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The Boat

Vietnamese-born Nam Le transcends the ethnic label.

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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.”

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