(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 11, 2008)
Nam Le is a young Vietnamese writer brought up in Australia and currently divides his time between Australia and the United States. The first story in Le's debut collection, The Boat, is modeled on a character very much like himself who also attends the Iowa Writers' Workshop. So when a friend asks the writer in the story: “How can you have writer's block? Just write a story about Vietnam,” you can almost sense the real Nam Le holding his tongue firmly in cheek. “I'm sick of ethnic lit. It's full of descriptions of exotic food. You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab,” the character says.
This first story called “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” one of the many gorgeous stories in Le's superb debut The Boat, eventually becomes a story about how familial responsibilities can burden and cripple you forever. When the character's father pays a visit to the struggling author, memories come rushing back. The narrator remembers brief bits of his childhood burdened by the most crippling expectations and by physical and mental abuse. “It occurred to me then how it took hours, sometimes days, for the surface of a river to freeze over—to hold in its skin the perfect and crystalline world—and how that world could be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable,” he says.
While the first and also the last title story could be classified as “ethnic lit” in as much as they are stories about Vietnam and its people, the rest of the stories in the collection travel the globe. In one of my favorite stories, "Cartagena," the setting is the barrios in Medellin in Columbia and Le describes the difficult life of a young gang member in heartbreaking detail.
The title story, The Boat, tells of a harrowing journey made to escape political persecution when refugees flee Vietnam. A boat meant for 15 has 200 people squeezed into it and in this journey, a tentative friendship is struck between two women as they care for a young boy, one of the women's sons. As the death toll mounts and bodies are thrown overboard, Le paints the grim picture sparingly yet beautifully.
Other stories in Le's debut collection have the readers going to Tehran to visit with Parvin an Iranian woman who launched a radio call-in show for women in Iran. The story follows the interaction between Parvin and her American friend, Sarah, who comes visiting Iran and who during her stay, reminisces about the beginnings of their friendship and her own professional and personal successes. Then there's a haunting story, Hiroshima, set in Japan just days before the fateful explosion. Together all stories in The Boat make for an amazing collection—both in terms of scope and voice.
In a fairly cynical review in the New York Times, Hari Kunzru mostly complains that the writer is not being authentic in finding his true voice. He dismisses the collection as too much of a product of the Iowa Writers' Workshop—a product of the American writer's “industry.” To my mind that's entirely missing the point.
It is not just that Nam Le pens an amazingly wide variety of stories set around the world. But he does something else that is arresting: he is able to channel his voice into characters—whether it's a high school jock coming to terms with his mother's terminal illness (in Halflead Bay) or a young mafia boss on the streets of Medellin, Columbia—who absolutely come alive on every page,. Most important, Le's stories are written in a voice that is so amazingly wise and perceptive it's difficult to believe he is only 29 and that The Boat is his literary debut. I wouldn't be surprised if Nam Le walks away with at least a couple of literary prizes this year. He is most assuredly a writer worth watching. Score one for the American writers' industry. You've got to give them at least this: They know talent when they see it.
- Amazon readers rating: from 37 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Boat (May 2008)
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- Official website for Nam Le
- Asian American interview with Nam Le
- The New York Times Profile of Nam Le
- LA Times interview with Nam Le
- The New York Times (other) review of The Boat
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About the Author:
Nam Le was born in Vietnam in 1979, and raised in Australia. His family fled Vietnam as Boat People after the Vietnam War. Le left a stable career as a lawyer in Australia to write in the United States. He earned his MFA from the Iowa's Writers' Workshop.
He has received the Pushcart Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and fellowships from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
His work has appeared in Zoetrope, A Public Space, One Story, Conjunctions, NPR's Selected Shorts and the Pushcart Prize and Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies. Nam is the Harvard Review fiction editor.
He divides his time between Australia and the United States. He currently resides in Exeter, NH completing a fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy.