“The last war was on a different shore, with different people, in a different country, and there’s no going back, back to that life. She realizes this now, but that doesn’t make it ache any less. In fact, the ache grows. It grows into two boys, and the two boys grow into two sons, and those two sons grow to look like their father, uncannily like their father in their moods, their movements, their voices, so that it’s always like she’s losing him again — to the world, to life, to fate.”
It’s not a secret that the United States suffers from historical amnesia, or the ability to ignore or forget ugly aspects of its past, whether it be out of shame, pride, or fear.
But of all the events Americans have forgotten (or refuse to remember), the Vietnam War particularly stings. Like in the 1953 Iranian Coup and the 1973 Chilean Coup, the U.S. had a direct hand in exacerbating the Vietnam War for its own political interests and is responsible for countless atrocities that occurred. What sets the Vietnam War apart from other U.S.-backed regime changes is that it also led to one of the worst refugee crises in modern world history, in which more than 3 million people undertook the dangerous journey of leaving their homes by boat, fleeing mass violence and ethnic cleansing. In total, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea during the Indochina Refugee Crisis.
That’s a lot of blood on a country’s hands to forget.
In THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER, Eric Nguyen refuses to contribute to this amnesia. He chooses instead to contend with the unpleasant truths about the complicated relationship many Vietnamese Americans have with the U.S., as well as what life in America was like for those who resettled here. By following several generations of an immigrant Vietnamese family who lands in New Orleans in 1979 and the different ways they experience America, Nguyen reminds us that the pain of the war is fresh, the wound still scabbed over, not yet fully healed. Even when the U.S. is able to be honest about the war and the role we played in changing the lives of millions in Southeast Asia, the trauma will still fade into a permanent scar. They are here because we were there.
A big thank you to Knopf for sending me a finished copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review!
Although THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER has been anticipated as a Hurricane Katrina story, it’s much more of a family drama with Katrina acting as more of an end note to our main characters’ narratives, rather than a central event in the book. I mention this because I expected this to be an addition to the Katrina canon, as an exploration of the different groups of people who were affected by the disaster; in actuality, the hurricane only hits in the last 5%-or-so of the book, meaning that for most of the story, we’re following other key events and moments in our characters’ lives.
Hương, the family’s matriarch, is weighed down by the responsibility to provide for and protect her sons in a foreign country — a burden she bears alone, after her husband, Công, is left behind in Vietnam. Even as she struggles to learn to speak English, find work, and adjust to life in New Orleans, she thinks of Công and the life they shared together constantly. He is a ghost who haunts her.
Tuấn, Hương and Công’s eldest son, tries to carve out a space for himself in America by sticking with other Vietnamese diaspora kids who are unapologetically proud of their mother country and roots, clinging to the traditions and culture they can barely remember. They find community and family in their gang, the Southern Boyz.
Bình, the youngest son, on the other hand, runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, throwing himself into the task of assimilating as fully to American culture as he can — he goes by Ben instead of Bình, reads constantly, and explores his gay identity with white boys.
The experience of being a child refugee, immigrant, or even American-born member of a diaspora group can be disorienting and strange — no space is made for you in this country; you alone are responsible for making this place a home you can live in. When it comes to this struggle, Tuấn and Bình/Ben do a wonderful job of portraying two, opposite ends of the spectrum that countless diaspora adolescents traverse, with all the complications that come with both.
For those of us like Tuấn, turning further toward your culture is a defense mechanism, a shield. By reclaiming the histories and language and food and clothing and physical features that others try to mock us for, we take that power to hurt us away — or at least, we try our best to. By claiming these things, choosing them for ourselves rather than being assigned them, we are able to protect ourselves from feeling shame.
But unfortunately, being a diaspora kid isn’t that easy. Being moved or born to a country thousands of miles away from the one where your family — your people — had always lived is a unique and relatively modern experience. Historically, people created communities based on common ground, whether it be a shared language, dishes created from scraps due to famine or war or poverty that become staples of your diet, or hardships you collectively face and thus collectively battle. This is what it means to have a culture.
To be a diaspora kid is to be amputated from this sameness, flung far away to be among people who don’t look like you, or speak like you, or eat like you, or have suffered like you and your family have. And simultaneously, and often crushingly, you’re not the same as the people who stayed in your homeland, either. By living somewhere else, you don’t have the same physical connection to your homeland as the people who live there do; you don’t get to experience the same cultural constraints or expectations or joys abroad, but rather replications of them that other diaspora members work hard to preserve; you don’t suffer in the same ways, and you often don’t thrive in the same ways. As a diaspora kid, it can be tricky to manage feelings of ownership and belonging that coincide with feelings of exclusion, and the sense that you lack cultural and historical authority — because no matter how hard you try, even if you were there once, you’re not there anymore.
Tuấn reckons with this balancing act throughout the book; in one scene, he thinks:
“Tuấn doubts it. He’s beginning to doubt everything Sang and Quang and even Thảo say. They all came to America as kids and spent more time in New Orleans than Saigon. How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back. Maybe they were fighting that, he thought, then he wondered what the point of fighting it was.”
