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A Short Story Collection that Examines the "Ethnic Literature Thing"
on June 18, 2008
THE BOAT is an engaging and free-wheeling collection of seven short stories by first-timer Nam Le, organized in a cleverly self-referential package. In the pivotal first story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" (a title drawn from William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950), a young Vietnamese American lawyer-turned-aspiring author named Nam is visited by his father, just arrived from Australia. Nam has settled in Iowa to attend the renowned Iowa Writer's Workshop.
As he struggles to meet its creative demands and beat his own writer's block, a friend encourages Nam simply to write about Vietnam, since "ethnic literature's hot." Another friend differs: "It's a license to bore. The characters are always flat, generic." It's that last friend who tosses out as an aside, "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." And thus is THE BOAT.
The second story follows the perilous life of Juan Pablo Merendez, an adolescent assassin in Medillin, Colombia as he is called to task by his boss for failing to carry out an execution. Next comes "Meeting Elise," the story of an aging, hemorrhoid-afflicted painter seeking desperately to make amends with his estranged (and engaged) daughter as she makes her Carnegie Hall debut as a concert cellist. Another story, titled simpy "Hiroshima," traces the life of a young Japanese girl moved to the safety of the nearby countryside in the days immediately preceding the dropping of the atomic bomb. "Hiroshima" is sandwiched between two other stories, one a "coming of age" story in a coastal Australian town, the other a "coming to life's purpose" story in Tehran, Iran. After this whirlwind tour, Nam Le returns for the finale to Vietnam for his title story, "The Boat." Not surprisingly, this one is a flight and survival story, focusing on Mai, a young girl cast adrift for days in the Pacific with two hundred other refugees on a smugglers' trawler that has lost its engines.
So what to make of the metastructure? In Nam Le's opening story, the writer Nam succumbs to the pressure of his writing assignment and opts to "exploit the Vietnamese thing." He interviews his father, a survivor of the My Lai massacre, and converts this horrific story relatively quickly and easily into typewritten copy. He awakens the next morning to discover that his father has read and then destroyed the one and only copy. Has Nam Le the author discarded ethnic literature of his own (the figurative tearing up of the My Lai story by his fictional father in the first story) for that of Colombians, Japanese, Iranians, and Australians? And has he, upon attempting to step outside his own ethnicity and into the skins of others, returned unsatisfied to his own Vietnamese experience for his closing story? Is the reader intended to compare the relative merits of Nam's own ethnic (Vietnam-based) stories with those drawn from the world at large? Or are we to see the opening and closing stories as literary "brackets" of the immigrant/ethnic literature genre, one a tale of departure or escape, the other of adaptation and assimilation?
There seems little doubt that the opening and closing stories are Nam Le's most affecting. The opener is touching in its treatment of intergenerational relationships and differences in perception, while the closer is a harrowing tale of sun, salt, thirst, and death for the sake of freedom. In between, the other stories show notable flashes of literary command, but only the "Cartegena" story in Colombia engages the reader with anything approaching the story-telling power of the opening and closing Vietnamese stories.
Perhaps Nam's fictional friend in his opening story is correct, that one writes best about what one knows best, that it really is best to "totally exploit" ethnic literature. In Nam Le's case, THE BOAT shows an emerging authorial talent that promises the possibility of compelling ethnic literature as well as a future range well beyond "the Vietnamese thing." It is quite easy to recommend this book on its merits and also advise readers to keep a watchful eye out for Nam Le's next effort.