Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime

Criticism / Mai-Linh K. Hong

:: Narrative in the Shadow of the Refugee Regime ::

Once, while my par­ents shopped in a drug­store and I wan­dered the aisles alone, a white woman approached me and said, “I want you to know I do not blame you for the war.” The woman mis­took my silence for incom­pre­hen­sion, so she said more slow­ly and loud­ly, “I DO NOT BLAME YOU FOR THE WAR.”

I must have been about sev­en. Even then, I knew which war: Vietnam.

Exon­er­a­tion, when unasked for, sounds more like accu­sa­tion. I answered, “I know. I wasn’t born yet.” The woman stud­ied me, then moved away.

Chil­dren are per­cep­tive, eco­nom­i­cal crea­tures. They under­stand that some days you choose between jus­tice and self-preser­va­tion. Years lat­er, I want­ed to return to that moment and say sar­cas­ti­cal­ly to the woman, “I don’t blame you, either.” But such a response would have been unkind. Life is a series of imper­fect respons­es, based in a kind of social arith­metic that rarely comes out right. I did not know what or whom she might have lost to war. I did not even know what I had lost.

* * *

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a schol­ar of race and eth­nic­i­ty long before he became a Pulitzer Prize win­ning nov­el­ist, wrote in the New York Times last year, “[I]t is pre­cise­ly because I do not look like a refugee that I have to pro­claim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather for­get that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.” [i] Viet­namese refugees have been exten­sive­ly mea­sured, pho­tographed, inter­viewed, psy­cho­an­a­lyzed, and doc­u­ment­ed; but before the rel­a­tive­ly new field of crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies emerged, it seemed one could be a Viet­namese refugee or one could know about Viet­namese refugees, rarely both. Thus I open with per­son­al nar­ra­tive in keep­ing with a prac­tice of self-identification—consciously plac­ing one­self in rela­tion to one’s work—that is com­mon in crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies, as it is in eth­nic stud­ies more broad­ly. This prac­tice speaks to work by Yến Lê Espir­i­tu, who urges schol­ars to rec­og­nize “refugees as ‘inten­tion­al­ized beings’ who pos­sess and enact their own pol­i­tics,” rather than as intel­lec­tu­al or prac­ti­cal prob­lems for oth­ers to solve. [ii] Reflect­ing on the field for which she laid much of the intel­lec­tu­al ground­work, Espir­i­tu writes, “Over the years, I have looked for ways to tell the sto­ry of the refugee—not as an object of study but as a source of knowl­edge.” [iii] Espiritu’s and Nguyen’s locu­tions assign fresh cul­tur­al and aca­d­e­m­ic cur­ren­cy to “the refugee’s” capac­i­ty to illu­mi­nate the world—as a gen­er­a­tive new par­a­digm or as a knowl­edge producer—while also val­i­dat­ing the pri­ma­cy of nar­ra­tive in such pro­duc­tion. Crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies decen­ter empir­i­cal, out­sider ways of know­ing that pre­vi­ous­ly ren­dered the refugee invis­i­ble as soon as she lay claim to them.

A not-insignif­i­cant part of my project is this: decades after a har­row­ing pas­sage, and from the rel­a­tive secu­ri­ty of a uni­ver­si­ty office, I under­take to resig­ni­fy my decades-gone, brown, child self who was once so vis­i­bly a rem­nant of the Viet­nam War. That raced and gen­dered body, a “less than human” refugee body, was a screen on which (non-Viet­namese) Amer­i­cans could project their oth­er­wise form­less grief, anger, blame, and for­give­ness. [iv] As far back as I recall, I have been peri­od­i­cal­ly hailed into some stranger’s nar­ra­tive of a dis­as­trous war, in which I played a role I rec­og­nized but did not choose. The woman in the drug­store, who believed her exon­er­a­tion of me would have a par­tic­u­lar mean­ing (“I want you to know,” she said), unin­ten­tion­al­ly taught me about the inter­twin­ing of knowl­edge and pow­er (“I want you to know”) and the ways they are refract­ed through nar­ra­tive (“I do not blame you for the war”). She is one of hun­dreds of Amer­i­cans I have encoun­tered who seek me out to com­plete their own, unre­solved sto­ries about “the war”—that is, about race, empire, mil­i­tarism, inno­cence, or what­ev­er else holds up the archi­tec­ture of their Amer­i­can­ness. This awk­ward, exhaust­ing, and weird­ly soul-bar­ing psy­choso­cial dynam­ic is a con­di­tion of every South­east Asian refugee’s “new begin­ning” in the Unit­ed States.

