Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives | BookCon 2018

Ingrid Contreras

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Thi Bui

Joseph Azam

          On Saturday, June 2, an attentive crowd at BookCon joined moderator Ingrid Rojas Contreras to attend the panel Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives and hear more about the recently published collection, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams). Contreras, author of the forthcoming The Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Doubleday), is among several contributors to the volume, alongside Pulitzer Prize–winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer); Thi Bui, author of the acclaimed illustrated novel The Best We Could Do (Abrams); and corporate attorney Joseph Azam. The International Rescue Committee announced that 10% of the book's profits will assist them in providing humanitarian and aid relief. They also noted that the United States is on track to accept 22,000 refugees this year, a sharp decrease from previous years. Nguyen began by asking, "What defines a refugee?" There are approximately 65 million displaced people in the world, yet only 22.5 million are classified as refugees. His family left Vietnam in the 1970s, and he described the difficulty of finding a sponsor for his entire family. In the end, one family sponsored his parents while he and his ten-year-old brother were each sponsored by different families. He noted that the distinction between refugee and immigrant is not always clear. "Even people who don't like immigrants like the idea of immigrants. Refugees are unwanted where they come from and where they go." In talking about the fear of refugees, Nguyen mentioned a fear of contamination, and the idea that one is coming from a failed state. The word refugee can also be racially coded, he cautioned. After Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration referred to some survivors as refugees. He added that the word itself reminds us that the world is failing at something; in particular, he noted how Puerto Rico has been treated since Hurricane Maria landed in September 2017. Bui's family came to the United States in the second wave from Vietnam (contrasted to Nguyen who arrived in the first wave). She would most likely be considered an example of what the current administration refers to as chain migration since she was sponsored by a relative. In addition to being a writer, she also works with refugees who were formerly incarcerated. Her memoir describes the limited items her family took with them when they left Vietnam: ID cards, a change of clothes for each person, some limes, and a bag of sugar. (The limes and sugar were for making lemonade when they arrived in the U.S.) Lastly, Azam, who was born in Afghanistan, described his journey to New York as a child via India and Germany. He and his family left Afghanistan in the 1980s, each traveling separately to their adopted country. He discussed the privilege he has experienced as someone who is fair-skinned, and how that has given him "opportunity and anonymity," both of which he often feels guilty about. Sometimes he feels like a refugee; sometimes he doesn't. Empathy must be conjoined with action and social movements, Nguyen added; literature about the plight of refugees cannot change the world alone. In response to a question about whether we can put our trust in a country that doesn't trust us, Bui commented that it's more survival than trust. All three panelists talked about having more faith in people and institutions than the current administration. Nguyen reminded the audience that xenophobia is not new; America has a history of genocide and slavery. But he has faith in the ability of people to fight back, noting the history and eventual repealing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Responding to a comment about how books being published on Vietnam only focus on the war, Bui agreed that there is more to Vietnam that the war, but "it's the event that put us all here," and the next step in the country's history should not be built on denial.
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