigan. “The Novel at the World Scale: (on David Palumbo-Liu, Bruce Robbins, and Nirvana Tanoukhi, eds., Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture [2011]; John Hegglund, World Views: Metageographies of Modernist Fiction [2012]; John Marx, Geopolitics and the Anglophone Novel, 1890-2011 [2012]; and Elizabeth Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature [2012]).” Minnesota Review, No. 82, 2014, pp. 111-125, Accessed on 27 Feb 2017.

Kwon, Heonik. Ghosts of War in Vietnam. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Le, C.N. Asian American Assimilation: Ethnicity, Immigration, and Socioeconomic Attainment. LFB Scholarly Publishing, LLC, 2007.

Leshkowich, Ann Marie. “Wandering Ghosts of Late Socialism: Conflict, Metaphor, and Memory in a Southern Vietnamese Marketplace.” Journal of Asian Studies 67.1 (2008): 5-41. Print.

Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford Univ. Press, 2015.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Duke Univ. Press, 2012.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “A Novel Intervention: Remembering The Vietnam War, A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Viet Thanh Nguyen.” World Policy Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall 2016, pp. 65-71, Accessed on 24 Feb 2017.

—. “Representing Reconciliation: Le Ly Hayslip and the Victimized Body.” positions, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 1997, pp. 605-642.

—. “Refugee Memories and Asian American Critique.” positions: east asia cultures critique, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer 2012, pp. 911-942, Accessed on 24 Feb 2017.

—. The Refugees. Grove Press, 2017.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, 2004.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: