In his highly anticipated debut novel Things We Lost to the Water, Eric Nguyen masterfully crafts a 27-year-long struggle for a family of three Vietnamese refugees attempting to reconcile their new home with their personal identities.
Beginning with her relocation to New Orleans in 1978 following the Vietnam War, mother Hu’ong is left to care for her two sons, Tuan and Binh, alone in a new place. Her husband, Cong, stayed behind in Vietnam at the last second, and the opening of the novel deals with her struggle to understand why he didn’t come with the family. After the Communists had overtaken Vietnam, the plan was for them to escape together and start a new life away from the regimented living imposed by the Communist leaders. She begins to write him letters and send voice recordings to their old addresses in My Tho and Saigon, but the only response she ever receives is Cong asking her to no longer write to him. Faced with the brutal reality that the man she loves and the father of her children would not be returning, she begins to make him into a type of free-thinking patriarchy for her sons to follow. She goes as far as claiming Cong had died a hero so her sons would look up to the example of him she sets with reverence and not lose the Vietnamese identity she thought Cong held so dear.
However, she fails to understand Tuan and Binh are from a different generation. Tuan has only spotty memories of his time in Vietnam, while Binh was born in a refugee camp and has no memories of Vietnam at all. Nguyen handles this by successfully managing the perspectives of all three members of the family on a chapter-by-chapter basis, with each new chapter representing a specific moment in time that was meaningful to the personal development of one member of the family. Hu’ong’s understanding alone is not enough to account for the development of Tuan and Binh in relation to how they respond to the shadow of their father representing the Vietnam they left behind, so having each perspective helps the reader understand how the generations of Vietnamese refugees respond to their new homes as the distance between them and Vietnam becomes greater.
Beginning with Tuan, his weak link to Vietnam and his slight memories of his father leads him to desire a stronger Vietnamese identity. He joins a gang known as the Southern Force, made up of Vietnamese refugee youth that convince him they are the remnants and children of a Democratic force that survived the War and now fights to protect the Vietnamese diaspora. He later learns that there is no true Southern Force, and realizes these other teens have no more idea than he does what Vietnam was really like. However, this moral conviction becomes Tuan’s realization that it is not the near-militant, free-thinking identity Hu’ong at one point tried to teach him was the way to be Vietnamese. Instead, it matters more to be compassionate towards his family and his community regardless of the political surroundings.
Binh, meanwhile, is one of the first to give up his Vietnamese identity, which contrasts well with Tuan’s militant attitude early in their childhood. On page 76 of the novel, Tuan asserts that “[he] came from Vietnam. [He is] Vietnamese” while Binh decides he wants to go by the Anglicized “Ben.” When Tuan attempts to tell Ben their dad would disapprove, Ben responds with only “Dad’s dead,” a stunning dismissal of the patriarchal example Hu’ong had tried to create. This act shows just how far Ben had already drifted from his Vietnamese identity as defined by Hu’ong.
This is because Tuan and Ben are separated enough from Vietnam that Hu’ong’s definition of what it means to be Vietnamese is all they really have to base that part of their identity on. Her definition came from Cong, the husband she holds in such high regard, and his experience as a professor of literature when he told her the students in the Communist clubs were the most difficult to teach because they were set in their ways. She also saw how emaciated he was after being sent to a re-education camp, where he was tortured and trained to be a Communist educator. This taught Hu’ong to fear any form of organized thought, but what she did not understand is this fear did not need to extend to all people outside of her own identity.
However, Cong, far from dead, decided that he had already become so committed to his identity and place as an educator in Vietnam that he remained in the country willingly and married a Communist woman that contacted Hu’ong years later so she could attend Cong’s funeral after his actual death. Despite his hatred for Communism, he saw something in the people, in the challenge of educating them outside of this singular mindframe and remained. This same lesson came naturally to Tuan, who after his adolescence became more supportive of his family despite the distance between Hu’ong and his ideas about what their identity should be.
One of the best parts of Nguyen’s writing is his awareness that to create an identity based on her new home and national identity, Hu’ong would have to be hypocritical as she tries to cling onto one ideology of who she could be. She first alienates Ben by not allowing him to explore Catholicism because of her fear of it as an organized ideology. That freedom-based ideology she is clinging to is the exact type of identity-labeling she has been trying so hard to avoid, but Nguyen has complicated her character beautifully so that she can be dealing with both sides of the issue in trying to reclaim a nationally-based identity while avoiding an old one that ruined the life she used to know.
Ben’s struggles here are also immense in part because of Hu’ong’s hypocrisy. In trying to create her new identity, she finds Vinh, a new man that she loves enough to look past his Catholicism. Meanwhile, Ben begins to struggle with his sexuality, and after coming out to his Catholic friend Addy and being rejected by her, realizes he cannot come out to Vinh or Hu’ong because Hu’ong has allowed an ideology she used to be vehemently against into her home. Nguyen allows for this messiness on purpose: the book is meant to be purely realistic and does not have the best possible outcome at all points. The characters have conflicting motivations and outcomes because, as the title suggests, they are stuck on a foundation of water: literally, as they crossed the sea from Vietnam to their new home, sitting on a bayou filled with old mementos and trash from life in Vietnam, and figuratively as they collectively figure out who they are and find a new home to place their roots. The one time Hu’ong does allow her near-militant nature to slip, it is at a disadvantage to her son, leading to a falling out between them that lasts for years.
This is also a key reason why Nguyen places the novel in New Orleans. Throughout the novel, the reader is aware of what’s coming next: Hurricane Katrina, which promises to again destroy what the refugee community has established. However, the novel ends as the water rises and Hu’ong gets in a helicopter for evacuation. Ben is in Paris, having fallen in with Communistic anarchists; Tuan is in a relationship with the Addy that rejected Ben in a safe part of the city, and despite the distance between them they feel more connected because they are no longer fully tied to place. They are instead tied to who they are and who they want to become, with both their Vietnamese and American roots intertwining. This realization allows Hu’ong, despite her destroyed home, to finally realize she “knows exactly where she is now.”
Nguyen has prowess in character-building and a passion for the place about which he is writing. He has already shown a great understanding of the tradition of Southern literature and built upon it well with this novel and its conclusions diverging from identity being dependent on place—and instead derivative from place and dependent on personhood.