The opening story in Nam Le’s debut collection, The Boat, is as dazzling an introduction to a writer’s work as I’ve read.
“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” begins as a metastory about a blocked, Vietnamese-born student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His estranged father visits from Australia just when he’s struggling with his last assignment of the semester. What first appears to be a story about not knowing what to write – yawn – becomes, through sophisticated literary legerdemain, a devastatingly powerful exploration of a fraught father-son relationship and the son’s gradual understanding of how his father’s brutal wartime experiences at the hands of Americans affected them both.
The story works on several levels, and the business about finding your subject matter as a writer is a key element. Nam Le, like his character “Nam,” was born in Vietnam in 1979, named after the homeland his family fled by boat, and raised in Australia, where he became a lawyer before attending the Iowa workshop.
“How can you have writer’s block?” the character Nam quotes one of his classmates. “Just write a story about Vietnam.” Visiting agents also push him to milk his ethnic roots, urging students to write what makes you “stand out.”
Another friend agrees. “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.” “Catalogued like that,” Le’s alter ego comments wryly, “[M]y stories sank into unflattering relief.”
“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” takes its title from William Faulkner’s admonition to “write about the old verities.” Le not only takes that advice to heart, he practically uses it as a checklist.
From Cartagena to Tehran
But, as five of the seven far-ranging stories in this collection show, he goes to great lengths to resist exploiting – or being pigeon-holed by – “the Vietnamese thing.”
It could be argued that he goes too far. The two strongest stories, which bookend the collection, both involve Vietnam.
Others, such as “Cartagena,” a tense tale about Colombia’s “never-ending culture of violence,” show off Le’s versatility to the point, almost, of literary preening. It is narrated by a teenage Colombian hit man facing repercussions for failing to carry out an order to kill his only friend. Ron dreams of becoming a fisherman, wondering, at the ripe old age of 14, “how many times a person could start over.”
“Halflead Bay” more effectively evokes the dread felt by a teenager in an Australian fishing village as he tries to prove himself man enough to face both his mother’s imminent death and an impending fight with a thuggish soccer teammate over a girl.
Several stories are told from a female point of view, and all put a human face on horror. In “Hiroshima,” a hungry, scared third-grader who’s been sent to the hills by her family for safety from American bombs tries to be brave. Alerted by the title, a reader’s dread mounts.
“Tehran Calling” is more complex, involving an American woman’s gradual realization during a frightening trip to Tehran that she has misjudged her Iranian-born college friend. Sarah visits Parvin after a romantic breakup leaves her unmoored. Parvin had left Iran in her teens but returned to fight for the liberation of Iranian women. She had never told Sarah about her family’s grim history (they had been marked as subversives by the Iranian government) because “I didn’t want to be defined by it. The exotic friend with the traumatic past.”
And back to Vietnam
One suspects that Le has similar qualms. Fortunately, they did not prevent him from writing his moving title story about 16-year-old Mai’s harrowing journey from Vietnam to Malaysia on a storm-tossed, overcrowded, ill-equipped junk. Mai learns “how necessary it was to stay on the surface of things. Because beneath the surface was either dread or delirium. As more and more bundles were thrown overboard she taught herself not to look – not to think of the bundles as human....”
Nam Le digs beneath the surface and unfailingly sees the bundles as human in these accomplished stories about the terrible reverberations of violence.
Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic in New York.