Nam Le: To Write or Not to Write an Ethnic Story

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 Clifford 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”.

The notion of exploiting the ‘ethnic story’ is soft euphemism for attempting to give that story an angle, to make it marketable. Le chooses not to write his own Vietnamese story growing up in Australia, but rather his father’s Vietnamese story, because his father’s story, I would argue, lends a more ‘authentic’ ethnic narrative, covering a vaster and deeper terrain of information from childhood to adulthood, a lifetime intertwined with the recent history of Vietnam before and during a war tied to the history of the United States. Thus, it’s a story many literary agents and big-house publishers that have main offices in the US might be more interested in.

But then the father burns the story his son has just finished writing; it’s a painful scene that comments on the politics of the ‘ethnic story’, because this act of burning can be viewed as an expression of resistance, that, indeed, the father wants to keep his story within the private boundaries of his family, and not be a creative writing exercise that could soon be used for public, commercial consumption. And perhaps more critically, the father did not want his ethnic story to be exploited in the realm of art, making it an information-source for myth-makers who could potentially mangle the sacredness of that very personal story.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to argue that, in this cruel act of burning his son’s hard work, the father is expressing something Vietnamese we’re not quite clued in to; but I think it’s something else, that the father could imagine his intimate, personal story passing through critical hands in the revenue-conscious bureaucracy of the publishing industry, hands that assess not only that story’s marketability but its cultural value, as well. That’s why the father tells his son with pride that: “Only you’ll remember. I’ll remember. They’ll read and clap their hands and forget”. Although the father’s words are set in a quiet and simple tone, it’s a moment for him to pontificate and feed his son something to think about, that intimate information included in narratives for public consumption be used with caution and calculation. But then the son’s immediate reaction appears to be clouded by his story’s submission deadline: “I’ll write it anyway”.

Nam Le

This focus on the first story is critical, because ideas about an ethnic tale that are explored and suggested there can provide lens how we view the other six stories in the collection. And although the autobiographical aspects of that story have near-explicit parallels with Nam Le’s life, it’s a narrative framed and packaged in a book marketed as a collection of short fiction; that’s why, in many ways, these aspects give us license to consider that story a terse fictionalization of Nam Le’s life, an ethnic story about Nam Le and his father that also attempts to deal with ethnic story issues. Viewed from this perspective, we sense we are clued into the horizons of an imagination assessing its authorial reach, intentions, and desires; and its first-person voice profoundly allows us to penetrate into the private and vibrant struggles in that imagination, dealing with issues that impact one’s sense of identity, in the context of family, immigration, and literary ambitions.

This authorial reach is suggested in the first story, and we somehow sense this reach materialized in the other stories in the book; our evidence of this suggestion is, again, Le’s friend telling him “[y]ou 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”. With the exception of lesbian vampires, these stories are in this collection, plus a few more. Thus, because of this link, we can argue that these stories are fictions in the imagination of the Le in the first story; and as part of the collection written by the real-life Nam Le — who is currently fiction editor of Harvard Review — these other stories can therefore be recognized as forms of meta-fiction.

Now among these other stories, only the last readily relates an ethnic Vietnamese story. The others are set and have protagonists that live in other cultural and national spaces. In these Vietnam isn’t mentioned, doesn’t exist in a cameo role, nor even alluded to. In these stories that leaves Vietnam or leaves out Vietnamese characters, the reader is convinced about the amount of research invested to give texture and (perhaps even) exacting realism of a specific cultural realm these stories try to occupy. The psychological depictions too, are convincing, because Le takes the reader into the intimate spaces of his characters.