Indeed, it is the refugee’s func­tion in Amer­i­can society—and her job, for it keeps food on the table—to be hailed into oth­ers’ nar­ra­tives. Since the 1970s, when the Unit­ed States began for­mal­iz­ing its refugee admis­sion pro­ce­dures in response to post-Viet­nam War refugee flows, this func­tion has been laid out and rein­forced by what some schol­ars refer to as the refugee regime: the com­plex of inter­na­tion­al and domes­tic laws, insti­tu­tions, poli­cies, and social prac­tices that to a large extent set the para­me­ters of sur­vival for those who are flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, vio­lence, or cat­a­stro­phe. [v] The refugee regime, while it osten­si­bly attends to the human­i­tar­i­an needs of the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble (and it does give some of them pre­cious reprieve from dan­ger), in the larg­er scheme arguably func­tions more as an elab­o­rate gate­keep­ing and cost mit­i­ga­tion sys­tem for the wealth­i­er nations of the world. [vi] With­out the bureau­crat­ic buffer pro­vid­ed by the refugee regime, such nations might have to reck­on with an expen­sive moral imper­a­tive to pro­tect mil­lions of refugees. As Patri­cia Tuitt puts it, “the over­rid­ing aim of refugee law was at its incep­tion and con­tin­ues to be the reduc­tion of the exter­nal costs of refugee-pro­duc­ing phe­nom­e­na.… [I]f the con­cerns of the law are human­i­tar­i­an this is only mar­gin­al­ly and inci­den­tal­ly so.” [vii] Argu­ing for a more com­pre­hen­sive, humane, eth­i­cal approach to refugees, Ser­e­na Parekh observes that the cur­rent inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal con­sen­sus seems to be that “states have no legal oblig­a­tion to reset­tle refugees or oth­er forcibly dis­placed, they rec­og­nize no moral oblig­a­tion to reset­tle refugees, and West­ern states are, for var­i­ous polit­i­cal rea­sons, unlike­ly to reset­tle large num­bers of refugees.” [viii] When refugee crises strike, as they reg­u­lar­ly do, “most states feel enti­tled to exclude refugees, and this moti­vates many of their poli­cies.” [ix]

Exclu­sion, the default pos­ture of states toward refugees, is facil­i­tat­ed by the struc­ture of inter­na­tion­al refugee law. This com­po­nent of inter­na­tion­al human rights law is based on the 1951 Unit­ed Nations Con­ven­tion on the Sta­tus of Refugees and admin­is­tered by the Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees (UNHCR). Inter­na­tion­al refugee law works in part by nar­row­ing the legal def­i­n­i­tion of refugee so that most of the world’s 65.6 mil­lion de fac­to refugees—those who live in indef­i­nite, forced displacement—would not qual­i­fy for pro­tec­tion under the Con­ven­tion. [x] For the 22.5 mil­lion who do qual­i­fy, the law’s aim of a “durable solu­tion,” a per­ma­nent path to safe­ty and rel­a­tive free­dom, is elu­sive. [xi] Near­ly all refugees remain “more or less out­side the bounds of the nation-state sys­tem,” either ware­housed indef­i­nite­ly in refugee camps or liv­ing in oth­er pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions in a coun­try of tem­po­rary asy­lum. [xii] More­over, because most refugees who cross an inter­na­tion­al bor­der do not make it far­ther than neigh­bor­ing states, the bur­den of hous­ing and pro­vid­ing for refugees in tran­sit falls dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly on Glob­al South states, which are com­mon­ly the coun­tries of first asylum.

The deliv­er­ance of refugees to safe­ty under inter­na­tion­al law, when it hap­pens, tends to be under­stood by observers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, human rights and NGO work­ers, and even refugees them­selves as an exten­sion of charity—what one gives altru­is­ti­cal­ly when one does not need to. In the Unit­ed States, where the work of wel­com­ing and inte­grat­ing new­ly arrived refugees is done main­ly by non­prof­it reset­tle­ment agen­cies and pri­vate “co-spon­sors,” such as church­es and indi­vid­u­als, this ten­den­cy is ampli­fied through nar­ra­tives of pri­vate hos­pi­tal­i­ty and “altru­is­tic choice.” [xiii] Pop­u­lar refugee nar­ra­tives often fit the mold of “sen­ti­men­tal res­cue-and-grat­i­tude tales,” in which cit­i­zens of pre­dom­i­nant­ly white bystander nations gen­er­ous­ly res­cue racial and nation­al Oth­ers from far­away calami­ties, and those refugee Oth­ers pro­fess thanks for the favor, affirm­ing the res­cuers’ essen­tial good­ness and implic­it­ly absolv­ing them of past wrongs. [xiv] Decon­tex­tu­al­ized and dehis­tori­cized, such nar­ra­tives are ide­o­log­i­cal diver­sions: the cen­ter­ing of refugee res­cue means that any role the host nation may have played in refugee pro­duc­tion—for instance, by fuel­ing or engag­ing in for­eign con­flicts or through eco­nom­ic poli­cies that desta­bi­lize oth­er nations—fades to obscu­ri­ty. As Mimi Thi Nguyen argues, the grate­ful refugee is a cru­cial fig­ure for advanc­ing con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, for her thanks­giv­ing val­i­dates lib­er­al warfare’s promise: that vio­lence and loss in the present are nec­es­sary to gar­ner “the gift of free­dom” in the future, a ques­tion­able gift prof­fered by the Unit­ed States under aus­pices of glob­al secu­ri­ty, nation-build­ing, and polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic lib­er­a­tion. [xv] Crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies, as Espir­i­tu elab­o­rates, glean from the fig­ure of the refugee an alter­nate account, not of war as such, but of wide­spread, ongo­ing “mil­i­ta­rized vio­lence,” which includes less vis­i­ble forms of state vio­lence that some­times mas­quer­ade as human­i­tar­i­an aid. Such a for­mu­la­tion reveals more ful­ly “the raw, bru­tal, and destruc­tive forces that West­ern impe­r­i­al pow­ers unleash on the lands and bod­ies of racial­ized peo­ples across time and space.” [xvi]

