The Boat (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
The most outstanding feature of the Vietnamese Australian writer Nam Le’s first book, The Boat, is the remarkable variety of the seven short stories in the collection. Only the first and the last story deal with Vietnam. The others cover a wide range of locales, taking the reader to Colombia, New York City, Australia, Japan, and Iran. They span six decades from the end of World War II to the early twenty-first century. Each story tells a fresh tale, and Le masterfully presents central characters who have to meet an existential challenge.
“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” introduces Le’s readers to his convictions and self-understanding as a writer. Cleverly mixing the autobiographical and the fictitious, the central character is named Nam Le like the author himself. The character Le is given many of the author’s characteristics, but the author adds strong fictional deviations. By doing so, Le challenges the reader not to fall into the trap of reading his fiction as a mere exploration of his personal experience.
Like his author from 2004 to 2005, Le is a Vietnamese Australian ex-lawyer who has become a fellow at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop that has nurtured many contemporary literary talents. As Le is facing a final deadline to write a story, he is visited by his estranged father from Australia. Now Le tries any trick to overcome his writer’s block, and he uses an old typewriter instead of a computer to stop himself from endlessly revising. While thinking, he remembers a conversation with a fellow aspiring writer. It is through this imaginary conversation that author Le offers a strong view of his beliefs as a writer.
A friend offers Le a surefire shortcut to solve his problem: “just write a story about Vietnam.” That fits with Le’s observation of the contemporary American literary market. As an instructor tells him, “ethnic literature’s hot” and “visiting literary agents” admonish young writers to write only from their own “background and life experience.” Against this, Le’s friend quotes the words of William Faulkner, which give the story its title. This list that starts with “Love and Honor” suggests that literature should be about what truly matters in human experience. As a parting shot, his friend tells Le that he admires him for his struggle against an easy way out: “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphansand New York painters with hemorrhoids.”
The Boat features stories on all those topics, with the exception of the lesbian vampires, indicating Le’s fondness to mix fact with fiction.
As Le yields to the temptation to write an “ETHNIC STORY” to make his deadline, he chooses as its subject his father’s survival of the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre of American troops in Vietnam. In reality, author Le’s father grew up in a different location, in Rach Gia, south of My Lai, and has no connections to that atrocity.
In the story, Le is poetically punished for abandoning his quest for true literary art as his father burns the typewritten pages of that story in the gasoline drum of a homeless man they had befriended earlier. The reader will not find this story among author Le’s fiction.
True to Le’s belief in the necessity to expand the horizon of his fiction, “Cartagena,” which won the 2007 Pushcart Prize, takes the reader into the world of teenage Colombian assassins. Violent social and dire economic circumstances, as well as a vicious civil war and the international cocaine trade, have turned the children’s lives into premature hell. Juan Pablo Merendez, called “Ron” for his childhood feat of drinking Ron de Medellin tequila without vomiting, slithers into a criminal life. It began once he and his friend Hernando were kidnapped by a corrupt policeman and a pedophile Colombian businessman.
After Hernando killed both their captors with the policeman’s gun, Ron decided to throw in his lot with the assassination squads of underground figure El Padre, himself a victim of Colombia’s cruel war against radical Communist insurgents. Now Ron kills for money that allows him to buy a safe house in the barrio for his mother, who lost her husband to right-wing militiasLe is careful to show that murder is committed on both sides of the Colombian political...
(The entire section is 1840 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
Booklist 104, no. 17 (May 1, 2008): 69.
Entertainment Weekly, May 16, 2008, p. 70.
Esquire 149, no. 6 (June, 2008): 44.
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The Washington Post, July 16, 2008, p. C8.