“Cartagena” is about a 14-year-old Colombian assassin who shares his commissions with his mother, fantasizes about living a less violent life, and become a fisherman. The new journal A Public Space first published this story, before making it to the 2008 Pushcart Prize XXXII Best of the Small Presses. “Cartagena” stands out among the seven in the collection primarily because its prose bravely attempts to mimic the rhythms of another language — spoken Spanish — through a teenage boy, living in one of the dense urban enclaves in Cartagena. Here, Le renders narrative coherence in the first-person, without sounding too rehearsed while maintaining the street-wise texture of the boy’s imagination; thus, the sentences are short, often replete with four-letter street slang in English and Spanish that, at times, suggests Le is not only fluent in both languages, but of the language of teenage, Colombian assassins. But I could not help but compare it to an independent, Venezuelan film directed by Jose Ramon Novoa, titled Sicario (1994), which means hit-man in Spanish; the plot details seem so similar, I almost assumed this movie inspired Le to write this story.

From Colombia, we fly back to the United States and meet the “New York painter with hemorrhoids” in “Meeting Elise”. One feels the painter’s pain, indeed, although one is tempted to assume if that pain can be categorically derived from emotions before meeting his daughter or from the medical condition around his pelvic region. Then we fly down under to Australia in “Halflead Bay”, to experience another adolescent’s inner tensions, as he copes with his dying mother, the slippery terrains of infatuation, and the bleeding melancholies of being a bully’s next victim.

In “Hiroshima”, we further experience Le’s sensitivity to the inner lives of young people; this time, it’s a young Japanese girl who seems gifted with mature forebodings about an inevitable catastrophe. From 1940s Japan, Le’s time-machine takes us to present-day Iran, in “Tehran Calling”, in which an American visits her college friend in the Middle-East, and we experience, through this American’s eyes, the United States isolated outside its borders dying to be flown home, when she sees “black birds hurl[ing] themselves against the sky — thousands of them”; the color of the birds, in the context of crowded flight, is quite loaded with historical suggestions.

Now when Aravind Adiga accuses Le that “it takes a second reading to realize just how many of Nam’s characters are, ultimately, caricatures,” the accusation is founded on the idea that, in terms of literary narratives, no one is more suited to write about a particular cultural-ethnic experience than a representative from that experience. Had James Baldwin been with us today, he would’ve defended Le, because in 1967 when African American critics accused William Styron of theft for using a slave’s voice for his fiction in The Confessions of Nat Turner, Baldwin argued that “[Styron] has begun the common history — ours” (As Colm Toibin noted in a New York Review of Books article “James Baldwin & Barack Obama” 23 October 2008, Vol LV, Number 16).

We also have the likes of Japanese-born but now British national Kazuo Ishiguro whose narratives include Japanese protagonists but are nevertheless dominated by Europeans; having received numerous literary awards in Europe, including the Booker, Ishiguro’s case can be used as gauge in assessing the politics of ethnic authorship in our post-colonial world. On the other hand, Adiga and Kunzru’s critical comments on Le’s book are evidences that the ethnic politics of authorship are still alive and well.

But in the context of the imagination of Le in the first story, these other — for lack of a better term — ‘non-Vietnamese’ stories are, I would argue, not concerned about being accused of drawing caricatures, because these are acts of obedience to his father, that, indeed, Le is trying not to write the ethnic story, because one’s ethnic story is sacred to one’s family, because, in his father’s words: “They’ll read and clap their hands and forget”. Thus, through these ‘non-Vietnamese’ stories Le seals his faith in his father’s words through literary skill, by showing him how much a scholar he is, of being able to move in the sea of imagination, take as much knowledge as he can have about other cultural spaces, occupy the imaginations in those spaces, somehow authenticate himself there, experience humanity there, and thus arriving in the shores of those spaces not as exile or assimilated immigrant but as citizen, and, I argue, still maintain his Vietnamese-ness.