So it is that in the Unit­ed States, a nation whose glob­al mil­i­tarism and eco­nom­ic and strate­gic poli­cies have con­tributed to refugee crises in far-flung regions, includ­ing South­east Asia, many con­fi­dent­ly claim pride in the nation’s robust tra­di­tion of wel­com­ing refugees. Amer­i­cans com­mon­ly point out that the Unit­ed States accepts more of the world’s refugees who reset­tle under the UNHCR’s aus­pices than any oth­er nation, though in 2016 this was only 85,000 peo­ple. [xvii] The cur­rent U.S. pres­i­dent, who rode to pow­er on a promise to exclude Syr­i­an refugees, act­ed quick­ly after his inau­gu­ra­tion to halt the U.S. Refugee Admis­sions Pro­gram, whose future is now uncer­tain. [xvi­ii] Trump’s pres­i­den­cy brings to the fore the seem­ing para­dox of Amer­i­can head­lines like this one from the New York Times in Jan­u­ary 2017: “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them,” announc­ing a sto­ry about some of the last refugees to arrive in the Unit­ed States pri­or to the “Mus­lim ban.” [xix] Such a head­line makes sense if we rec­og­nize that the refugee regime does not oper­ate through law alone, or through force alone, but, like oth­er vec­tors of cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, calls upon nar­ra­tive, myth, and affect to oil its gears and cam­ou­flage its work­ings. The refugee regime’s neolib­er­al under­pin­nings are shield­ed from view by sto­ries that empha­size, on a good day, refugee res­cue, hos­pi­tal­i­ty, and friend­ship, and on a bad day, a parade of threats that emanate from an inas­sim­i­l­able racial and nation­al Oth­er. These seem­ing­ly dis­parate cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives coex­ist and, espe­cial­ly in times of inse­cu­ri­ty, can assert them­selves simul­ta­ne­ous­ly or flip with speed and ferocity.

* * *

The law of refugees is as follows:

(1) A refugee is a per­son who has fled their coun­try due to a well-found­ed fear of per­se­cu­tion based on race, reli­gion, nation­al­i­ty, mem­ber­ship in a par­tic­u­lar social group, or polit­i­cal opin­ion. [xx]
(2) Oth­er coun­tries may not return a refugee to their coun­try of ori­gin. This is the rule of non-refoule­ment, a cen­tral prin­ci­ple of refugee law. [xxi]
(3) The Unit­ed Nations deter­mines which refugees are eli­gi­ble for per­ma­nent reset­tle­ment in anoth­er coun­try. The Unit­ed States accepts more refugees for per­ma­nent reset­tle­ment than any oth­er host coun­try. In 2016, this was only 85,000 people.
(4) Once a refugee arrives in the Unit­ed States, a pri­vate, non­prof­it agency takes over the work of inte­grat­ing the refugee, hav­ing received a sum of mon­ey from the gov­ern­ment. Pri­vate “co-spon­sors” con­tribute time and resources to aid with inte­gra­tion. [xxii]
(5) After a peri­od of time, a refugee may become a U.S. citizen.

The law of refugees is as follows:

(1) You do not speak. You may ges­ture for help in a way that makes for a good pho­to­graph. Pic­tures speak a thou­sand words. They will speak for you.
(2) When you are giv­en the gift of a new begin­ning, you can­not refuse. You can­not say, “This is not the begin­ning.” Corol­lary: you may be haunt­ed. And if so, the ghost is your respon­si­bil­i­ty, yours alone.
(3) Your labor will include gratitude.
(4) Your labor will include patriotism.
(5) You must not be ironic.

