Interview: Eric Nguyen
Memories Have No Expiration Date
Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water ruminates on the constant disruptive sounds of waves regardless of which shore we land on, and on how the past echoes.
“New Orleans is at war” is the opening line of Eric Nguyen’s debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water (May, 2021), which also begins the constant refrains alluding to water, war, and survival. The rhythmic, sometimes erratic, movements framed throughout the story speak to how Hương and her two sons, Tuấn and Bình/Ben, tirelessly move from one place to another, between precarious spaces that encapsulate fear, insecurity, and shaken optimism. Their movements are further compelled by their thoughts as unforgotten memories of the past seep into the present, impacting each of their individual journeys. Each year chronicled captures the undying temporality of ghosts and how each character simultaneously moves forward only to return back to memories rooted elsewhere, creating more conflicts, external and internal, and familial fragmentation. As these complex negotiations and doubts unravel, Hương sees how her life drastically differs from Tuấn and Bình/Ben as they each seek to form their own present identities while returning to the past.
Nguyen explores the nuances of a Vietnamese immigrant family through tender characterizations and relevant cultural and sociopolitical commentary. With poetically affecting beats, Nguyen reminds us that moving forward doesn’t signify the need to forget the past. Both are intimately entangled; we move on to remember.
I communicated with Nguyen over email about resilience, ghostly imprints left behind only to be recovered, Asians telling stories of the American South, and the possibilities of subverting the expectations on how to use language in mainstream American writing.
—Kathy Ngoc Nguyen
Kathy Ngoc Nguyen: Things We Lost to the Water begins in August 1979 and immediately opens with a frantic line: “New Orleans is at war. The long howl in the sky; what else can it mean?” This sets the tone of past and recent calamities that permeate the novel. War has no clear denouement. Hương’s memories of post–May 1975 are poignant, with her remembering the mandated curfews and the Công’s reeducation. The section was brief but fraught with emotional and political turmoil. Why begin Hương’s story three to four years after the war? Was it to mark a transitional period, oscillating between the country and citizens that marked the reeducation period?
Eric Nguyen: I wanted to begin a few years after the war, specifically in a place that was not Vietnam, to show the way memories of war and its aftermath are always present. Hương is in a transitional period but war is always on her mind in some form, which is why she mistakes a hurricane alarm for signs of war and then acts quickly. In that way, the war never really ended. It can be put on the back burner, but I wanted to show that having lived through that kind of trauma affects you, and in the case of Hương, she becomes this person who is ready for whatever life throws her way. I think I see that in a lot of people my parents’ age and that trait is something people of the next generation inherit—a kind of paranoia but also a readiness to leave things behind.
KNN: After the ending of Part One, the narrative shifts back to 1978 and moves to 1984 and progresses onwards until 2005, about twenty-six years in between. What drew you into this specific chronology, skipping between a few years and focusing on specific years? Were there any constraints about writing such a long chronology/history and having to condense it?
EN: From a structural standpoint, I think starting the story in 1979 but then jumping back to 1978, where the narrative is pretty much straightforward, really makes the reader have to think back, if not to that first chapter, to the way things in the past can always haunt the present. Or that’s what I hope! A teacher of mine, the wonderful M. Evelina Galang, says that each book teaches the reader how to read it, and I think having that starting place, even if only for a short chapter, tells the reader that this is the type of book where, though the characters move forward, the specter of the past is always there.
As for the way the book jumps through time, I thought of all the main characters as these growing entities and my job as a writer was to highlight the moments in their lives that were meaningful in some way. So I imagine them living their own lives and me zooming in on specific points and showing that to the audience. The constraint of writing like this is that we are sometimes skipping ahead a lot of years. The challenge, then, is to make sure to address those changes while not losing the present of that particular chapter.
Another challenge of writing about such a long period of time is to make sure your characters are consistent somehow, that they are them. This was kind of a joy to me—to get to know my characters and understand them, saying to myself something like “Yes, they are the kind of person that would do that” or “No, let’s delete that scene because they would never do that!”
