Short Stories: Refugees

Image by Roland Mey via (CC0 Creative Commons)

These five stories poignantly convey the lives of refugees from different parts of the world. Our authors in this installment are Viet Thanh Nguyen, Guadalupe Nettel, Bernard Malamud, Choi Jin-young, and Mohsin Hamid.

To lose one's place without gaining another, to be alienated from one without being able to assimilate in another — this has always been the fate of the refugee.

In her brilliant essay, 'We Refugees', Hannah Arendt wrote:

We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one's life, one has to be strong and an optimist. So we are very optimistic. Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of our daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.

She went on to write about the difficulties of assimilation, of trying too hard to fit in, and still never belonging to any place anymore. Yet, as we know, much of the post-WWII American culture was shaped by refugees like her. In his essay, 'Reflections on Exile', the academic and cultural critic Edward Said distinguished between expatriates, exiles, refugees, and immigrants and argued that modern Western culture — meaning academic, intellectual, and aesthetic thought and work — is mostly the work of the latter three. American literature, in particular, has been such a significant beneficiary of the displacement and migration during and after WWII that it's hard to argue with Jhumpa Lahiri's, point, that "Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction." More recently, Emily Temple of Lit Hub put together a list of "Great American Novels written by immigrants and one of novels by and about refugees.

[Note: Of course, America is not just a country of immigrants as many are fond of saying. There were people thriving here well before the early settlers arrived and nearly destroyed them and their culture.]

Refugees who are dissidents escaping from oppressive regimes have an even more significant cross-cultural impact on our times because they tend to move in mass groups. Entire UN agencies have sometimes been created to help them. Theirs is a vast, collective anguish over loss, estrangement, displacement, homelessness, and isolation. The literature that comes from their lived experiences is not simply an attempt to portray their traditions or eccentricities due to nostalgia. It's a desperate effort to hold on to some sense of self when there's no place for that self to belong. It's a search for an identity that goes beyond labels like 'asylum seeker', 'unaccompanied minor', 'deportee', 'detainee', 'illegal alien', and more.

The five short stories in this month's selection are about refugees from different parts of the world: Vietnam, Pakistan, Nazi Germany, Uruguay, Mexico, and Korea. Two are actually excerpts from longer works but we include them here because they stand as short stories, as well. Plot and drama are driven by brave individual responses to communally traumatic events. Along the way, there is love, loss, pain, hope, and joy. What stands out further in these particular stories are these two things:

1. A conventional stereotyping of ethnicities has been carefully avoided so that we, as readers, can see the characters as individuals rather than a monolithic group of dispossessed people. The latter is, of course, how they are often presented in news media.

2. In any story, there are usually several kinds of speech: that of the characters, the narrator(s), and the author (and, I would argue, the translator, if there is one.) This heteroglossia (in Greek: hetero- "different" and glōssa "tongue, language"), as Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin defined it, cleverly adds to the narrative conflict in these stories.

"The War Years", by Viet Thanh Nguyen (TriQuarterly Review)

This story is also in Nguyen's collection, The Refugees (Grove Atlantic, 2017). It features a close-knit Vietnamese community in San Jose, California. A family is being pressured by another community member, the persistent Mrs Hoa, to contribute funds toward anti-communism efforts back in Vietnam. Living frugally on income from a convenience store, the parents are conflicted over this. As the story's narrator, the son reveals how this is viewed in the community while also sharing his own internal drama over it.

Eventually, a private past comes to light and causes a turning point for all. The carefully and closely described details throughout are worth noting. Every single one reveals character or story — nothing is superfluous. They make the characters alive to us, seeming like people we might know; families like ours, even.

Before Mrs Hoa broke into our lives in the summer of 1985, nothing my mother did surprised me. Her routine was as predictable as the rotation of the earth, beginning with how she rapped on my door every morning at six, six-fifteen, and six-thirty, until at last I was awake. When I emerged from my bedroom, she was already dressed, inevitably wearing a short-sleeved blouse and skirt of matching pastels. She owned seven such outfits, and if she had on fuchsia, I knew it was Monday. Before we departed, she switched off the lights, checked the burners, tugged on the black iron bars guarding our windows, always in that order, and then, in the car, ordered me to lock my door.