* * *

Reset­tled refugees learn all of this, the offi­cial and unof­fi­cial “laws” gov­ern­ing their pres­ence in Amer­i­ca, prin­ci­pal­ly through sur­vival. This per­ilous epis­te­mol­o­gy devel­ops out of dou­ble con­scious­ness, hyper­vig­i­lance, and strate­gic per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty. Refugee lives are punc­tu­at­ed with social inter­ac­tions that reflect how pre­car­i­ous and con­tin­gent is their “reset­tle­ment,” that opti­misti­cal­ly named process through which they are puta­tive­ly absorbed into a new com­mu­ni­ty. Crit­i­cal refugee stud­ies have chal­lenged the pre­dom­i­nant, tele­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of reset­tle­ment that views a refugee’s dis­place­ment as a tem­po­rary dis­rup­tion to be reme­died by their inte­gra­tion into the host coun­try and (re)socialization as a self-suf­fi­cient eco­nom­ic actor. Eric Tang, in a study of Cam­bo­di­an refugees liv­ing in a Bronx “hyper­ghet­to,” frames reset­tle­ment instead as a con­tin­u­a­tion of the colo­nial vio­lence wrought by Amer­i­ca in South­east Asia, con­verged with the lega­cy of slav­ery that keeps impov­er­ished African Amer­i­cans in the hyper­ghet­to. [xxi­ii] The sub­ject of Tang’s most exten­sive inter­views, a woman named Ra, expe­ri­enced forced mar­riage, cap­tiv­i­ty, and near-star­va­tion under the Amer­i­can-backed Khmer Rouge; once in Amer­i­ca, she “engaged in forms of sur­vival that dis­avowed the state’s insis­tence that she had been simul­ta­ne­ous­ly saved and redeemed by its refugee reset­tle­ment pro­gram.” [xxiv] Steer­ing her nar­ra­tive of con­tin­ued dis­place­ment in Amer­i­ca, in part by set­ting the terms of her inter­views, Ra mate­ri­al­izes a the­o­ry of her own, which Tang terms “refugee tem­po­ral­i­ty.” Rather than treat­ing the time of atroc­i­ty as dis­crete and over, Ra’s nar­ra­tive enables Tang to “name[] the refugee’s knowl­edge that, with each cross­ing, reset­tle­ment, and dis­place­ment, an old and famil­iar form of pow­er is being rein­scribed.” [xxv] While pol­i­cy­mak­ers speak a tech­no­crat­ic lan­guage of annu­al caps, vet­ting, and spon­sor­ship of refugees, refugees must meet their basic needs by work­ing with­in the avail­able nar­ra­tives and dis­cours­es, gen­er­al­ly ones that pre­sume the gift of a new begin­ning. But many, like Ra, also claim social space and gen­er­ate new lan­guage for their own under­stand­ing of their expe­ri­ence. This is a fraught, unset­tling process that con­tin­ues long after the legal con­di­tion of refugee­ness is extin­guished (for instance, through the bestow­al of Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship). From this dai­ly, indef­i­nite nego­ti­a­tion between stark neces­si­ty and the refugee’s desire for (though some­times skep­ti­cism of) a fuller exis­tence, refugee-authored lit­er­ary texts arise.

lê thi diem thúy’s impres­sion­is­tic, semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For (2003) illus­trates the painstak­ing and painful forg­ing of refugee “forms of sur­vival” out of the morass of cul­tur­al expec­ta­tions and ide­o­log­i­cal nar­ra­tives pro­ject­ed onto refugees in Amer­i­ca. The novel’s five chap­ters are each divid­ed into short scenes a few sen­tences to a few para­graphs long. Frag­men­tary and image-laden, the scenes read like prose poems, each cap­tur­ing a moment from the young female narrator’s mem­o­ry or imag­i­na­tion as if to form an album of ver­bal snap­shots. One of the ear­li­est scenes, which sets the nov­el in motion, describes an alle­gor­i­cal refugee spon­sor­ship cen­ter­ing on a retired, white Navy vet­er­an, Mr. Rus­sell, who embod­ies a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non Cathy J. Schlund-Vials describes as “the alchem­i­cal recu­per­a­tion of the Amer­i­can sub­ject from mil­i­tary aggres­sor to mil­i­tant human­i­tar­i­an.” [xxvi] The elder­ly Mr. Rus­sell, liv­ing in San Diego, watch­es tele­vi­sion images of the Viet­namese Boat Peo­ple, “name­less, face­less bod­ies lying in small boats, float­ing on the open water.” [xxvii] For Mr. Rus­sell, these undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed Asi­at­ic bod­ies “merged with his mem­o­ries of the Oki­nawans and the Samoans and even the Hawai­ians” whom he saw in anoth­er war, decades ear­li­er. [xxvi­ii] One night, Mr. Rus­sell dreams the refugee boats are seabirds fly­ing “toward the point where in the dream he under­stood him­self to be wait­ing, some­where beyond the frame,” and with that rev­e­la­to­ry image, he decides to spon­sor a refugee fam­i­ly. [xxix] Through this col­lu­sion of sym­pa­thy and spec­ta­tor­ship, giv­en form by the law, lê’s unnamed pro­tag­o­nist is plucked from a refugee camp to begin her rocky reset­tle­ment in America.

