Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“A short story, she thought, would be just long enough.”

After seeing the author’s name almost daily on my copy of The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui – which he blurbed  – I finally decided to give his writing a go with this collection of short stories.

From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.

I went into this not knowing what to expect, but the first tale hooked me from the start.  “Black-Eyed Women” is set around a ghostwriter telling ghost stories after seeing the ghost of her late brother. The otherworldliness of this short story was  exactly what I’d been looking for.

“Now you know,” my mother said. “Never turn your back on a ghost.”

It was such a phenomenal introduction with exceptional writing that really set the tone for the following tales to follow. And I especially loved it because I read “Black-Eyed Women” at nighttime, so I felt right there with the narrator’s dark and gloomy descriptions.

However, the tales, folklore, and rumors that followed afterwards didn’t really live up to that peculiar first one. The other character driven stories paled in comparison for me, particularly because a lot of them were set around cheaters and liars.

But I’m more than intrigued to give Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing another shot in his novel, The Sympathizer.

3.5/5 stars 

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Review: What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

In these twelve powerful stories that embrace magical-realist elements while deploying a powerfully empathetic understanding of character and circumstance, Lesley Nneka Arimah explores how parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, navigate conflicting cultures and struggle to reconcile conflicting desires, wants, and needs.

“There was only so much a mother could ask a daughter to bear before that bond became bondage.”

Going into to this I had no idea what to expect, but the author quickly garnered my attention with her on-point writing style and her ability to capture quietly specific moments that left me head spinning in awe.

My favorite short story remains to be the second tale (“War Stories”) because it’s the one that made me initially fall in love with the storytelling. In it a father sits down with his daughter to share his war stories in order to educate and “discipline” her after an unfortunate incident at school. What fascinated and pulled me in so much with this short story in particular was the father, “whose personality and humor are of a quieter sort. ” Also, the feminist undertones in it were guaranteed to leave me satisfied.

Which leads me to the next story (“Wild”), revolved around a teenager on a visit back to Nigeria and the tenuous sisterhood she and her cousin attain after a disastrous night out shifts them onto uneasy new ground. It’s it this story that I came to love the writing style, which I noticed to be my favorite kind of eerily specific. Especially in this next paragraph with the main character holding her cousin’s baby boy:

“He likes you.” She didn’t sound like she liked that. Or me.
“What can I say, I have a way with handsome young men. And aren’t you handsome? Aren’t you deliciously handsome?” The boy squealed and giggled as I picked him up and pretended to snack on his arms and belly. When I stopped, he settled his head into my neck.
“He must be tired,” Chinyere said. “Let me take him.”
She got up, pulled him out of my arms, and settled him in the hollow of the mattress she’d just vacated. A week ago you couldn’t have told me I would enjoy the weight of a child or feel intense satisfaction when he gripped my shirt as his mother removed him. ”

That detailed last line capturing that moment with little kids is one I truly forgot I loved until I reread it in the above.

And not only was the writing great, but we also had some magical-realist elements thrown in different tales and fables. Like in “Second Chances,” when a daughter greets her mother’s return from the dead with disbelief and anger because she appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot. Also, this story started out with an incredible paragraph:

“Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years, not since Nigeria, when she was pregnant with my younger sister, though not yet showing, and fell down the concrete steps to our house, ripping the dress from hem to thigh. Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.”

It had everything you’d expected (and also not expect) out of a tale like this: sadness, melancholiness, and pensiveness. Also, when the mother finally interacts with her eldest daughter, I was a goner:

“Nnwam, what do you want from me?”
I want you to boil the chicken with onions and salt. I want you to melt the palm oil on medium heat and sizzle ogbono till it dissolves. I want you to cough when the pepper tickles your throat. I want you to sprinkle in crayfish so tiny I believed, at age four, they’d been harvested half-formed from their mother’s womb. I want you to watch the ogbono thicken the water and add the stockfish and the okra and the spinach and the boiled meat and the salt you never put enough of and call us when it’s ready and say grace and be gracious and forgive me.
The answer I give: the lopsided shrug I manage when I can’t find words.”

It was sad and specific and tragic. I loved it.

Speaking of which, Light” is just as harrowing as the aforementioned tale. In it Enebeli Okwara struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And what most struck a chord with me was the ending of the story and all that led up to it. Because of the straining mother-daughter relationship, and in an effort to grow closer to her daughter, the mother, who’s living in America for her education and career, requests her to move in. And so the closing paragraph from the father’s pov really struck me:

“But before all this, before the elders are called in, before even his own father sides with his wife, and his only unexpected ally is his wife’s sister. Before he bows to the pressure of three generations on his back. Before he sobs publicly in the Murtala Muhammed airport, cries that shake his body and draw concern and offers of water from passersby. Before he spends his evenings in the girl’s room, sitting with the other things she left behind, counting down the time difference till they can Skype. Before she returns from school and appears on his screen more subdued than he’s ever seen her. Before he tries to animate her with stories of the lovelorn boy who keeps asking after her. Before she looks offscreen as though for coaching and responds, Please, Daddy, don’t talk to me like that. Before she grows cautious under the mothering of a woman who loves but cannot comprehend her. Before she quiets in a country that rewards her brand of boldness, in her black of body, with an incredulous fascination that makes her put it away. Before all that, she is eleven and Enebeli and the girl sit on the steps to the house watching people walk by their ramshackle gate. They are playing azigo and whenever the girl makes a good move she crows in a very unladylike way and yells, In your face! and he laughs every time. He does not yet wonder where she gets this, this streak of fire. He only knows that it keeps the wolves of the world at bay and he must never let it die out.”