"The Wanderers", by Guadalupe Nettel (Granta Magazine; Tr. Sophie Hughes)

Nettel is an award-winning Mexican writer. Several of her works have been translated from the original Spanish. Here also, we have an adult looking back on childhood and a particular friend, Camilo, who had moved to Mexico from Uruguay with his exiled communist parents. The arc of the story stretches from when the narrator and Camilo are five-year-olds to when they are both almost middle-aged. In the time in between, the narrator travels the world with her family while Camilo never gives up on the dream of returning to Uruguay. Throughout, there is a beautifully-recurring motif of the albatross.
This is a wistful story of a lifelong, unrequited romance, something even deeper, between two people who have never known what "home" might be. There's a sort of rhythmic musicality in the language that must have been even more so in the original Spanish — so it is commendable that Hughes, the translator, managed to maintain so much of it in English. The part toward the end, when the narrator describes what happens to a wandering and lost albatross, is quite a heartbreaking metaphor.
Childhood doesn't suddenly end one day, like we hoped it would when we were kids. It lingers, crouched silently in our grown-up bodies, and later in our wizened bodies, until one day, many years later, just when we think that the burden of resentment and despair we've been shouldering has finally made us adults, it reappears like lightning, striking us with its freshness, its innocence, its unfailing dose of naivety, and above all with the certainty that this really is the last glimpse of it we'll get. We didn't think it would be like that when we were young. As kids, we dreamt of being independent and doing as we pleased: spending our time however we chose, eating whatever food we liked, going wherever we wanted. Childhood felt like a waiting room, a transitory phase between birth and the life we wanted.

"The Refugee", by Bernard Malamud (Saturday Evening Post)

Here's a classic by Malamud, a Jewish refugee himself and a well-regarded man of letters. He wrote many stories featuring Jewish refugees of all stripes and one of his recurring reminders was that those who dehumanize refugees eventually dehumanize themselves because of their own moral and ethical indifference and inhuman violence. Malamud never glossed over the difficulties of assimilation, the constant fear of the unknown future, and the lifelong heartache of people who have lost everything — all of which we get in this story too. The narrator is a student who gives English lessons to new refugees like Oskar Gassner. They struggle initially but Gassner works hard and gains some semblance of mastery over the language. The jarring ending reverberates long after the reading.

Oskar Gassner sits in his cotton-mesh undershirt and summer bathrobe at the window of his stuffy, hot, dark hotel room on West Tenth Street while I cautiously knock. Outside, across the sky, a late-June green twilight fades in darkness. The refugee fumbles for the light and stares at me, hiding despair but not pain.
I was, in those days, a poor student and would brashly attempt to teach anybody anything for a buck an hour, although I have since learned better. Mostly, I gave English lessons to recently arrived refugees. The college sent me: I had acquired a little experience. Already, a few of my students were trying their broken English, theirs and mine, in the American marketplace. I was then just twenty, on my way into my senior year in college, a skinny life-hungry kid eating himself waiting for the next World War to start.

"Dori and Jina", by Choi Jin-young (Words without Borders)

Jin-Young is a South Korean writer. Mostly, she writes about the problems of misfits in Korean society. This story is an excerpt from her novel, To the Warm Horizon. The eponymous women here meet while escaping a pandemic that has destroyed the country. They are drawn to each other and, even at such a time of survival and difficulty, they find something safe to hold on to. The writing is intentionally crafted to be simple and clear but the themes, as with all of Jin-young's work, are complex and intricate. We get two distinct voices and points of view here as the story is narrated by the two characters.

I opened my eyes. The bonfire had gone out. I could hear a babble of voices. Speaking Korean. It sounded like more than a couple of people. It was still dark outside. I woke Miso up and took a peek. There were two large box trucks parked in the vegetable garden. I did a head count. There were more than ten people. Several of them waved their flashlights into the house. I hid in the farthest corner of the room with Miso in my arms. People were busily lighting a fire and heating up their food. They made hot water from the snow and washed their hands and faces. The smell of grilled meat wafted in. I gagged. I held Miso tightly in my arms. So she wouldn't be able to smell anything. So she wouldn't be able to see anything. With only a wall separating us, these people ate and drank and spoke in Korean. They called each other honey, you, sir.

"Exit West", by Mohsin Hamid (NPR Excerpts)

This is another bit of a cheat as it is an excerpt from a longer work. But this novel by Pakistani writer, Mohsin Hamid, is one that now stands strong in a timeless canon of refugee literature. Saeed and Nadia are students living in an unnamed country (which sounds a lot like Pakistan). Militants have taken over the government and violence has become a part of daily life. The couple has to to bribe some of the militants to be allowed to use escape portals that transport them to different parts of the world. They are not welcomed at these places and often have to live in bad conditions.

Hamid's novels always pack a lot into their compactness and this one is no different. With his precision and economy of words, he makes this much more than a love story or a refugee crisis — it's also a futuristic vision, a dystopic one, and a modern-day allegory.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.

While the above are all fictional stories, there's an ongoing project to capture real-life refugee tales from around the world. Well-known writers are connected with refugees to discover their stories and then write them. Find out more on

Further, a unique new collaborative fiction, Shatila Stories (Peirene Press, 2018), provides nine stories written by refugees from a camp named Shatila in Beirut.






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.