Mr. Rus­sell exem­pli­fies a dis­tinc­tive con­ver­gence of sen­ti­men­tal­ism, pater­nal­ism, racism, and mil­i­tary vio­lence that char­ac­ter­izes America’s pos­ture toward South­east Asia and its refugees. lê quick­ly dis­places that per­spec­tive as the dom­i­nant one: she embeds the man’s deci­sion to spon­sor inside her own nar­ra­tive frame, a move that enables the read­er to see, iron­i­cal­ly, Mr. Rus­sell regard­ing him­self as an off-screen spec­ta­tor, not the spec­ta­cle, as he watch­es the Boat Peo­ple on tele­vi­sion. Fig­u­ra­tive­ly revers­ing the cam­era lens of Amer­i­can and Euro­pean pho­to­jour­nal­ism, which iconized the Boat People’s suf­fer­ing for a most­ly white audi­ence, lê’s nov­el crit­i­cal­ly high­lights the white Amer­i­can veteran’s self-con­struc­tion as observ­er-res­cuer, includ­ing how “he under­stood him­self” as “wait­ing, some­where beyond the frame.” In his con­fla­tion of endan­gered, racial­ized bod­ies (the Viet­namese with the Oki­nawans, Samoans, and Hawai­ians), Mr. Rus­sell does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mis­rec­og­nize the Boat Peo­ple. Rather, he rec­og­nizes all too well his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ities between the Unit­ed States’ World War II Pacif­ic vic­to­ry (cinched by the atom­ic bomb­ings and sub­se­quent mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of Japan), annex­a­tion of Pacif­ic islands, near-geno­ci­dal mil­i­tary exploits in South­east Asia, and final­ly, the cri­sis expe­ri­enced by the Boat Peo­ple. But what­ev­er redemp­tive poten­tial exists in refugee sponsorship—and his epiphan­ic dream sug­gests there is some—Mr. Rus­sell does not live to real­ize it; he is dead by page five, leav­ing the spon­sor­ship of a young girl and five men as a final wish for his wife and son to car­ry out.

Thus, the sen­ti­men­tal res­cue-and-grat­i­tude nar­ra­tive is derailed almost before it begins. The late Mr. Russell’s rel­a­tives are bare­ly will­ing, much less warm­ly wel­com­ing; the refugees are more fright­ened than grate­ful and keen­ly feel their dearth of options. Nev­er­the­less, the nar­ra­tor and her fam­i­ly must live and work with the pre­vail­ing expec­ta­tions of grat­i­tude, cog­nizant that to do oth­er­wise would be to dis­rupt the mytholo­gies under­ly­ing refugee admis­sion, not to men­tion jeop­ar­dize their shel­ter and pro­vi­sions in a spon­sor­ship-based econ­o­my. Over­hear­ing a tense dis­cus­sion between the Rus­sells, the refugees con­tem­plate their dependence:

We each thought of those long nights float­ing on the ocean, rock­ing back and forth in the mid­dle of nowhere with noth­ing in sight. We remem­bered the ships that kept their dis­tance. We remem­bered the peo­ple lean­ing over the decks of ships to study us through their binoc­u­lars and not lik­ing what they saw, turn­ing away from the boat. If it was true that this man Mel could keep us from float­ing back there—to all those salt-filled nights—what could we do but thank him. And then thank him again. [xxx]

Anchored to the refugees’ anaphor­ic “we” is the recur­ring mem­o­ry, and implic­it threat, of being no more than a spec­ta­cle of bare life for oth­ers to “study,” then decide to aid or for­sake. This mem­o­ry directs the refugees’ respons­es to their spon­sor: “what could we do but thank him”—a ques­tion with­out a ques­tion mark—and “thank him again,” rehears­ing the role of the grate­ful refugee. Long Bui brings per­for­mance stud­ies to bear in ana­lyz­ing refugee life and iden­ti­fies a “refugee reper­toire” of famil­iar per­for­mances through which refugees nego­ti­ate com­plex social demands. Bui delin­eates “the refugee con­di­tion as a high­ly embod­ied staged process, anchored in the motion and move­ment of the dias­poric subject’s nav­i­ga­tion across dif­fer­ent land­scapes of belong­ing or exclu­sion.” [xxxi] The spon­sor­ship econ­o­my is, among oth­er things, an affec­tive econ­o­my in which refugees per­form cer­tain states of mind (such as grat­i­tude) in order to secure basic neces­si­ties. Thank­ing Mel is an act of sur­vival, a staving off of “salt-filled nights” “in the mid­dle of nowhere with noth­ing in sight,” for refugees who “float” pre­car­i­ous­ly through their reset­tle­ment rather than actu­al­ly settling.

Lat­er, view­ing a pho­to­graph of the fish­ing boat on which she escaped Viet­nam, shot from the deck of the Amer­i­can naval ship that res­cued them, the nar­ra­tor imag­ines the Amer­i­cans laugh­ing at the Boat People:

Maybe that’s why it took them so long to low­er the lad­der. Maybe they laughed so hard at the sight of us so small, they start­ed to roll around the deck like spilled mar­bles and they had to help one anoth­er to their feet and recall their own names—Emmett, Mike, Ron—and where they were from—Oakland, Cal­i­for­nia; Youngstown, Ohio; Shin­ston, West Virginia—before they could let us climb up and say our names—Lan, Cuong, Hoang—and where we were from—Phan Thi­et, Binh Thuan. [xxxii]

