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The Unbound Book Festival comes to downtown Columbia each spring. They aim "to bring nationally and internationally recognized authors of world-class renown to Columbia, Missouri, to talk about their books, their work, and their lives."

Eric Nguyen on Things We Lost to the Water: ‘One doesn't become American or become Asian. I think it's kind of a mixture of both.’

Eric Nguyen is probably best known for his book, “Things We Lost to the Water,” in which he explores the lives of a Vietnamese refugee family in New Orleans.

He spoke with KBIA's Katie Quinn.

The Unbound Book Festival is coming up on Saturday, and KBIA has been talking to some of this year's authors in a series we're calling "Unbound Authors."

Katie Quinn: I wanted to talk today a lot about where your inspiration came from? And how you got started?

Eric Nguyen: So, my inspiration came from, I guess you could say – my own family. They have that history of being Vietnamese refugees, and the inspiration behind the book was trying to figure out what that history was exactly.

How it was to be a refugee in America and have been had to flee a country, which was hostile towards them.

Growing up, my parents didn't really talk about their experience. So, I found fiction as a way to kind of get into that mindset of what it was like to kind of be them.

And another part of my inspiration was really the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans.

I studied for my graduate degree in Lake Charles, which is like three hours away from New Orleans, and I traveled to New Orleans a whole lot.

It was through my travels that I found this really close knit, thriving community of Vietnamese Americans, and that kind of pushed my narrative forward when I was having writer's block.

Quinn: I would love it if you could dive a little bit deeper into this theme of identity because it is such a big part of the novel, you know, people grappling with “Am I American? Am I Vietnamese?” What does that look like?

Nguyen: Yeah, I think that's a question a lot of Asian Americans kind of have to work with – their Asian American identity versus their American identity.

Because for a lot of immigrants that culture is still with them, but they also have to contend with this new culture that they kind of need to learn in order to survive.

For my characters, it's something we have to deal with as new Americans, as new refugees, and it’s really a balancing act for most of them.

We have one character, who for part of the book kind of leans into his Vietnamese identity, and then his brother kind of moves away from it – leans more towards the American identity.

And I think there’s no – One doesn't become American or become Asian. I think it's, for them at the end, it's kind of a mixture of both.

And I hope, at the end, they kind of have this closure towards their identities.

Quinn: What's one thing you would want people to take away after reading your novel?

Nguyen: That the Vietnamese experience is kind of diverse, like I chose basically three very different characters to follow throughout the whole book, and their stories are really different from each other, but also different from what we would think about the Vietnamese American experience, the Asian American experience.

And I hope that readers come away knowing that there are multiple stories out there.

That our stories don't stop with, like my book, and that there are other stories out there waiting to be written and are being written right now.

We just have to listen really.

Katie Quinn works for Missouri Business Alert. She studied radio journalism and political science at the University of Missouri- Columbia, and previously worked at KBIA.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.