Now the question one could raise in these ‘other’ stories is: are these non-ethnic stories, written by an ethnic writer? Does Styron slide into ethnic writing and become an ethnic writer, when writing about an African American experience? Through the first story’s suggestion or view regarding ethnic stories, Le is an ethnic writer only when he writes about something that is immediately derived from his Vietnamese experience, and he slips into something else, does not seem to be an ethnic writer when he’s writing in the cultural context of others, but rather becomes — according to Hari Kunzru — “a very different kind of writer”; thus, a sort of double-consciousness emerges: being ethnic and non-ethnic. Now the idea that Le, according to some, is not simply a writer but a “very different kind” means that works of literary writers from particular ethnic and cultural affiliations are still subjected to labels that underline that membership, careful labels that simultaneously negotiate between being diplomatic while making indications of difference.

But the kind of reception this book has received appears to signal or propose a shift in the perception of ethnicizing a story because of its author’s ethnic affiliation, a shift that somehow pushes ethnic labeling aside. However, the intention of this shift doesn’t necessarily ignore the importance of an author’s ethnic background but rather reconfigures perceptions of ethnicity outside “the discourse of resistance and alterity” — to use Chu-chueh Cheng’s phrase, in assessing Kazuo Ishiguro’s oeuvre; Cheng considers Ishiguro an ‘international writer’ or ‘world writer’:

Like the term international, world classifies Ishiguro according to what he writes and for whom he writes rather than who he is and from where he comes. To define Ishiguro as an international writer or a world writer in English encourages readers to view his Japanese ancestry as one force among others enriching his composition and thereby to appraise him within a much broader spectrum of contemporary writers. (Cheng, Chu-chueh. “Making and Marketing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Alterity.” The University of Detroit Mercy: Post Identity vol. 4, no. 2, Fall 2005)

Here, Cheng can shed light on how we assess Le’s attempts in his collection, for now, beyond the boundaries of ethnicity, even though he has only released one book, but certainly clues us into the reach of his imagination. But the other question that looms here though is: why even bother with the terms ‘international’ and ‘world,’ why can’t Ishiguro just be a writer, why the issue of Le being a “very different kind of writer”? Indeed, our humanity has deep tendencies with such adjectives, in this context of cultural negotiation, while creative and academic writing warns us to be cautious with the use of adjectives. But I do wonder how any writer — especially international or world writers — will be re-assessed, around the globe especially in the U.S., in the years ahead, after Swedish Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl’s recent controversial remarks that the current status of literature in the United States is “too insular to compete” for the Nobel prize in literature (As Motoko Rich noted in a New York Times article “Translation is Foreign to U.S. Publishers” on 17 October 2008).

In the end though, the son disobeys his father, sets himself free — in the book’s last piece “The Boat” — and writes not his father’s, but Le’s own ethnic story, his family’s escape from communist Vietnam. But the real-life Le could not have consciously known what had happened during that journey, because he was an ailing three-month-old baby, when his family stayed in a refugee camp in Malaysia, before being offered passage to immigrate to Australia (As Steve Winn noted in a San Francisco Chronicle article “Nam Le’s long, literary journey” in 12 June 2008, on page E-1). However, this is the “third story” the Le in the first story has written, besides his father’s ethnic story, because it’s the one story that “makes [him] stand out”, the “Vietnamese thing” his friend says he could exploit: “Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time”.

In a sense, Le swallows one of the immediate stereotypes about the Vietnamese: boat people. Le exploits this stereotype, and takes it as far as he could go, through realism, to a point where the veil of ‘stereotype’ starts to thin out. This is the meta-story that becomes a form of disobedience to his father, because Le subverts what his father has suggested that “They’ll read and clap their hands and forget”. In this last story, Le’s ethnic story journeys into public imagination, to be read, praised, and then forgotten; and indeed, ‘forgotten’ could be part of this book’s future as well. But ‘forgotten’ doesn’t categorically mean amnesia, but rather it means being embedded in public consciousness, thus arriving — like waves disappearing on shore — but the memory will perhaps not stand out anymore, experiencing not so much invisibility, but rather solidarity with and in the memory of others.

Michael Caylo-Baradi works in Southern California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming online in XCP: Streetnotes, Galatea Resurrects, and Our Own Voice. He occasionally contributes op-ed pieces to The Daily Californian and the Los Angeles Daily News.

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