The narrator’s only visu­al doc­u­ment of the meet­ing at sea is a pho­to­graph tak­en lit­er­al­ly from a white savior’s per­spec­tive, but her read­ing of the image rejects the sal­va­tion nar­ra­tive that assumes sym­pa­thy or altru­ism. Instead, the girl imag­ines car­toon­ish­ly heart­less sailors who “laughed so hard” that they fell about the deck, then “help[ed] one anoth­er” stand first before allow­ing the strand­ed Boat Peo­ple to board. The two roll calls of names and cities of ori­gin make clear the unequal foot­ing on which the two groups, Amer­i­can sailors and Viet­namese refugees, encounter each oth­er, with one list syn­tac­ti­cal­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly sub­or­di­nat­ed to the oth­er. In “recall[ing] their own names,” the Amer­i­cans con­struct their self-iden­ti­ty in rela­tion to the refugees, who must be “let” to “climb up and say our names.” At the same time, the “maybes” that begin each sen­tence, along with the sailors’ exag­ger­at­ed antipa­thy, sig­nal an act of counter-imag­i­na­tion: the girl’s con­struc­tion of a nar­ra­tive unlike any that might be har­bored by, say, Mr. Rus­sell, the sym­pa­thet­ic for­mer Navy man who is also read­ing images of the Boat People.

Like Ra’s refugee tem­po­ral­i­ty, the nov­el rejects resettlement’s promise of a new begin­ning; instead, it demon­strates how unset­tled­ness endures into adult­hood for the child nar­ra­tor, a chron­ic run­away who ends up liv­ing on the oppo­site coast from her par­ents. The nar­ra­tor, her father, and her “uncles” (her moth­er arrives lat­er) are not so much reset­tled in Cal­i­for­nia as they are forcibly trans­ferred to Cal­i­for­nia to con­tin­ue an indef­i­nite series of dis­place­ments. These include being asked to leave the home of Mr. Russell’s son Mel after the nar­ra­tor acci­den­tal­ly destroys his col­lec­tion of glass ani­mal fig­urines, and lat­er, evic­tion from a gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood they can no longer afford. It seems at times they have not come that far: “We live in the coun­try of Cal­i­for­nia, the province of San Diego, the vil­lage of Lin­da Vista,” in 1940s Navy hous­ing that since the 1980s has been tak­en over by South­east Asian refugees, the nar­ra­tor recounts, map­ping Cal­i­for­nia with a geopo­lit­i­cal vocab­u­lary more suit­ed to Viet­nam. [xxxi­ii] Their ex-mil­i­tary hous­ing reflects the fact that, as Espir­i­tu explains, mod­ern refuge is fun­da­men­tal­ly an exten­sion of mil­i­ta­rized vio­lence, a phe­nom­e­non she names “mil­i­ta­rized refuge(es).” Refugee res­cue, Espir­i­tu points out, relies on the cir­cum-Pacif­ic U.S. mil­i­tary appa­ra­tus that grew dra­mat­i­cal­ly from the 1940s to 1980s—the same bases, tech­nol­o­gy, weapon­ry, logis­tics, and path­ways that were used in war to dis­place the refugees to begin with. [xxxiv] The refugees’ phys­i­cal pres­ence in the “vil­lage of Lin­da Vista” mir­rors, and is the result of, the Unit­ed States’ impe­r­i­al expan­sion into South­east Asia. The Amer­i­can war brings home its human remainders.

lê’s nov­el details many such ironies of reset­tle­ment, large and small. The refugees are not a good fit in Lin­da Vista. Their trans­plan­ta­tion is marked by dis­junc­ture, ambiva­lence, and dis­trust: about the Navy hous­ing, the nar­ra­tor wry­ly recalls, “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promis­ing not to put fish bones in the garbage dis­pos­al.” [xxxv] After the narrator’s moth­er arrives from Viet­nam, her hus­band buys her a used Cadil­lac as a “Wel­come to Amer­i­ca” gift, but she does not know how to dri­ve and soon backs the lum­ber­ing vehi­cle into the wrought iron gate of the apart­ment com­plex. The land­lord arrives to fix the gate and “silent­ly cursed his ten­ants. He sus­pect­ed each and every one of those liv­ing in the building’s six­teen units… They were peo­ple who broke things.” [xxxvi] With iron­ic humor, the scene lit­er­al­izes the preva­lent neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of refugees as “gatecrashers”—that is, as unwel­come guests in the neigh­bor­hood and the nation, and as peo­ple large­ly respon­si­ble for their own crises, “peo­ple who broke things.” Even­tu­al­ly, unable to pay the ris­ing rent, the fam­i­ly is evict­ed and arrives home to find the build­ing pad­locked, all their pos­ses­sions inside. They go “qui­et­ly” but not com­pla­cent­ly: “At night we come back with three uncles. Ba cuts a hole in the fence and we step through. Qui­et, we break into our own house through the back win­dow. Qui­et, we steal back every­thing that is ours… We tum­ble out the win­dow like peo­ple tum­bling across con­ti­nents.” [xxxvii] The pas­sage stakes out a col­lec­tive claim (again, through a cho­rus of “we”) not only on the refugees’ prop­er­ty, but also on the nar­ra­tive itself. “Qui­et” the refugees may be, but their actions speak: bur­glar­iz­ing their home and steal­ing back their prop­er­ty, they con­front a soci­ety that is not meant for them but in which they must nev­er­the­less, like Ra, impro­vise “forms of sur­vival.” Even in Amer­i­ca lê’s refugees are still “tum­bling across con­ti­nents”; unset­tled, they adopt (and adapt) strate­gic per­for­mances and rever­sals of mean­ing and nar­ra­tive that car­ry them through a life­time of displacement.