KNN: I haven’t read a lot of Vietnamese stories where the central narrative setting takes place in the South. There’s a strong sense of place and the passage of time in Versailles. What are some untold/unknown histories about Vietnamese refugees who resettled in New Orleans that you wanted to accentuate in this story?
EN: I think the thing about living in New Orleans East, where a lot of the Vietnamese in New Orleans live, is that people there share this feeling of being forgotten by the city even though they’re within city lines. After Katrina, for instance, the city wanted to dump the debris from the storm in New Orleans East and the people there, including the Vietnamese, were having none of that.
With that in mind, I wanted this story to remind people or bring to their attention that yes, Vietnamese people live in New Orleans, that this is their home and they have as much right to be there as anyone else. I wanted to show that Vietnamese people—and Asian people—are part of the South. I feel this is often forgotten when we talk about what the American South means. We don’t think of it as a racially diverse place, but it is.
KNN: The constant reference to moving waters makes your writing viscerally imagistic. One of my favorite passages/images, among many, is from Tuấn’s perspective/memory:
He remembered the boat they left Vietnam on and the water they sailed through. The water in New Orleans acted differently. Out on the shores of Vietnam and beyond, the water had been violent, shaking anything that lay atop it. But here, the water didn’t move, it stayed still, lazy. In the distance ducks floated without a single care in the world like they were on vacation.
The symbolism of water is personal to several Vietnamese writers. They often use it to describe their refugee and diasporic experiences. The unpredictable nature of the waters’ movement is concurrent with the memories of the family leaving Việt Nam and Hurricane Katrina. Both Hương and Tuấn relive those memories during Katrina. How does water, a source of survival, also become the element that emotionally and physically devastates Hương, Tuấn, and Bình/Ben throughout the story, which is something that your title lyrically, or perhaps even directly, alludes to?
EN: I think Vietnamese people have a special connection to water. The Vietnamese word for water is nước and that is also the word for country. For people who left after the war by sea, water also has this duality: water meant escape from an oppressive regime, but it also meant death because many people died in their attempts to escape.
For Louisianans, like my characters, water has that double meaning as well: so much of the state is dependent on the water for food (like crawfish, oysters, and crabs) and jobs, but the state is also at water’s mercy with the threat of hurricanes and erosion.
So that symbolism of water just intensifies for Hương, Tuấn, and Bình/Ben. They know there’s a lot to be grateful for but they also know that they are on the edge of disaster—not just with their environment (especially because they live right next to a bayou), but within their family unit as well: they survive together as a family, but it’s unshared family narratives, a missing father, and expectations of what family means that threaten the dynamics between them.
KNN: If I can ask this: I love that while Bình/Ben and Hương are temporarily estranged, Hurricane Katrina reconnected them. Even Hương recognizes that the water “wasn’t that bad?” Can you speak more about that revelation and what it symbolizes? Is it reiterating the haunting, lasting impacts of surviving the war and waters? Why end the story with the phone call, especially during the hurricane?
EN: I hope to leave it on some note of hope. The Vietnamese community in New Orleans is very resilient. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, many stayed and fought back against the city about the debris from the storm. That in itself gave birth to a local nonprofit—VAYLA—an intersectional organization that works for social justice and community development. Which is all to say that I think a character like Hương is resilient as well. Through her experiences, she’s developed a strength that no one can take away from her and I think I can say that about a lot of Vietnamese Americans.
As for the phone call at the end, I think it was important that the characters reconnect again after disaster for the sake of closing the story. But also, I was thinking of phone calls from far away as something Vietnamese. Now, I know that’s kind of preposterous, but I just remember when lines of communications between the US and Vietnam were open again and my parents would sit down at the dining room table once a month and make calls to Vietnam with a prepaid card. It was this planned thing, a ritual, something that didn’t happen in other households, I was sure. I was thinking how that ritual is in itself born out of this particular trauma of leaving a place during a disaster and leaving people behind who can’t possibly come with you. So these long-distance calls have a heavy meaning to them.
