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"The Boat", Nam Le

June 30th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Asian, Australian, Literature, Short Stories

The BoatSynopsis: Young former Melbourne corporate lawyer turns hundreds of other young, former Melbourne corporate lawyers green with envy by publishing a phenomenally successful collection of nuanced and beautiful short stories.

My Take: Sigh. I guess it is an inevitable part of getting older to be confronted with the increasingly spectacular public successes of people who were formerly anonymously moving in your peer group. Like Nam Le, I used to be a corporate lawyer in Melbourne. I used to work for a law firm in the Rialto. In fact the law firm that I worked for was on a higher floor than Nam Le’s. So why haven’t I published a subtle, perceptive and critically acclaimed collection of short stories? Why aren’t I uniquely talented and motivated?? Sigh.

Anyway, my own petty jealousies aside, Nam Le is the real deal. While superficially, there are no obvious common threads between the short-stories in “The Boat”, at their core, each of the stories shares some extremely perceptive characterisation. Le is a subtle writer and explores the nuances of his characters impressively in such short stories. While I thought some of his stories were slightly over-long for what they were, in general this didn’t bother me as I appreciated Le’s obsessive attention to his characters. I’m really looking forward to seeing Le employ this talent in a full length novel.

While Le has honourably tried to cast off the limitations of ‘ethnic lit’ by setting his stories across the cultures of six continents, I enjoyed the two stories that he wrote from a Vietnamese-Australian perspective the best. This is no criticism of the other works in this collection, but the emotional intensity of the subjects closer to his own experience dramatically outshone that of his extra-cultural explorations.

A good example of this is the first story in the book “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” (Substantially extracted here). This opening missive tells the story of an aspiring Vietnamese-Australian writer at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop hosting a visit from his father while trying to finalise an important piece of assessment (some not to subtle parallels to Le’s own life here!). In a few short pages the story movingly explores concepts as complex and diverse as father-son relationships, the trauma of memory and the role of ethnicity in literature. It’s a masterpiece and obviously a topic that is close to home for Le.

Based on what I’ve seen in “The Boat”, I really I hope that Le doesn’t restrict himself from writing about his own cultural experiences. You get the feeling from reading “The Boat” that Le sees mining his own background as a bit of a literary cop out or the intellectual low road. Further, Le clearly shows in “The Boat” that he’s talented enough to write convincingly about characters in any cultural setting. But Le shows a real virtuosity when delving into the nuances of Vietnamese-Australian characters that it would be a tragedy to waste. Many great writers have mined the rich vein of their distinctive cultural backgrounds (Marquez, Mistry, Ha Jin, Achebe) not simply because it was the path of least resistance, but because it was a rich and interesting emotional resource. I hope that the natural instinct of an over-achiever to shine at the most difficult of tasks doesn’t distract Le from his talent for writing about topics closer to home in the future.

Highlight:

We had just come from a party following a reading by the workshop’s most recent success, a Chinese woman trying to immigrate to America who had written a book of short stories about Chinese characters in stages of immigration to America. The stories were subtle and good. The gossip was that she’d been offered a substantial six-figure contract for a two-book deal. It was meant to be an unspoken rule that such things were left unspoken. Of course, it was all anyone talked about.

“It’s hot,” a writing instructor told me at a bar. “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.”

A couple of visiting literary agents took a similar view: “There’s a lot of polished writing around,” one of them said. “You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?” She tagteamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as though intoning a mantra, ‘Your background and life experience.’

Other friends were more forthright: “I’m sick of ethnic lit,” one said. “It’s full of descriptions of exotic food.” Or: “You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn’t have the vocab.”

I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington, D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed.

“It’s a license to bore,” my friend said. We were drunk and walking our bikes because both of us, separately, had punctured our tires on the way to the party.

“The characters are always flat, generic. As long as a Chinese writer writes about Chinese people, or a Peruvian writer about Peruvians, or a Russian writer about Russians …” he said, as though reciting children’s doggerel, then stopped, losing his train of thought. His mouth turned up into a doubtful grin. I could tell he was angry about something.

“Look,” I said, pointing at a floodlit porch ahead of us. “Those guys have guns.”

“As long as there’s an interesting image or metaphor once in every this much text” — he held out his thumb and forefinger to indicate half a page, his bike wobbling all over the sidewalk. I nodded to him, and then I nodded to one of the guys on the porch, who nodded back. The other guy waved us through with his faux-wood air rifle. A car with its headlights on was idling in the driveway, and girls’ voices emerged from inside, squealing, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

“Faulkner, you know,” my friend said over the squeals, “he said we should write about the old verities. Love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” A sudden sharp crack behind us, like the striking of a giant typewriter hammer, followed by some muffled shrieks. “I know I’m a bad person for saying this,” my friend said, “but that’s why I don’t mind your work, Nam. Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. Like in your third story.”

He must have thought my head was bowed in modesty, but in fact I was figuring out whether I’d just been shot in the back of the thigh. I’d felt a distinct sting. The pellet might have ricocheted off something.

“You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”

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  • Tim

    [From Estelle – comment reposted]

    “I used to work for a law firm in the Rialto. In fact the law firm that I worked for was on a higher floor than Nam Le’s. So why haven’t I published a subtle, perceptive and critically acclaimed collection of short stories? Why aren’t I uniquely talented and motivated?? Sigh.”

    Hahahahaha! Well, this asshole also wrote his honours thesis in rhyming couplets or something.

    I heard a story about MJ Hyland, who also used to work as a lawyer — she used to pretend she wasn’t writing instead of working all the time.

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