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Bình/Ben, who doesn’t feel very Vietnamese and does his best to be as “American” as possible — he “Americanizes” his name, can’t speak Vietnamese (and feels shame when he hears his brother’s and mother’s accents), and is resentful when he’s denied “normal” American experiences. These experiences are just as valid as Tuấn’s, and they ring true for many fellow diaspora kids, especially those who were born abroad or weren’t able to travel back to their homeland in childhood.
And like Tuấn’s, these experiences are born from shame — the shame of experiencing racism make some want to fling their culture and ethnic background as far away from them as they possibly can, thinking of it like something dirty, like something that could contaminate them in the eyes of their peers. For someone like Bình/Ben, whose sexuality only further otherizes him and causes people to turn from him, this cultural rejection is yet another survival mechanism, another means of protecting himself. Nguyen’s ability to reckon with these complex emotions and experiences is remarkable, forgiving, and empathetic, making THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER one of the most authentic stories about the immigrant and diaspora experience I’ve read.
This authenticity is because THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER is serious about exploring the complicated relationships that Asian refugees and immigrants have with the U.S., their adopted homeland.
In one scene, a 9-year-old girl, Trúc, says something so mature that she was almost definitely told it by an adult, but the sentiment still rings true for many:
“The Americans made you do that,” Trúc said. “They took your home. They made you get on that boat. And now your mom cooks their meals, your dad cleans their houses, even if he used to be top boss, and they both come home smelly. The Americans are the reason for everything bad that has ever happened. Do you understand?”
This statement is clearly not fact (no one can argue that “The Americans are the reason for everything bad that has ever happened” is objectively true), but the feeling behind it is an honest one. Many Asian refugees and immigrants feel a constant sense of obligation toward the U.S., to be grateful that our visas were accepted, that they “took a chance” on us, to keep our heads down and work hard and be quietly glad for what we have. Reports of racism, other forms of discrimination, and harassment are often met with comments like, “If you don’t like it here, then just go back to where you came from.”
Many members of Asian diaspora groups resent being told they are indebted because the truth is that many Asian immigrants are in the U.S. because they fled conflicts and conditions that were, at the very least, significantly worsened by American involvement. The U.S. entered the conflict in Vietnam not because it cared about Vietnamese people, but because the country became a proxy war in America’s own Cold War with the Soviet Union. Vietnam, like my own homeland, Korea, was ripped apart by Americans — yes, the original conflict preceded American involvement (as it did in Korea), but it was the U.S. and its allies that dropped more than 7.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, double the amount dropped on all of Europe and Asia during World War II. It was the U.S. that slaughtered over 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre, with women and girls also experiencing sexual violence.
Asian people have reason to be resentful, to understand that the U.S. is far from being a benevolent savior, to struggle with the knowledge that, if it were not for America, they might have been able to stay in their homes instead of escaping by boat. Again, we are here because you were there. Nguyen allows these Vietnamese voices to speak, putting words to real grievances that deserve to be heard.
Grappling with this resentment, as well as complications with identity and assimilation and how many immigrant families struggle to remain physically and emotionally connected with each other, are things that THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER does beautifully.
Unfortunately, this book does suffer from significant pacing issues. Its story stretches out a lot in the middle, feeling almost idle, and rushes fast toward its conclusion — Hurricane Katrina lands in New Orleans only in the last 5% of the book, meaning that it does little to advance the plot or our characters’ narrative arcs.
Despite the middle of this book feeling very long, I also felt that we weren’t able to spend enough time with any of the characters as they created new lives for themselves. Maybe it’s me being biased as a fellow diaspora kid, but I wanted to read more about Tuấn and Bình/Ben. THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER concludes just as the brothers have reached new, significant milestones in their lives, and I would’ve liked more time to observe how they began settling into themselves, as well as how their relationship and their relationships with Hương developed over time.
Additionally, while Nguyen’s writing is absolutely beautiful — “The city is like a bathtub. The winds are the hands of a housewife. The water a mixture of tap and cleaning detergent. The housewife scrubs and scrubs. She is sure not to miss a spot. She wants to make sure no one forgets her name when she is gone and how good a housewife she was. She is bitter.” — it also makes its story unfold like a stack of photographs. With each character perspective, we get to check in with our cast and observe new snapshots of their lives, but we don’t get to watch how they travel from Point A to Point B. We don’t get to watch the process of getting there, or conversations between family members, or even see how conflict between family members gets resolved. We don’t see how Tuấn handles and moves on from a certain realization he has, or how Bình/Ben and Hương begin speaking again after a big fight. We’re simply shown the next photo, left to fill in the gaps between the present and the past with our own imaginations.
I think these pacing problems contributed to the lack of emotional intimacy I felt with any of the characters. I wasn’t able to feel or believe the depth of most of the relationships in this book because we weren’t able to see them unfold. Because we don’t get to watch Hương, Tuấn, and Bình/Ben in action as a family, it’s hard to believe that they really are one, as truly invested in each other and affected by each other as most families are. They all feel like separate, independent units, which would have worked for me if we had sometimes gotten to see how they come together — but unfortunately, we didn’t. (Then again, I tend to prefer a heaping dose of emotional vulnerability and intimacy in my family epics, so maybe this won’t be as big of an issue for other readers!)
Ultimately, THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER was gorgeously written, with many storylines and ideas that land, and some that don’t. Nguyen explores many of the nuances of wartime and immigrant experiences with such care, resulting in a genuine, much-needed addition to the Asian American canon.