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Ethnic Literature – “The Boat” – Nam Le

March 22nd, 2011 · No Comments · Ethnicity, Multi-culturalism

“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!”

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