Nam Le: To Write or Not to Write an Ethnic Story

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Books these days, like critically acclaimed films or music albums, often have their own websites; this is especially true and critical to first books written by an author whose future longevity in letters is affirmed with near-unanimous enthusiasm and positive prognostications by a significant pool of critics, from different periodicals, worldwide. In some ways, if a book’s website contains a wealth of information about and from its reviews, news of readings, and author interviews, one might sense that a curious personality emerges about the book itself, a personality that, in some ways, competes with the popularity of its author. The website Nam Le for the short story collection The Boat convincingly illustrates this case.

In the website’s cover page, we see the image from the book’s hardbound front-cover instead of a picture of the collection’s architect, Nam Le. The image is taken from Long Island during a hurricane by photographer Clifford Ross, part of his black and white “Hurricane” series. In the image, the eye is immediately drawn to the frozen hurricane waves about to hit shore. Whatever final print process Ross used to emphasize the waves, the result illustrates the force and violence in them, frozen into sculpture-like, resplendent whiteness, almost losing any suggestions of transparency that characterize the colorlessness of water.

It’s important to underline the image of these emphasized waves not necessarily because of its association with boats but more so about notions of travel, and I’m specifically concerned about travel in the sea of imagination here. Travel in that open sea can, indeed, be perilous, but nevertheless travel that has its requisite departures, doldrums, and arrivals. The hurricane waves in the cover image are arriving waves; and this, in many ways, is what the stories in this collection are about.

The stories are not about arrivals per se, but rather about approximate ideas of authorial arrival, about notions that an imagination, an author from a specific cultural background has arrived in the imagination of its diverse other(s), and can, therefore, write about their lives, especially through their voice, in our day and age. These italics are necessary, because an author writing about the lives of others from another cultural or ethnic background is as old as Shakespeare giving us Othello and Caliban, the African American experience in Mark Twain, or the Asian experience in Pearl S. Buck; those are indeed different times.

But ours is a time wherein the ideals of high colonialism and imperialism can be easily demonized, even though their vestiges still exist in clandestine processes that remain illusive, ineradicable, or questionable in everyday life. Although the term ‘post-colonial’ grates on some ears, it opens a universe of perspectives and perceptions, especially when attached to author names whose cultural milieu had experienced colonial administration and its equivalents, including Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipul, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ninotchka Rosca, or Ngugi Wa Thiongo.

It’s fair to argue that the foci of these authors’ narratives are derived from the specific cultural or ethnic backgrounds of these writers; and that if they do step outside the boundaries of their culture, they do it with utmost calculation and caution. Thus, in our day and age specifically points to a certain syndrome of guardedness and suspicion when one writes, especially in the English language, about the experiences of the other today, because of issues regarding narrative and authorial authenticity. When authorial authenticity is undermined an author can be accused of stealing and ventriloquising someone else’s experience, or indulging in laboratory experiments in voice, a sort of travel in imagination that cannot evade accusations of exoticizing the experience being written about.

One can further argue that the voices that express this syndrome today reign stronger in the United States; for example, reviewing Le’s collection for the New York Times, novelist Hari Kunzru has accused Le of indulging in writing that “hovers between reportage (conflict, crime, guns, and drugs) and picturesque travel journalism.” But those on the other side of the Atlantic are equally critical; in the Financial Times, 2008 Booker winner Aravind Adiga writes that “there’s so much skill in these stories that it takes a second reading to realize just how many of Nam’s characters are, ultimately, caricatures”.

On the other hand, these articulations of literary misconduct are tempered and at times inebriated with praises about the author’s skill and talent, all collected in the book review section of the book’s website; hard-to-please New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani even writes that “in most cases [Le’s] sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power”. But then sometimes the accusations linger a bit longer than the applause, which makes us look more closely into these praises, and locate them in a certain context of correctness that may not necessarily be overtly political, but rather hides something more personal and private, such as the boundaries of individual experience in a specific cultural context.

Now to what extent Le is affected by the less positive reception to his book is probably a non-issue for him, at this point, at least; because the kind of critical attention he and his book have garnered seems to indicate something momentous about the notion of authorship, especially who can speak for whom, in our time. But it’s also fair to speculate and assume that the publishing industry has already embedded layers of strategic marketing plans before this book’s success, and the almost guaranteed revenues for future publications by Le.

On the question of authorship, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” the first story in the collection, touches on this issue in the context of the ‘ethnic story,’ making it an intricate part to the protagonist’s relationship with his father. When this story first appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story (, in the journal’s summer 2006 issue, it created a small buzz on some internet discussion boards, especially among my friends, because of the protagonist’s name. These discussions explored the idea of Nam Le the author using ‘Nam Le’ as the name of the protagonist in this story; and this use is somewhat peculiar, because the reader of that story is tempted to consider the Nam Le in the story as Nam Le the author. This temptation, indeed, creates an easy argument that the story is autobiographical.

But the more skeptical readers of fiction may shy away from this easy argument and speculate ironies on Le’s intentions regarding this name similarity. Thus, a somewhat overdetermined argument can be posed that Le may have, unconsciously or consciously, created a reversal of assumption for those readers, in that by using his own name as the name of the protagonist in the story, he quietly subverts the usual convention of that reader to easily assume that the subjective aspects of the character’s life are immediately derived from the author’s life. The name parallel thus gives the critical reader some pause to be suspicious about the story’s autobiographical elements.

As the book catapults Le into fame and more information about his personal life is revealed and repeated in numerous interviews and book reviews worldwide, we find out that Nam Le’s life-story is quite identical to the Nam Le in this story: he, too, was Vietnam-born, grew up in Australia, became a lawyer, and then became a fellow at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But the similar details may be the extent of this story’s objective autobiographic nature, because the subjective aspects of the story rely on Le’s literary tools for the fictive inner lives of his characters.

But I somehow had to elide the fictional aspect of their inner lives, because Le convinced me that here, the real-life Le is just telling his life-story ‘like it is’. And perhaps this is where we experience Le’s skills, when first-person fictional narrative gives us convincing believability, rendering incisive personal documentation, because the sleight-of-hand is embedded in the innocent fluidity of prose. Thus, when Le writes—“Fuck it, I thought. [...] I would write the ethnic story of my Vietnamese father. It was a good story. It was a fucking great story”—I felt he was documenting something verbatim, just two and a half days before he submitted his piece. At this point, Le gives in to what his friend has told him, that instead of writing stories about “lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids”, he could, indeed, write or rather “...totally exploit the Vietnamese thing”.

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Los Bastardos (2008; Amat Escalante)

Read Full-Text at Latin American Review of Books.

AMAT ESCALANTE’S Los Bastardos is a film about two undocumented, migrant workers, from Mexico named Jesús and Fausto, played by non-professional Mexican actors Jesús Moises Rodriguez and Rubén Sosa, and traces their life as day-labourers within a 24-hour period through a narrative set in the vast collage of cities and suburbs of Los Angeles County.

The film opens with the two workers walking on a dry and wide river canal on their way to join other labourers waiting at a street corner for work. Together with four others, somebody hires them for a construction project. Then, after a full-day’s work, they get paid, go “home” to a section of a public park, and try to rest.

But their need for night-time diversion takes them to a quiet neighbourhood near the park where they follow their instincts. Something, after sundown, tells them they must rob a house.

Director Amat Escalante does not show us how they choose which house to rob; we just see them enter through a window. When the homeowner, Karen – played by professional actress Nina Zavarin – sees Jesús holding a shotgun, she screams. But she is able to control her panic and, shortly, she feeds them dinner, spends time at the pool with them, has sex with Jesús, then gets high with them before Fausto accidentally blows her head off.

When the homeowner’s son arrives home, he kills Jesús using their shotgun. Fortunately, since it was the last bullet, Fausto’s life is saved - he runs from the neighbourhood as fast as he can.

Now alone, Fausto finds employment picking strawberries and, as he does so, the camera zooms in on his face, slowly letting it dominate the screen. In this final shot, Escalante tries to capture or construct a quiet collision of chaos, alienation, and memories of violence from his life in southern California as Fausto scans something in the field not framed on-screen.

In 2008, Los Bastardos was an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard award. Escalante’s first film, Sangre, had also been entered for the award in 2005.

Since its Cannes premiere, Escalante’s second film continues to gain critical attention that often stresses its quiet visual-texture and unexpected, violent ending. In many ways, its unapologetic use of violence stimulates perceptions about its Mexican director’s political views. Certainly, US-Mexico border relations, immigration and race are elements that can all be readily implicated in the film’s uneasy ending.

There are many instances of Jesús’ and Fausto’s marginal status in southern California that can be explored. Indeed, their determination to survive in that savage world reveal the strength of their characters. But that strength must deal with their sense of cultural dislocation and alienation. The development of this ineluctable collision weakens these characters, impacts the moral dimension of their behavior, and contributes to or empowers Jesús’ and Fausto’s reckless disregard for the world around them.

And so, Escalante succeeds in calling his protagonists bastards, thus aptly giving his film its title: Los Bastardos.

Read rest of article at Latin American Review of Books.

Michael Jackson Forever

He may have given something to language, to assist language in imagining somebody who can somehow simultaneously authenticate the many terms and descriptions that can be used to talk about that person: strange, ridiculed, brilliant, innocent, utterly humane, angelic, outrageous, tortured, mystical, mysterious, generous, pure, genius, love, and much more. He wasn’t a god, but more personification of myth; indeed, it’s not easy to imagine what he could do, did, had, and would’ve yet been through.

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Clerkarian (Term & Semi-Definition)

When a public library circulation-desk clerk does more than just clerking at the circulation desk, and start to act like a librarian, giving you answers to reference questions that ought to be answered by the reference librarian. Clerkarian can often be perceived as a moment in a day of a library circulation-desk clerk, especially when library clerks just want to extend some extra help to patrons who may have reference questions that can be (easily) answered by other library staff. However, this clerkarian moment is not immune to abuse, especially when some library patrons perceive that the library clerk is more approachable than the reference librarian, or if the library clerk is actually more knowledgeable, or older than the librarian; it's certainly not unusual that library clerks have higher IQs than librarians. Usually, this abuse is clandestine, especially when patrons have a friendlier relationship with the clerk than the librarian. The heart of this secrecy can be found in the fact that the clerk is not aware of this, especially when they enjoy the attention they get from being asked reference questions more frequently than the reference librarian. One wonders though that if, indeed, some of these clerks like their clerkarian moments, then perhaps they should go to library school and be librarians themselves.

Russell Brand

I'm always tempted to say he's a piece of art, not a piece of work. He's quite clever, and I admire that part about him, the quick wit, the charm that can suffocate you, if you don't watch, and his love for language. You can feel it from his conversations, interviews, or jokes. I mean his stand-up gigs, I think, are ok, in terms of wit and cleverness. I suppose in stand-up he has to somehow bomb the audience with stuff, anything entertaining for his audience that's not necessarily witty or clever. I still think Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, are good and better at stand-up; and it's probably safe to include Amy Sedaris in that line-up. Now what I think Russell is very good at is in individual interactions, whether he's talking to a guest on 1 Leicester Square, or being a guest in the Paul O'Grady show. I give him an A+ on those one-on-one episodes. Jim Carrey and Robin Williams, when invited as guests, tend to dominate one-on-one interactions, as if their interviewer or host doesn't exist. The process of interaction is quite energizing for Russell's style of comedy. I do hope to read his autobiography My Booky Wook, which has gotten some fantastic reviews on the other side of the Atlantic.

Silence of Evidence

A hand moves a page of a book, from right to left. The fingers feel the paper, skin of words. There is pressure to get in the skin, to puncture thin. Bottom of fingers glide over text, before finger-prints collapse on print, ideas. Outside, the lake remains calm, unable to move waves. Something liquid-red drops on one of the pages, followed by more red.


Ocean of networks. Depth is in your fingers, on their tips. But there is no bottom, nor surface. There's that school of fish called advertisements. Eat some, most are poison. Sometimes you need some poison. But fear of death may just be simulacra of something. The big bang perhaps? Coming of messiahs? Bermuda Triangle? There's a wind along the shore. The sands are calm, refusing to feel air, its movements, but rather the notes from the ocean, the murmur of sirens, shadows without premonitions.


High-definition vision, silence. You turn on some music, as you head north on Interstate 5. Continuity takes over the taste of coffee, twisting caffeine into history, pasts breathing on cinematic choreographies. The decent god in you hopes to deliver everything that gives symphony of truths. That's the hope. But the audacity of that hope is often set aside. Perhaps this is necessary, even inevitable. Creators need illusions, after all, especially the best illusions that can frame the best pictures, those that expand, become memory, or those that feel like fresh night-air, at the next rest-stop.

Days After Inauguration

What's the bird's eye-view around Washington, D.C., on presidential inauguration? Dizzy that there are more people, under their wings, a sort of delirious and happy panic to feel something more than historic? Can they sense something in that panic that makes them feel a bit human, be with them, flock with them? Does flying feel like traps, and walking fresh escape? Do older birds feel like something is invigorated, or re-invigorated down there, an idea, the shadow in a notion? It could be argued that attaching the word 'truly' to the word 'democratic' has reached a point of overused, but that emphasizing this overused can be considered unethical: because there's simply no such thing as over-used in this context, because these mouths are just celebrating, aligning themselves to something what they thought is impossible. There will, indeed, be prognostications of new dimensions, and the polishing of existing paradigms, while old habits remain, like a certain blindness among taxi drivers in many American cities not to let in some people in their backseats, a blindness that doesn't have the positive ring of color blindness. It's the most exciting time to use hyperboles, to chant the greatness of this and that, about a system that works, and takes itself seriously. There'll be inebriations of affirmations, both implicit and explicit, most would be optimistic, but a percentage of them too-optimistic and competes with incisive doubts about the new man in that house of American houses. The normal flow is to, indeed, be get caught in the excitements, to give in to the contagious yes-we-can spirit. What we hope also is that there's power in being skeptical, especially in the depth of this change we think we're in. We hope our eyes do not have the affliction that adores religion of surfaces. The 4th of November 2008 has questioned that religion, and the world has a reaffirmed awe about a country named United States of America, that, indeed, despite its recent history - often observed in horrific, archived footage of Selma, Alabama 1965 - the U.S.A. can be used as a paradigm of having a unified, national spirit.

© 2009 Michael Caylo-Baradi


Waiting for the traffic light. The reaction is almost immediate to turn left. It's another red light at the next intersection. Before the car reaches that crossing, the light turns green, as the music in the car takes on a bluesy mellowness. Many blues could be the color of the next intersections, taking away the red, yellow, and green. But there's no moon-color to take away this time. It's drizzling. The streets are wet, full of reflections. Car-lights illuminate them deeper into the night.