The Buck­nell Insti­tute of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy sup­port­ed this project with a sum­mer research grant, and Buck­nell University’s Cen­ter for the Study of Race, Eth­nic­i­ty, and Gen­der orga­nized a fac­ul­ty col­lo­qui­um in which I devel­oped some of these ideas. I am grate­ful to my col­leagues Nik­ki Young, Mar­garet Cronin, Christo­pher Walk­er, Lay­la Vin­cent-Brown, and Mon­i­ca Sok for help­ful con­ver­sa­tions and feed­back, and to Steven Bel­skie for research assistance.


[i] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Hid­den Scars All Refugees Car­ry,” New York Times (Sep­tem­ber 2, 2016).
[ii] Yến Lê Espir­i­tu, Body Counts: The Viet­nam War and Mil­i­ta­rized Refuge(es) (Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2014) 11, quot­ing Nicholas Mirzoeff.
[iii] Espir­i­tu, Body Counts 171.
[iv] I am indebt­ed to Mari­ta Sturken’s devel­op­ment of Freud’s idea of screen mem­o­ry and to Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s exten­sion of Sturken’s work. See Mari­ta Sturken, Tan­gled Mem­o­ries: The Viet­nam War, The AIDS Epi­dem­ic, and the Pol­i­tics of Remem­ber­ing (Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1997) 44; Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Geno­cide, Jus­tice: Cam­bo­di­an-Amer­i­can Mem­o­ry Work (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012) 77.
[v] Inter­na­tion­al gov­er­nance of states’ treat­ment of refugees is some­times referred to as the “refugee regime” by schol­ars of inter­na­tion­al law and pol­i­cy and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. See, e.g., Lau­ra Bar­nett, “Glob­al Gov­er­nance and the Evo­lu­tion of the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime,” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Refugee Law 14.2/3 (2002); Alexan­der Betts, “The Refugee Regime Com­plex,” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly 29.1 (2010); Guil­ia Scalet­taris, “Refugee Stud­ies and the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime: A Reflec­tion on a Desir­able Sep­a­ra­tion,” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly 26.3 (2007). My use of the term is broad­er and refers to not only legal and polit­i­cal for­ma­tions, but also social prac­tices and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions that, I argue, influ­ence the treat­ment of refugees in both dai­ly life and policymaking.
[vi] Patri­cia Tuitt, False Images: The Law’s Con­struc­tion of the Refugee (Plu­to Press, 1996) 7.
[vii] Tuitt, False Images 7.
[viii] Ser­e­na Parekh, Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Dis­place­ment (Rout­ledge, 2017) 4. 
[ix] Parekh, Refugees 4.
[x] Parekh, Refugees 3, 6; Tuitt, False Images 7, 67; Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, “Fig­ures at a Glance” (June 19, 2017).
[xi] UNHCR, “Fig­ures”; Parekh, Refugees 4.
[xii] Parekh, Refugees 4.
[xiii] J. Eby et al., “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Reset­tle­ment in the Unit­ed States,” Jour­nal of Refugee Stud­ies 24.3 (2011) 593; Helen Fein, Con­gre­ga­tion­al Spon­sors of Indochi­nese Refugees in the Unit­ed States, 1979–1981: Help­ing beyond Bor­ders (Cran­bury: Asso­ci­at­ed UP, 1987) 17. The role of pri­vate spon­sors in U.S. refugee reset­tle­ment was more promi­nent in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. See Fein, 49.
[xiv] Build­ing upon work by Mimi Thi Nguyen, Yến Lê Espir­i­tu, and oth­ers, I have pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed the sen­ti­men­tal res­cue-and-grat­i­tude tale. See Mai-Linh K. Hong, “Refram­ing the Archive: Viet­namese Refugee Nar­ra­tives in the Post‑9/11 Peri­od,” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States 41.3 (2016).
[xv] Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Free­dom: War, Debt, and Oth­er Refugee Pas­sages (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012).
[xvi] Espir­i­tu, Body Counts 26.
[xvii] Refugee Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter, “Refugee Admis­sions by Region: Fis­cal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017,” U.S. Depart­ment of State.
[xvi­ii] The U.S. Supreme Court is sched­uled to hear mer­it argu­ments on chal­lenges to Trump’s trav­el bans on Octo­ber 10, 2017, but as of mid-Sep­tem­ber 2017, it is rumored that the Pres­i­dent may soon issue a new order with a dif­fer­ent set of restric­tions. In the mean­time, Trump’s order has been per­mit­ted to take effect with some lim­i­ta­tions. See “Trump’s Trav­el Ban to Be Replaced by Restric­tions Tai­lored to Cer­tain Coun­tries,” New York Times (Sep­tem­ber 22, 2017).
[xix] Jodi Kan­tor, “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them,” New York Times (Jan­u­ary 28, 2017).
[xx] Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, Con­ven­tion and Pro­to­col Relat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees (2010) 14.
[xxi] UNHCR, Con­ven­tion 30.
[xxii] Eby, “Faith” 591–593.
[xxi­ii] Eric Tang, Unset­tled: Cam­bo­di­an Refugees in the NYC Hyper­ghet­to (Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015) 14–15.
[xxiv] Tang, Unset­tled 21.
[xxv] Tang, Unset­tled 21. 
[xxvi] Schlund-Vials, War 77.
[xxvii] lê thi diem thúy, The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For (Knopf, 2003) 4.
[xxvi­ii] lê, Gang­ster 4.
[xxix] lê, Gang­ster 5.
[xxx] lê, Gang­ster 7–8.
[xxxi] Long Bui, “The Refugee Reper­toire: Per­form­ing and Stag­ing the Post­mem­o­ries of Vio­lence,” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States 41.3 (2016) 113, 115.
[xxxii] lê, Gang­ster 29.
[xxxi­ii] lê, Gang­ster 88.
[xxxiv] Espir­i­tu, Body Counts 30–32.
[xxxv] lê, Gang­ster 88.
[xxxvi] lê, Gang­ster 41.
[xxxvii] lê, Gang­ster 97.