Some stories, however, were a bit harder to digest for me because of that specificness that managed to physically sting me. Like in “Windfalls,” when a mother drops her kid in public places – multiple times throughout the years – for settlement money in court. Or in “Who Will Greet You at Home,” when a woman exhausted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair.

But just like with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, the short stories in here are characterised by their vividness, immediacy and the author’s seemingly endless ability to conjure worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different. I cannot wait for what Lesley Nneka Arimah will bring out next.

4.5/5 stars

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Review: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

With Sana Bakkoush – played by the effervescent Iman Meskini – recently announced as the main for Skam season four, as I’d so fervently hoped for back when I created my original Skam book tag, I wanted to immerse myself in some much-needed fiction told from the point of view of a Muslim hijabi girl as the main character. Does My Head Look Big in This? seemed to be the perfect starting point.

Set in Melbourne, Amal is a 16-year-old Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen with all the usual obsessions about boys, chocolate and Cosmo magazine. She’s also struggling to honour the Islamic faith in a society that doesn’t understand it. The story of her decision to “shawl up” is funny, surprising and touching by turns.636219512759788439178163785_tumblr_ohgtdtguew1sp02wlo1_500(Fun fact: I started reading this right after having rewatched the above iconic episode in Skam season two, where the girls go to a remote cabin and Sana defies all their exceptions.)

  • Does My Head Look Big in This? started out incredible with following Amal’s decision to wear a hijab as a full-timer.” I particularly loved getting to read her thought process leading up to that moment:

“I’m terrified. But at the same time I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith. I believe it will make me feel so close to God. Because it’s damn hard to walk around with people staring at your “nappy head” and not feel kind of pleased with yourself – if you manage to get through the stares and comments with your head held high. That’s when this warm feeling buzzes through you and you smile to yourself, knowing God’s watching you, knowing that He knows you’re trying to be strong to please Him. Like you’re both in on a private joke and something special and warm and extraordinary is happening and nobody in the world knows about it because it’s your own experience, your own personal friendship with your Creator. I guess when I’m not wearing the hijab I feel like I’m missing out. I feel cheated out of that special bond.”

  • However, I quickly came to notice a number of problematic phrases thrown in here that rubbed me the wrong way, like describing someone angry as “psychotic” and the like. And I especially detested how this next conversation was handled:

“Anyway, back to your attempt to wear the hijab without the assistance of Revlon. I hate to disappoint you, but there are only a few women in this world who can get away with the natural look. Don’t you read New Weekly? “Stars without their make-up”, etc.? Hello? Do you have a big modelling contract you haven’t told me about? Are you co-starring in Brad Pitt’s next movie? If your answer to either of these questions is no, then go out and buy some cosmetic products this instant.”

I feel like Lilly Singh said it best when she talked about said topic:

  • Plus, I couldn’t for the life of me why understand why Amal was so infatuated with Adam Keane. To borrow Scaachi Koul’s superb phrasing, this boy was the epitome of “forgettable, something that even now makes me think of warm, soggy bread, or crackers with the salt brushed off.” So when the book focused on those vapid white boys more than I liked, I was gone.5f6019a45220e3a2ffaa1497c1cc7852_if-i-could-be-a-meme-it-would-meme-guy-disappearing_540-538
  • Another thing I want to mention is that I feel like the author had this great opportunity of discussing body-image and taking care of oneself with Simone’s character, who’s described as: “incredibly self-conscious about her body. She doesn’t understand that it’s all in her mind. OK, so she’s not a size eight, can’t feel her ribcage and doesn’t have toothpicks for legs. She’s about a size fourteen and really voluptuous and curvy and gorgeous with big blue eyes, creamy, radiant skin and lips that look like she has permanent red lipstick on.” But that lesson of accepting yourself never really came… The only thing that came out of it was a lot of harmful and triggering sayings spewed, such as this next paragraph that made my head spin:

“Or I see all these model shoots of gorgeous beach babes with their bones poking into my hand when I turn the pages and I think, what’s the point? Even if I lost ten kilos and was in my weight–height ratio, people would still consider me fat. I wish I could become anorexic. How sick is that, huh? But I don’t have the self-control to live off a lettuce leaf a day. And I’ve tried the whole bulimia thing but I can’t even throw up. I’m just pathetic! Abnormal!”

… How is this in the final version of the book??? This ignorance and insensitivity consequently led to a lot of girl-on-girl hate while comparing herself to others. Speaking of which, those “mean girls” were never really given any characterization, so that blew off as well for me.

After all that I really tried giving this book multiple tries to impress me again, but I just kept getting disappointed time and again. So in the end I decided to give myself a break, in particular after reading this next horrible thing spit out of Amal’s mouth about her friend’s mom, who wouldn’t let her daughter leave the house to go shopping:

“I’m just about ready to report Leila’s mum to immigration.
Grounds for deportation: stupidity.
Alternative country: none. No nationality deserves her. Send her to Mars.”

I just… how do you rollback from that???

So unfortunately Does My Head Look Big in This? was a DNF around the half-way point for me.
In the meantime, however, you can catch me rewatching these two recently released Skam clips until season four is out there in the world:

(I’m still amazed by the usage of the song.)

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Does My Head Look Big in This?, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!