Guest written by Sujal Modi
For the month of September, I selected the book Things We Lost to the Novel. Written by Eric Nguyen, the book was featured on the list of books recommended for a summer read by President Barack Obama (keeping in line with the theme of September, a book recommended by a celebrity). The book is an account of a Vietnamese immigrant woman and her two young boys. who escape by boat to America and settle in New Orleans. Over three decades, we are witnesses to their experience in the Big Easy.
The book, a maiden effort by the author, dealt with several themes: the immigrant experience, single parents and their struggles, assimilation, homosexuality, and family heritage. I personally brought up how I was able to relate with the book, being a first-generation American and having two immigrant parents. The concept of “Starbucks” names and Binh’s transition to “Ben” was brought up in the discussion, bringing forth the struggle of many to assimilate to America while maintaining their identity. The integration of Vietnamese names and words in the text, while interesting, definitely made it a challenge for some to keep reading.
Another theme brought up in the discussion was teenage sexuality, a surprising element. We see Ben embracing his sexuality at a young age but not really being able to explore it further until he moves overseas to Paris. To be an immigrant and figuring out where one belongs is difficult, compounded by struggling to conform to heteronormative ideas of manliness.
For the book club discussion, what was liked universally was the theme of water, being itself the main character in the beginning and end of the book. Water is important for Vietnamese culture and also defines the identity of New Orleans- a love/hate relationship. We talked about how the interpolation of Huong’s experience with wanting to preserve what she built in the midst of Hurricane Katrina with what we remember watching on the news in 2005 when thousands were stranded, trying to be in a city that lost its being.
The hero of the book was undoubtedly Huong, who raised two kids by herself and built a life that was uniquely hers. Determined to preserve her Vietnamese heritage while realizing that she is not the docile wife she was back home in Vietnam. We discussed whether this book could be considered feminist, given that it was her who went in the boat, not her husband, and assuming the titular role of family leader.
The book started with the family leaving Vietnam on a boat and ends with Huong leaving New Orleans on a boat. Overall, the response was generally positive.