‘Black-Eyed Women’, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Read it here, in about 40 minutes.
Thinking about metafiction…
Metafiction is fiction that is self-referential. Fiction that draws attention to its own fictionality, either overtly (e.g. the narrator directly addresses the reader) or covertly (e.g. the story is about writing stories).
Black-Eyed Women’ is all about the nature of storytelling. The narrator is a Vietnamese-American working as a ghostwriter, writing the memoirs of a man who survived a disaster that killed his entire family; the narrator’s mother verbally tells stories, usually beginning with the words ‘Let me tell you a story’; the man who survived the disaster tells his story, over and over, in TV interviews, and to the narrator so she can write it for him; storytelling is depicted as an essential part of Vietnamese culture (‘tall tales, folklore, and rumors’), with the eponymous black-eyed women being ‘the ancient crones’ who keep the country’s stories safe, telling and re-telling them to anyone who’ll listen.
The three characters – the narrator, her mother, and the man – are all are haunted in some way – by memories, guilt, or actual ghosts – and use storytelling to express and make sense of this. There’s a contrast between the stories they’re willing to tell, and those they aren’t, or whether they tell their own stories or the stories of others.
I love how the story ends, with the narrator embracing her mother’s/motherland’s/own stories, and writing her own book, with her own name attached, no longer a ghost.
This is the first story in the collection The Refugees, and sets the tone for the whole book, which, as the title suggests, focusses on Vietnamese refugees who are haunted by their reasons for leaving their home county, and by what they left behind (the final story subverts this, though). Recommended.