Refugee Possibilities

  • Timothy K. August
    The Refugee Aesthetic: Reimagining Southeast Asian America. Temple University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Van Anh Tran

There are approximately 2 million SEA refugees in the US today; more than a quarter of this population are the children of refugees, born in the US (see Han).  Their parents’ refugee experiences not only significantly affect them as Southeast Asian Americans (SEAA), but also have implications for how they remember, represent, and pass on their own understandings (see Maffini and Pham and Sangalang and Vang for discussions of the transmission of intergenerational trauma within Southeast Asian communities). The stories of those within the SEA diaspora who fled the region after the social, political, economic, and military turmoil during and after the war in Vietnam live within the communities themselves, emerging academic studies, and contemporary art and literature. The Refugee Aesthetic: Reimagining Southeast Asian America, by Timothy K. August, weaves these realms together in a volume that “examines how refugees are represented and represent themselves” (3). In a thoughtful exploration of how SEAA artists have enacted refugee aesthetics as powerful, transformative ways of knowing, being, and producing (and being produced), The Refugee Aesthetic interrogates how the refugee is often constructed and emphasizes the agency of refugees.


The Refugee Aesthetic offers an interdisciplinary lens of analysis that not only reconceptualizes the refugee, but also centres the ways that such notions have been taken up, remixed, and redefined by those directly impacted by displacement. In doing so, August extends the discourse on refugees, migration, and Asian North Americans by grounding these inquiries specifically within the realm of aesthetics. This approach speaks back to dominant social, political, and legal constructions of refugee populations that have been reinforced, in part, by mainstream media discourses of the refugee. In framing analyses through the works of SEAA artists, The Refugee Aesthetic attentively demonstrates the ways refugee art “can reposition, reimagine, and . . . rewrite aesthetic structures and values that produce the relationship drawn between the dominant and minor positions” (11). Disrupting such paradigms and exploring refugee production “on its own terms” enables nuanced, multi-faceted, and complex scholarly inquiries that provide insight to ways refugee production “challenges, avoids, or even reinforces” existing narratives (23). Refugee aesthetics is a “generative force” and SEAA are conceived and positioned as actors who are critical to shaping and reshaping refugee identities, realities, positionalities, and possibilities (24).


After an introduction that engages the fields of critical refugee studies, Asian American studies, memory studies, literary and artistic inquiry, and beyond, The Refugee Aesthetic presents four lenses that guide the volume. August shares the frames of 1) the refugee image; 2) the refugee position; 3) refugee space; and 4) the refugee personality to investigate and add texture to multiple refugee aesthetics that shift power toward refugee actors as they “redefine how their work and experiences are received” (124). Chapter One unpacks the image of the refugee not only in the ways that it has been produced historically, politically, and discursively (recognizing the impact of the refugee image on audiences), but also in how this image has been used for particular goals. August showcases aesthetic interventions to assert refugee voice and to make visible how the refugee image has been “absorbed into and used by the nation” (54). Chapter Two examines how SEAA artists “respond to the demand to explain one’s presence, gesture toward social identities, and articulate a future for all refugee communities that acknowledges the lasting qualities engendered by the refugee experience” (56, emphasis original). August highlights the ways that SEAA artists draw upon their lived experiences to actively (and in some cases directly) engage with readers/consumers, community members, and institutional spaces in their process of navigating the ways that refugees have been conceived as temporary. Chapter Three names the tension between the ways that refugee space mixes with everyday spaces and how refugees can, indeed, transform spaces. Therefore, August argues, considerations of space are imperative to understanding refugee aesthetics and refugee futures. Chapter Four specifically explores how Viet Thanh Nguyen’s embrace of the refugee position has allowed them to amplify and stand in solidarity with social and political movements.


Throughout The Refugee Aesthetic, August infuses a variety of artworks—including graphic novels, fiction, and poems—to exhibit the immense power that refugee aesthetics have in asserting refugee interpretations. The variety of references not only reinforces the analyses, but also demonstrates ongoing, reflexive refugee identities. Within an interrogation of legacies of colonization and displacement, there are opportunities to invite a variety of literary, artistic, and scholarly works into the conversation and to continue to process the current examples in the volume with intersectional frames across chapters.


Marianne Hirsch describes postmemory as the “relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears . . . to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up” (5). Connections between who we are and what we remember (and from whom these memories may come) within this framework are mediated by representations, projections, and imaginations. The Refugee Aesthetic expands notions of postmemory to consider agency and the wider cultural and political impact of such representations. In the closing chapter, “Refugee Futures,” August writes that “the refugee experience can forge a critical consciousness that not only describes what happened during refuge but also has an acute sense of what is to be done” (130). As I, the daughter of refugee parents myself, consider the ways that my own meaning-making is constructed and reframed alongside others of my generation, this volume offers language and frameworks to understand how refugee artists are working to reclaim the refugee position. The Refugee Aesthetic demonstrates that “the refugee position is a choice and a strategy” (132). And as we critically engage with refugee aesthetics and understand their power and complexity, we affirm and contribute to such refugee possibilities as we move toward the future.


Works Cited

Han, Meekyung. “Relationship among Perceived Parental Trauma, Parental Attachment, and Sense of Coherence in Southeast Asian American College Students.” Journal of Family Social Work, vol. 9, no. 2, 2005, pp. 25-45.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. Columbia UP, 2012.

Maffini, Cara S., and Alfonse N. Pham. “Overcoming a Legacy of Conflict: The Repercussive Effects of Stress and Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma among Vietnamese Americans.” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, vol. 25, no. 6, 2016, pp. 580-97.

Sangalang, Cindy C., and Cindy Vang. “Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, vol. 19, no. 3, 2017, pp. 745-54.

This review “Refugee Possibilities” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 15 Nov. 2021. Web.

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