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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