First-time novelists have long dreamed of landing on Oprah Winfrey’s book club list. There’s another list to dream about — President Obama’s. That’s where Eric Nguyen’s well-reviewed debut, “Things We Lost to Water,” the story of a Vietnamese family trying to make a new life in New Orleans, landed in 2021. Nguyen earned his MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University in Louisiana. He is the editor in chief of diaCRITICS.org and lives in Washington, D.C.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
NGUYEN: “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek, which is basically a satire of World War I. Think of it as the “Catch 22″ of WW 1. I have a soft spot for Czechoslovakian literature.
BOOKS: How long have you had that?
NGUYEN: Probably for a couple of years. I think it started with reading Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His work excited me in a way I hadn’t seen before and that led me to Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima. I fell in love with the energy of these books and the politics they explore so well. I stumbled upon one book and then another. That’s how reading works.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
NGUYEN: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. That’s a different point of view of the Vietnamese War. Other writers focused on the immigrant aspect of the aftermath of the war. “The Sympathizer” went head on into the politics of it.
BOOKS: What books about the Vietnamese War have been influential for you?
NGUYEN: One is “Monkey Bridge” by Lan Cao. Her story is very different from post-1975 refugees, and that gave me more insight into the downfall of Saigon. Another book that was influential was “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” by Bich Minh Nguyen, a memoir about coming from Vietnam and settling in Michigan.
BOOKS: When did you first read Vietnamese American authors?
NGUYEN: Growing up I didn’t read any. As a freshman in college, I took a course in Asian American studies where we were assigned “Monkey Bridge.” From that point forward, I was always on the lookout for books by Vietnamese American authors. There were only three or four books from major publishers that you could get your hands on. Within the last couple of years we’ve seen a boom in Vietnamese American authors from big publishing houses. It’s a good time for Vietnamese American literature.
BOOKS: What classics did you read in college that stuck with you?
NGUYEN: I studied sociology so in grad school I felt like I was catching up. The works that spoke to me in particular were Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Chekhov’s short stories because of their psychological insight into the characters. There’s less of that in Chekhov’s stories but he really gets to his characters and does it in such a small space.
BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction now?
NGUYEN: I feel like as a reader one should be open-minded to types of books one hasn’t read before. I look for a challenge in fiction.
BOOKS: Do you prefer long novels in that case?
NGUYEN: I don’t really care because I feel like smaller books can have the same challenges of a longer book. I’m thinking of “Dictee” by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. That book is ripe for a reread because there are so many things I could miss reading it the first time around. The same goes for John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor,” a super-long book, which deals with American mythology, colonialism, and meta-fiction. I might not get everything the first time. It’s not the size. It’s the content.
BOOKS: What was your last challenging read?
NGUYEN: “Fantasy” by Kim-Anh Schreiber, a mixture of film criticism, drama, memoir, and fiction. She uses a blend of forms to explore her Vietnamese and German background. It was challenging but for me it was gratifying to see what the author did. I read it twice. But it’s not a book that I would recommend to everyone.
BOOKS: Have you ever met your match in a book?
NGUYEN: I don’t think so. I push through it and get through it. I feel like at the end of it I’ll get a better grasp of the book or better understand myself as a reader, what I like and don’t like. It’s wise to read widely.