In a way, then, I see that last phone call in the novel as an extension of that—of connecting over some technological medium because you can’t possibly be together. To say nothing of how leaving a loved one behind, in general, necessitates long-distance communication (I’m thinking, for instance, of the letters at the beginning of the novel). In short, I think the answer here is that it was a nod to the way refugees and immigrants communicate, but in a different context.
KNN: Shadows and ghosts of the past are alluded to throughout. Công’s death is tangible; his absence propels the plot yet stagnates the characters in the sense that none of them could forge ahead. Several Vietnamese stories frame postwar absences. Did you want to approach these losses/absences differently?
EN: I don’t know how differently I framed absences, but throughout the writing of this, something I wanted to get at was this “hauntedness” of history—that is, how history haunts us, how it’s in many ways a ghost and I think that metaphor found a perfect form in Công who is not there yet still is at the same time and who represents an entire life and way of life in Vietnam that can no longer be seen. But his absence makes the novel’s main characters behave in a different way—to either forget him or try to reveal or regain or remember him in some way.
In one chapter, I have Hương asking Tuấn rhetorically, “You’ve been chasing ghosts again?” He answers he doesn’t believe in ghosts. But I think, on some level, all of the characters believe in the ghost of their shared trauma.
KNN: There’s often this palpable intergenerational divide in Asian American stories. You approached this thoughtfully and differently to me; it’s not quite about the difference between generational political ideologies. Sometimes it’s just the stories we grew up with or inherited. Công is this precarious figure who is simultaneously dead and alive, with Hương ultimately telling her sons that he’s dead. This lie causes the climatic rift between Ben and Hương. Was this a metaphor or narrative commentary for something larger?
EN: I don’t think I made a commentary of this rift consciously. But I can say that I kind of wanted to explore the ways Vietnamese Americans of different generations viewed historic memory and I tried to represent that in some way with the three main characters. Hương has this memory of the historic trauma and Tuấn has some memory but he’s really just trying to survive his new life. Meanwhile, Bình/Ben is this other generation who sees himself as simply American with nothing gained or lost from the memory of war, and in that way, his mind is a blank slate. So I was thinking about how those three different types of experiences affect the way people go about in the world and how they might cause friction with those who are different from them. For instance, how would someone who went through war feel about someone not really caring about it because they don’t have that intimate connection? I guess, in a way, that is very much what the Vietnamese American community will have to deal with as elders die and we move further and further away from the war: what happens to that memory and its weight? And who will remember?
KNN: When reading your novel, I interpreted your prose as a form or mode to recover what’s lost. This is shown through alternative perspectives: Hương and her two sons, Tuấn and Bình/Ben. Hương attempts to slowly recover from the complexities of postwar life as she resettles with her sons and protects them; Tuấn recovers his own identity by trying to reconnect with his Vietnamese roots, and by the end, he returns to Việt Nam and recovers his possibilities of his own future; Bình/Ben, who was too young to remember his father, attempts to recover those memories of his father by moving to France. Moving forward, what does the path of recovery look like? And more broadly, how do we get there? Do other characters like Vinh or Công move towards this recovery? Since there’s a strong positioning, even fragmented sense, of time in your writing, did you intend to show the progression of time through the characters’ recovery of what they lost?
And can you speak about moving towards and writing more about recovery in Asian American literature, especially with the reemergence of anti-Asian rhetoric?
