Navigating the Stormy Waters

Lately, Vietnamese and Vietnamese American writers have been making waves in the global stage. Through the published text, they are making their voices be heard through the din. As translated works become more accessible, the world is learning more about the South East Asian nation beyond its tumultuous history that has become synonymous to the war it figured in. As Vietnamese writers ascend towards prominence, they also begun to earn recognition from literary pundits. Viet Nguyen Thanh’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, for instance, has received several encomiums, highlighted by winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. As new voices, whether in prose or in poetry, rise above the din, Vietnamese literature is finding its niche in the vast gamut of world literature.

One of these new voices is Eric Nguyen. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen made his literary debut in 2021 with Things We Lost to the Water. His debut novel gained even more prominence when former US President Barack Obama included it in his summer 2021 reading list. Things We Lost to the Water introduces the readers to Hương, a young Vietnamese woman married to a professor, Công. The couple, with their young son Tuấn, managed to survive the atrocities of the Vietnamese War. The worst, however, is not over even with the end of the war. The socialists, who took control of the country, both the North and the South, started to round up Communists or anyone who they deemed to be one, and sent them to reeducation camps. One of them was Công.

The year was 1978. Công, able to survive the reeducation camp, reunited with his wife and hoped to reestablish his family in the seaside. But with the growing scrutiny of the authorities, no place is safe and the family was left with no choice but to flee, along with the rest. The pregnant Hương and Tuấn were able to board the boat that ferried them to a refugee camp in Singapore. Công, meanwhile, was not as lucky as his wife and son, and was left behind. At the Singaporean refugee camp, Hương gave birth to their second son, Bình before deciding to settle in New Orleans, Louisiana and restart her life. In August 1979, Hương, with her two sons in tow, commenced her new life in an unfamiliar city not yet fully her own.

“Forgetting, she was so sure, was easy, the easiest thing that could be done; we forget all the time – we forget names, and addresses, the color of a childhood dress, the name of a favorite song. We could forget anything and everything, if only we tried if only we made the effort.”

~ Eric Nguyen, Things We Lost to the Water

In their new environment, Hương had to pick up the pieces of her life. It has become urgent for her to start earning a living to support her two sons while, at the same time, learning to assimilate into the idiosyncrasies of American culture and society. She was also driven by her dream that Công would eventually join them. To keep her sanity, she wrote letters and recorded taped messages addressed to her husband. She would send them to Vietnam but it would always get returned. With each returned letter and tape, her dream of completing her family started to look farfetched. Her fears were soon confirmed when she received a cryptic letter from Vietnam. Hương was left with no other choice but to play the role of both a mother and a father to her two sons.

Through the story of Hương, the readers are given an intimate peek into the plight of refugees. Nguyen vividly portrayed the desperation that Hương and her fellow refugees as they fled from Vietnam in the clandestine of the night. Indeed, they had so much to leave behind – their family, their old lives, their heritage – but they realize that in order to survive, they must escape from the grasp of the atrocious regime. These images evoke similar images of the current situation in Afghanistan. However, rather than fleeing through boats shrouded by the darkness, media and news outlet are brimming with images of Afghans crowding airports in a last ditch effort to escape the tentacles of the Taliban. These images also resonated with the same desperation, anxieties, and terror the Vietnamese refugees experienced during their own crisis.

Escaping from the atrocities, however, does not entail the end of the plight of refugees. Once they cross borders, they are faced with new challenges, as Hương soon learned. Living in a city not their own, Hương and Tuấn struggled with their identities. They are often drawn to the past, with memories of their past life in Vietnam often surfacing in their daily experiences. They struggled to embrace American culture but they were cognizant that it was their present and that in order for them to survive, they must adjust and move forward from their past. As they struggle to find their own voices, they also had to grapple with discrimination, and bullying. In contrast to his mother and brother, Bình, who was unburdened by the past, was quick to adapt to the environment he was born into. For Bình, who opted to be called Ben, his struggles with identity plods a different path.

The novel also subtly tackled the importance of a father figure in one’s life. The shadows of Công haunted Hương and her sons, especially in the case of Tuấn. His absence left a gaping hole in their lives although Hương tried her best to fill in the gap left behind by her husband. Substituted patriarchy has its limitations and Hương can only do too much. Her sons resented how their mother overcompensated their father’s absence. Each tried to cope with their unconventional family structure in his own way, escaping the world their carefully mother built. Tuấn sought the comfort of the Southern Boyz, a gang of fellow Vietnamese refugees. Tuấn, who yearned for vestiges of the past, was convinced by the gang members that they were tasked with protecting the refugee community. Ben, on the other hand, found his own father figure in his mentor, Professor Schrieber. Schrieber, who teaches literature, believed that Ben has a future in literature, hence, taking him into his own fold.

“Things go horribly wrong during wars, Even without wars, things go horribly wrong all the time. You pick yourself, you move on, be glad with what you have. That’s the best we can do sometimes.”

~ Eric Nguyen, Things We Lost to the Water

The narrative spanned three decades, from 1978 to 2005 and as the narrative moved forward, it started to diverge into three distinct voices. The voice of Hương permeated in the earlier parts of the novel but as Tuấn and Ben started to grow, their voices also begun to take firmer and more prominent shapes. As a bildungsroman, Things We Lost to the Water finely captured the growth and development of the characters. The development of Tuấn, in particular, was scintillating. He struggled with his father’s absence, and also had to endure racism at school, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower’ than his peers. He rebelled against his mother, and also stopped his studies. However, his angst mellowed with the passage of time, replaced by a realization that his concepts of heroism and masculinity were misplaced. Being empathetic, rather than being violent, is what it means to be a man. Hương and Ben also had their own eureka moments, which provided the novel distinct complexions.

