How writing ‘Things We Lost to the Water’ helped author Eric Nguyen find himself

"Things We Lost to the Water" by Eric Nguyen; Alfred A. Knopf (304 pages, $26.95). (Penguin Random House/TNS)Penguin Random House / MCT

(Philadelphia Inquirer): Writing what you know is one way to tackle your first novel, but it wasn’t Eric Nguyen’s way. When he started working on Things We Lost to the Water (Knopf, $26.95), Nguyen was a lot more interested in writing about the things he didn’t know and the things he wanted to know better.

He wanted to explore the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, a city the Maryland native came to love when he attended McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. He wanted to imagine what it would be like for the Americanized son of Vietnamese refugees to visit the faraway country that shaped his childhood.

But more than anything, Nguyen wanted to explore what his parents’ life in Vietnam might have been like before they fled the country in the late 1970s. And he wanted to understand why they left.

He didn’t live the lives of his characters, but writing Things We Lost to the Water helped him learn from them.

He’s still learning from them.

“I think the main question I had going in and not knowing anything about the Vietnamese refugee experience was why someone would leave a country and leave everything behind to build a life in a place you know nothing about. That was my parents’ predicament,” the 33-year-old Nguyen said from his home in Washington.

“Growing up, I didn’t understand it. But through writing this, I had an understanding of the danger of living in Vietnam after the war and what my parents stood to lose if they stayed there. I have always respected them, but this gave me more perspective on what they have been through and the decisions they had to make.”

Things We Lost to the Water tells the story of Huong, a young woman who leaves Vietnam on a boat in the tumultuous year of 1978. She arrives in New Orleans with a young son in tow and a baby on the way. She also arrives as a single parent, because at the last minute, her husband stayed behind. It will be many, many years before she finds out why.

The book follows Huong and her sons, Tuan and Binh, through the next 27 years as they try to make a new life in this new world with the ghost Cong, the missing husband and father, always there in the shadows. Along the way, secrets are buried and then unearthed. Bonds break down and reshape themselves. And when the family struggles to survive Hurricane Katrina, we are reminded of the many ways life gives and life takes away.

Nguyen started writing Things We Lost to the Water while he was working on his MFA at McNeese, but the roots stretch back to his childhood in the suburbs of Washington, where his parents spent most of their careers working in hair salons. There wasn’t much in the way of a Vietnamese community in those suburbs, and since his parents weren’t inclined to talk about their lives or their culture, there wasn’t a Vietnamese community at home, either.

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