I read Nam Le‘s collection of short stories The boat a few months before I started my blog. The collection has been well reviewed nationally and internationally, and has won quite a few awards. I have just read that he has now been awarded another: The Kathleen Mitchell Award which is a biennial literary prize for writers under 30 years old (as Nam Le was when the book was published). This award has been previously won by Sonya Hartnett who has gone on to write several highly acclaimed novels – and been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin – and Markus Zusak.
I loved The boat. It’s an unusually diverse collection. The language is highly differentiated from story to story to suit the particular characters and setting of each; the narrative voice varies from 1st to 3rd person, and from male to female points of view; and there’s an asonishing variety in his protagonists and settings. The subjects range from an 8 year old orphan girl in Hiroshima to a middle-aged painter in New York, from a 14 year old hitman in Colombia to a 35-year old American woman visiting Iran. Despite this diversity, though, there is a strong underlying theme, that of survival. This is probably not surprising in a writer who came to Australia from Vietnam as a boat refugee (albeit when not much more than a baby).
As it’s been a while since I read the book I’m not going to review it now but, given my particular interest in the intersection between fact and fiction, I’ll just mention the autobiographical aspect of the first story, “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”. That story is so close to Nam Le’s own life that it is tempting to read it as his life. A character says to the fictional Nam that “instead [of writing immigrant stories], you choose to write about lesbian vampires , and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – and New York painters with haemorrhoids”. One reviewer, Hari Kunzru in The Scotsman, wrote that “Sure enough, The Boat, contains all these stories, minus the lesbian vampires, who presumably got lost in the edit”. My question is: Does he know this for a fact? Did the real Nam Le write such a story or is it only the fictional one who did? Is this a case of life getting mixed up with art? In an interview on the ABC’s Bookshow Nam Le admits to a story about lesbians but says “the vampires I needed to leave some interpretive distance, I reckon”. I like to think of it as Nam Le’s little joke – but I may be wrong!
Oh, and did I mention that Nam Le attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? Doesn’t seem to have done him any harm!