Water was a seminal part in understanding the story of Hương and her sons. From the Vietnamese seaside village the family move to, to how the family fled Vietnam, to the torture methods Công endured in the reeducation camp, water was ubiquitous. Versailles, the community Hương and her sons settled into, is adjacent to a bayou. The novel also underscored that New Orleans, the primary setting of the story, lies below sea level, and is in danger of getting submerged. Perhaps to underline its fluidity, the story commenced and culminated in the midst of a storm. Whilst it was mostly literal, water was also metaphorical, an allegory that represented the personalities of the main characters. They were not bound by borders, and this freedom allows their ideas to be molded both by their experiences and by the passage of time.

What made the narrative flourish was Nguyen’s storytelling. Nguyen’s subtle but powerful prose kept all the novel’s elements together. He captured the atmosphere with masterful stroke and elegance. His prose was bereft of ostentatious displays. Nevertheless, the simplicity of his storytelling was effective in capturing and painting subtle, evocative, and insightful images. His prose also possessed a lyrical quality that was reminiscent of his fellow Vietnamese writers. With his nuanced prose, Nguyen managed to vividly capture the minute details of everyday realities. To remind his readers of the character’s heritage, Vietnamese terms were interspersed in the conversations, recorded messages and letters.

But whilst the prose was stellar, the novel was weighed down by its structure and inconsistent pacing. As the narrative jumps from one time period to another, seminal parts of the characters’ lives were left untold. It made the reader feel as though there was something missing. Nguyen magnified only on the seminal and pivotal points in characters’ lives but left the smaller moments to the readers’ imagination. For instance, Bình was playing with Addy (his childhood friend) and the next he was already in high school and struggling with his sexuality. Time drifted but how the characters reached moved from one point to the other was obscured from the reader. Another instance was Tuấn. He was a young child attending school in one instance but then in the next instance, he has a girlfriend and was hoping to become a part of a gang. A couple of pages more, he mellowed down and became conciliatory. These singular and episodic views created a distance between the readers and the characters. One never got to take a full picture of who the characters are or what their lives look like.

“I don’t go into people’s business. I’m over that. I don’t question anybody anything. Everyone has to make choices. Sometimes there’re only bad choices, all of them, each way you look it’s a sea of bad choices and we just have to pick one, the best one or maybe just anyone.”

~ Eric Nguyen, Things We Lost to the Water

In writing his debut novel, Nguyen, rather than relying on what he knew, as any writer would, opted to explore a subject that has long piqued his interest. His discovery of a thriving refugee community in New Orleans, sparked an inspiration for his debut novel. He was also driven by the desire to understand his parent’s history. He managed to capture all of it in Things We Lost to the Water. Its lyrical prose provided thought-provoking snapshots that transported the readers to the characters’ lives. With his keen observation, he captured the storms that the characters navigated. It magnified on their struggles to assimilate in their new country whilst preserving their ties to their old one. It also underscored similar themes such as racism, discrimination, and generational conflict. Despite the storms that nearly drowned them, the novel ended in a hopeful note. The novel’s structure, however, weighed down on the narrative. Nevertheless, Nguyen’s prose is one to look forward to.

Ratings

63%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 16%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

It was not my plan to read Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water. I have never heard of him; it was only through Twitter that I came across him. I often see his interactions with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. I eventually learned that this is largely because of his role as editor-in-chief of diaCRITICS.org of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN); Viet Thanh Nguyen was one-half of the founders of the DVAN. As the book was readily available, I told myself why not try it. After all, I have been captivated by the works of Vietnamese writers lately, from Viet Thanh Nguyen, to Ocean Vuong, to Nguyễn Phan Quế. I liked the premise of Things We Lost to the Water. It also contained a familiar element – the Vietnamese War – which were also covered by the three Vietnamese writers I have mentioned. It was also palpable that Eric Nguyen is gifted with the beauty of language, as his lyrical prose came across. It was, however, lamentable that I barely felt any connection with the characters. Nguyen magnifies on specific events in the characters’ lives but he barely expounded on how they reached these pivotal points in their lives. I would not have minded had the book been longer. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to read more of Eric Nguyen’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Eric Nguyen
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 289
Genre: Bildungsroman, LGBTQ Fiction

Synopsis

When Hương arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Công, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Công, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.

But with time, Hương realizes she will never see her husband again. While she copes with this loss, her sons, Tuấn and Bình grow up in their absent father’s shadow, haunted by a man and a country trapped in their memory and imagination. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Hương takes up with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new in town; Tuấn tries to connect with his heritage by joining a local Vietnamese gang; and Bình, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted homeland and his burgeoning sexuality. Their search for identity – as individuals and as a family – threatens to tear them apart. But then disaster strikes the city they now call home, and they must find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.

About the Author

Eric Nguyen is the son of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in Washington, D.C. Nguyen completed a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at the University of Maryland. He moved to Louisiana to complete his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the McNeese State University. Nguyen has been awarded literary fellowships from Lambda Literary, Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), and the Tin House Writers Workshop. He is the editor-in-chief of diaCRITICS.org, the artistic arm of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). In 2021, he published his debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water.

He currently resides in Washington, DC.