I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how they spend the day.
August 1, 2022: Eric Nguyen
Eric Nguyen’s debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, is the story of a Vietnamese mother and her two sons, who flee Saigon after the war and land in New Orleans. It drew me in from its first words.
New Orleans is at war. The long howl in the sky; what else can it mean?
The novel opens in scene, in Hương’s head. She’s twenty-six, and she’s been in New Orleans for a year. We learn on the next page that the loud noise is a hurricane alarm.
In the next chapter (also the next Part), we dip back into the past of 1978, when the family first arrived in New Orleans. Tuấn is four years old, and Bình is an infant. After this one look back, each chapter moves us forward.
The novel spans twenty-seven years–from 1978 until August of 2005. The writing is beautiful, and the story, compelling. I loved it. And I agree with Bryan Washington in his New York Times review, “Nguyen’s narrative strikes a very elusive balance: vast in scale and ambition, while luscious and inviting–enchanting, really–in its intimacy.”
Look at the beautiful five-part structure of the book.
I August 1979
III August 1994
V August 2005
The Vietnamese word for water is nước, which is also the word for country. We know from the beginning that Công, the husband and father, is not with the family, that at least, when the story begins, he is one of the things lost to the water.
From a linguistic standpoint, the novel is a delight as the different characters slip into a Vietnamese word here and there–which makes the language of the novel fluid, a perfect echo of the story of this family, the water metaphors, and the title of the book. It’s actually the way Eric grew up. His parents spoke Vietnamese to him, and he spoke Viet-English to them.
Tuấn, the older son, was old enough when they left Vietnam to have memories of the country and to need to make sense of where he is now. This disorientation is captured in these thoughts below.
“I am in another country,” he often whispered to himself to feel the heaviness of the words fall out. “Out there, far far away,” he would go on but only in his head, “is a large piece of land called Vietnam with different people, different trees, different houses, and that is where cha is and he cannot just walk out of it. Vietnam is not like a room…
As a five-year-old, if the word American is mentioned to him, Tuấn would shout that he was not an American, that he was from Vietnam. His mother would say, “My boy.”
He’d blush. His whole body would feel warm and loved. It almost felt like home, or a type of home.
In contrast, the younger son, Binh, was not born until after they left Vietnam. At the age of six, he changes his name to Ben–to make things easier.
When Tuấn is ten, he remembers playing hide-and-seek and being unable to find his father.
Sadness was not the feeling that came over him. It was something else entirely, something heavier, darker. He felt as if he had lost something and that he would never get it back.
Eric Nguyen earned an MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University in Louisiana. He’s been awarded fellowships from Lambda Literary, Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), and the Tin House Writers Workshop. He’s the editor in chief of diaCRITICS. In an article in Poets & Writers (July August 2021) Eric wrote,
[I]n the United States, the word Vietnam is synonymous with the war, and that narrative is mostly centered on the American experience of it. This novel–and especially my work with diaCRITICS–is reclaiming that experience of war but also the idea of “Vietnam” in general because Vietnam is not a war, but a country and a culture that has found its way around the world.
Eric lives in Washington, DC. Things We Lost to the Water was the winner of the Crook’s Corner Book Prize for the best debut novel set in the American South.
Come back on AUGUST 1st to read how ERIC NGUYEN spends his days.