Cultural psychiatrist Elizabeth Nguyen covers themes of mental illness, the immigrant experience and coming of age in her debut novel, Aloha Vietnam (The Unbound Press, 2022).
Nguyen, grew up in Hawaii and is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. She did her medical residency at UC Davis with a concentration on cultural psychiatry, which takes into account a patient’s cultural background and how it influences how they see the world and how they experience their mental health.
In fact, she said she was drawn to UC Davis for its expertise in cultural psychiatry.
“I really credit my development as a cultural psychiatrist to the mentorship and experiences I had at UC Davis,” Nguyen said.
She even wrote scenes from UC Davis in Aloha Vietnam, which tells the story of Anh, an artistic high school senior who is diagnosed with bipolar. Her mother, a refugee from Vietnam, struggles to understand her daughter’s challenges. Anh chooses UC Davis for her undergraduate education, and parts of the story are set in Sacramento.
Here, Nguyen talks about her inspiration, love of water and what she’s writing next.
What was the inspiration for Aloha Vietnam?
There’s many. I’m a writer, and I just need to write. I knew there were books inside me, and this is my first book. And then, besides sharing the story of mental illness and cultural psychiatry and decreasing stigma around mental illness, I also wanted to share a story of what it was like to grow up in a refugee family in Hawaii. I think it was a unique, beautiful experience, and I wanted to increase the diversity of voices and stories in the literary world.
Some aspects of this story relate a little to your own background, but you are not your protagonist, Anh. How did your own experience inform the story?
I am not Anh. I did not go through a bipolar journey myself, but there is a piece of me in every character in the story. But I made it fictional because I wanted the creative freedom to let the characters do whatever my creative inspiration led me. There was mental illness in my family, and I, myself, have had encounters with depression and anxiety, but I am not Anh. I think these questions are part of the dialogue and stigma around mental illness. I think it brings up really rich discussion.
You are a proponent of water in healing. Did that play a part in this story as well?
It did. It worked its way into the main character Anh’s love for the water. She really goes to the water and ocean to sort through her emotions and it’s where she connects with her true self. I have a similar connection to water and the ocean. And I have found that water is so healing in so many ways. I call it multidimensional. I weave it into my practice and brought it into the book. I’m working on a sequel to the book, where I will go into it more. This is just the first story. There’s so much more to unpack.
What can we expect from the sequel?
I feel called to do a sequel with the same characters to this story. This story covers maybe the first few years of Anh’s treatment, but as we know in mental health, it’s a journey. I really wanted to continue the story of what happens after the initial diagnosis and stabilization. What is the lifelong journey to real healing and wholeness look like? I have already started.
I’m also seeing a nonfiction book talking about water as a healing modality — to really explain what I mean about how to work with water in these multidimensional ways. And then I’ve also been invited to collaborate on another writing project around women’s sensuality and sexuality.
Did you ever consider pursuing a writing career?
In the book, Anh wants to pursue her art, and coming from a traditional Vietnamese family that is just not an option. For me, even though I loved writing, I never entertained it as an option for a career. As I went into medicine, I chose psychiatry because I love people’s stories and being a psychiatrist is so helpful in being a writer because I really know people’s feelings. I spend my whole day helping people put into words their experience. Now it’s really lovely to feel like I can do both.