The opening story in Nam Leâ€™s debut collection, The Boat, is as dazzling an introduction to a writerâ€™s work as Iâ€™ve read.
â€śLove and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrificeâ€ť begins as a metastory about a blocked, Vietnamese-born student at the Iowa Writerâ€™s Workshop. His estranged father visits from Australia just when heâ€™s struggling with his last assignment of the semester. What first appears to be a story about not knowing what to write â€“ yawn â€“ becomes, through sophisticated literary legerdemain, a devastatingly powerful exploration of a fraught father-son relationship and the sonâ€™s gradual understanding of how his fatherâ€™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 â€śNam,â€ť 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.
â€śHow can you have writerâ€™s block?â€ť the character Nam quotes one of his classmates. â€śJust write a story about Vietnam.â€ť Visiting agents also push him to milk his ethnic roots, urging students to write what makes you â€śstand out.â€ť
Another friend agrees. â€śYou could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans â€“ and New York painters with hemorrhoids.â€ť â€śCatalogued like that,â€ť Leâ€™s alter ego comments wryly, â€ś[M]y stories sank into unflattering relief.â€ť
â€śLove and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrificeâ€ť takes its title from William Faulknerâ€™s admonition to â€śwrite about the old verities.â€ť Le not only takes that advice to heart, he practically uses it as a checklist.
From Cartagena to Tehran
But, as five of the seven far-ranging stories in this collection show, he goes to great lengths to resist exploiting â€“ or being pigeon-holed by â€“ â€śthe Vietnamese thing.â€ť
It could be argued that he goes too far. The two strongest stories, which bookend the collection, both involve Vietnam.
Others, such as â€śCartagena,â€ť a tense tale about Colombiaâ€™s â€śnever-ending culture of violence,â€ť show off Leâ€™s versatility to the point, almost, of literary preening. It is narrated by a teenage Colombian hit man facing repercussions for failing to carry out an order to kill his only friend. Ron dreams of becoming a fisherman, wondering, at the ripe old age of 14, â€śhow many times a person could start over.â€ť
â€śHalflead Bayâ€ť more effectively evokes the dread felt by a teenager in an Australian fishing village as he tries to prove himself man enough to face both his motherâ€™s imminent death and an impending fight with a thuggish soccer teammate over a girl.
Several stories are told from a female point of view, and all put a human face on horror. In â€śHiroshima,â€ť a hungry, scared third-grader whoâ€™s been sent to the hills by her family for safety from American bombs tries to be brave. Alerted by the title, a readerâ€™s dread mounts.
â€śTehran Callingâ€ť is more complex, involving an American womanâ€™s gradual realization during a frightening trip to Tehran that she has misjudged her Iranian-born college friend. Sarah visits Parvin after a romantic breakup leaves her unmoored. Parvin had left Iran in her teens but returned to fight for the liberation of Iranian women. She had never told Sarah about her familyâ€™s grim history (they had been marked as subversives by the Iranian government) because â€śI didnâ€™t want to be defined by it. The exotic friend with the traumatic past.â€ť
And back to Vietnam
One suspects that Le has similar qualms. Fortunately, they did not prevent him from writing his moving title story about 16-year-old Maiâ€™s harrowing journey from Vietnam to Malaysia on a storm-tossed, overcrowded, ill-equipped junk. Mai learns â€śhow necessary it was to stay on the surface of things. Because beneath the surface was either dread or delirium. As more and more bundles were thrown overboard she taught herself not to look â€“ not to think of the bundles as human....â€ť
Nam Le digs beneath the surface and unfailingly sees the bundles as human in these accomplished stories about the terrible reverberations of violence.
Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic in New York.