EN: The path towards recovery is different for everyone, and I feel that it’s partially generational as well, in terms of one’s relationship to trauma. So I think each of the three main characters does represent paths at recovering from the trauma of war and migration. Though each character does so in his or her own way, I think broadly speaking, we can define recovery in this context as a way to keep our memories with us, to remember its importance, but to also find a way to move forward, to build from those memories. For Hương, it might mean letting go of her sons, who look so much like her husband, and letting them grow up. For Tuấn, it might mean going back to his roots. For Bình/Ben, it might be getting inspired by the past and using that inspiration to find another life, something dramatically different. In all cases, I think there is some remembering and some moving on. In that sense, Vinh or Công do move toward recovery and perhaps even more so than the three main characters, in that they have totally new lives.
So using this framework, what does it mean with the reemergence of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence? I don’t know. But perhaps memory has something to do with it. As a larger Asian American community, we have to remember that this anti-Asian rhetoric is nothing new. I think we might have to look back at the work of early Asian American activists to see how they recovered from violence and use that as a source of inspiration. Or else, we must remember the victims of anti-Asian violence, remember that they are not just some statistic but people with their own stories. And from there, some kind of inspiration to move forward toward healing.
KNN: Speaking of finding and reclaiming identities, I thought how Tuấn’s and Ben’s respective identity journeys are poignant and understandably messy during the process. Tuấn joins a Vietnamese gang to feel that sense of cultural belonging, while Ben starts understanding his own sexuality. A lot of parallels, and yet Tuấn’s and Ben’s individual journeys never collide with each other; though Ben and Hương knew Tuấn was hanging out with friends, they never fully understood he was a member of a gang, and Ben didn’t come out to his family. Their journeys and navigations seemed disparate. Was this intentional?
EN: I think I intentionally made their journeys so different from one another because they are such different people in terms of identity. For Ben’s journey, I think I wanted to make it a little bit messier. I was thinking about how “messy” queer experiences are, how it goes against the expectations of society and how also that narrative of being queer can be different for everyone. So, in that sense, I avoided a coming-out story, because I felt that story, in addition to being over-told, kind of necessitates this neat ending of some sort—that you are out and that’s all there is to being queer. As a straight man, Tuấn could never experience that. But he also experiences other specific things that his brother could not: coming into his straight masculinity, having a Vietnamese accent, being tied more strongly to his Vietnamese roots. Given such differences, I think it made sense that they go through their journeys a bit alone—because no one else would have really understood them.
KNN: You codeswitched so seamlessly, showing how people can bridge two languages with one tongue without having to fully translate, opting for contextual clues.
“Trời ơi,” said Thảo. “Hôi quá. Smoke outside, y’all. How many times have I told you?”
I just love this; no italics used to reinforce that Vietnamese is the other language, no explanations or translations. It’s direct.
Was there any initial resistance in including Vietnamese in your novel? Or was there any pressure to not include Vietnamese or to include a translation within the sentence? A lot of people living in the United States and elsewhere are bilingual or multilingual. I’ve read a few comments and critiques about how writers using their native language or including phrases or words in another language can make a reader feel less immersed in the story because it feels foreign to them. These comments center on the dominant familiarity and comfort of wanting to see and read English without having to read subtitles, so to speak, and yet it’s totally fine and normal to see French phrases in novels. Did you use language to subvert these dominant expectations? How do you see language as a way to make craft more inclusive?
EN: It was M. Evelina Galang who told me to never italicize my Vietnamese words, to never make them seem other/ed. People have the context after all, and there is Google if they want to confirm their suspicions. I think writing the Vietnamese so confidently without italicizing the words made it hard for people to argue against it. I don’t think my use of language is particularly subversive, but I think it’s part of a larger trend of multilingual writers of color who are unapologetic in their writing as well as editors who understand the importance of codeswitching in books. However, I do see the use of language as a way to make craft more inclusive. I feel it signals to readers who speak or read the other language that this book is for them and that they too can write a book or tell their story. And I think like any writer of color, I hope there are even more writers who look like us in the future.
ERIC NGUYEN has an MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University. He is the editor in chief of diaCRITICS.
KATHY NGOC NGUYEN is a doctoral candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. She is a short fiction section co-editor at CRAFT.