Works Cit­ed

Bar­nett, Lau­ra. “Glob­al Gov­er­nance and the Evo­lu­tion of the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime.” Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Refugee Law, vol. 14, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 238–262.

Betts, Alexan­der. “The Refugee Regime Com­plex.” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2010, pp. 12–37.

Bui, Long. “The Refugee Reper­toire: Per­form­ing and Stag­ing the Post­mem­o­ries of Vio­lence.” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 112–132.

Eby, J. et al. “The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Reset­tle­ment in the Unit­ed States.” Jour­nal of Refugee Stud­ies, vol. 24, no. 3, 2011, pp. 586–605.

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

Fein, Helen. Con­gre­ga­tion­al Spon­sors of Indochi­nese Refugees in the Unit­ed States, 1979–1981: Help­ing beyond Bor­ders. Asso­ci­at­ed Uni­ver­si­ty Press­es, 1987.

Hong, Mai-Linh K. “Refram­ing the Archive: Viet­namese Refugee Nar­ra­tives in the Post‑9/11 Peri­od.” Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 18–41.

Kan­tor, Jodi. “Warm Wel­come for Syr­i­ans in a Coun­try About to Ban Them.” New York Times, 28 Jan­u­ary 2017.

lê thi diem thúy. The Gang­ster We Are All Look­ing For. Knopf, 2003.

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

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “The Hid­den Scars All Refugees Car­ry.” New York Times, 2 Sep­tem­ber 2016.

Parekh, Ser­e­na. Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Dis­place­ment. Rout­ledge, 2017.

Unit­ed States, Depart­ment of State. “Refugee Admis­sions by Region: Fis­cal Year 1975 through 31-Aug-2017.” Refugee Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter, 2017.

Scalet­taris, Guil­ia. “Refugee Stud­ies and the Inter­na­tion­al Refugee Regime: A Reflec­tion on a Desir­able Sep­a­ra­tion.” Refugee Sur­vey Quar­ter­ly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2007, pp. 36–50.

Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. War, Geno­cide, Jus­tice: Cam­bo­di­an-Amer­i­can Mem­o­ry Work. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2012.

Shear, Michael D. and Ron Nixon. “Trump’s Trav­el Ban to Be Replaced by Restric­tions Tai­lored to Cer­tain Coun­tries.” New York Times, 22 Sep­tem­ber 2017.

Sturken, Mari­ta. Tan­gled Mem­o­ries: The Viet­nam War, The AIDS Epi­dem­ic, and the Pol­i­tics of Remem­ber­ing. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1997.

Tang, Eric. Unset­tled: Cam­bo­di­an Refugees in the NYC Hyper­ghet­to. Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015.

Tuitt, Patri­cia. False Images: The Law’s Con­struc­tion of the Refugee. Plu­to Press, 1996.

Fig­ures at a Glance.” Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, 19 June 2017.

Con­ven­tion and Pro­to­col Relat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees. Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, 2010, pp. 14.



Mai-Linh K. Hong is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Buck­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. She spe­cial­izes in Amer­i­can stud­ies, Asian Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, crit­i­cal race and eth­nic stud­ies, and law and human­i­ties. Her book project is titled Citizenship’s Shad­ow: Asian Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture and the Con­tours of State­less­ness, and her schol­ar­ly writ­ing has appeared in sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals. A for­mer attor­ney, she received her JD and PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. She tweets from @FleursduMai.


Sarah Sillin, Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor, received her Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and is cur­rent­ly a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Get­tys­burg Col­lege. Her book project, enti­tled Glob­al Sym­pa­thy: Rep­re­sent­ing Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cans’ For­eign Rela­tions, explores how writ­ers envi­sioned ear­ly Amer­i­cans’ ties to the larg­er world through their depic­tions of friend­ship and kin­ship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States and Lit­er­a­ture of the Ear­ly Amer­i­can Repub­lic.