This piece is by Uma Anyar and originally appeared in the UWRF column of the Bali Advertiser.
“The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.” Nam Le
One of the pleasures of attending Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is the opportunity to meet writers who intrigue you not only with their writing, but also with their interesting life stories. Nam Le is such a writer. His history, his career path signals a young writer who might just be the voice of an emerging ‘global citizen’ generation. Postmodern, multicultural, at home everywhere and nowhere, whose addresses are all virtual.
Le was born in 1978 in Vietnam and escaped to Australia as a boat refugee in the arms of his parents when he was less than a year old. He grew up in Melbourne and eventually attended The University of Melbourne from which he graduated with a BA (Hons) and LLB (Hons). He worked as a corporate lawyer and was admitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 2003/2004. But the suit and tie life did not fit him and he felt pulled toward writing.
In an interview on the Australian ABC Radio, he said he turned from law to writing due to his love of reading: “I loved reading, and if you asked me why I decided to become a writer, that’s the answer right there, because I was a reader and I was just so enthralled and thrilled by the stuff that I’d read that I just thought; what could be better? How could you possibly better spend your time than trying to recreate that feeling for other people”.
He binned his corporate suit and applied to The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, arguably the best writing program in the world. He was accepted and moved to the United States in 2004. After graduating with a Masters degree in Creative Writing, he became fiction editor at the Harvard Review. His first short story was published in Zoetrope in 2006. Nam Le also held fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown in 2006, and at the Phillips Exeter Academy in 2007. Since these early achievements he has received over ten Australian and international awards including: 2007, Pushcart Prize, 2008, Dylan Thomas Prize for The Boat and 2010, PEN/Malamud Award, among others.
The Alfred A Knopf press published The Boat, a collection of seven short stories, in 2008. It is in this book that the reader brushes up against Nam Le, the global citizen. The stories are set in Colombia, New York City, Iowa, Tehran, Hiroshima, and small-town Australia. Nam Le explains that each story provides, “a snapshot of a pivotal point in the characters’ lives”.
In the opening story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, Nam Le writes about a Vietnamese-born character called Nam Le who is attending a writing workshop in Iowa. It is his most praised and most discussed story.
Love and Honor… intrigues readers because it sits on the fence of reality and fiction. It is an emotional minefield for the young writer. The issue of milking one’s family heritage tragedy for fame and profit is raised within the body of the story; a character speaking to the fictional Nam Le in the story says: “You 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 haemorrhoids.”
You cannot find any lesbian vampires in The Boat. But every story is a gem in its own way. They link together in that ordinary people find themselves in circumstances which are horrific, but not heroic. It recently received a stunning graphic novel treatment courtesy of illustrator Matt Huynh and the Walkley Award-winning team at SBS Online, part of the Australian multicultural broadcaster’s recognition of the 40-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon. (Still pictured below)
The dilemma of writing about a background that is part of your heritage, but is not directly your own experience, is addressed in the lead story, which seems to be a retelling of Nam’s father’s astounding life.
The father tells a group of drunken Vietnamese émigrés gathered together in suburban Melbourne his story about when he was 14-years-old and American soldiers massacred the people of his village, his mother saving him from death by jumping on top of him to shield him from the bullets.
Later, he would be conscripted into the South Vietnamese Army and forced to serve alongside American soldiers. This condemned him to years in a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon and the North Vietnamese took over. When he was finally discharged from the camp, he fled Vietnam with his wife and child, smuggling them aboard a crowded fishing vessel with dozens of other refugees.
“What does one do with a story of that magnitude?” Nam Le has asked.
“This is a past larger than complaint, more perilous than memory. It is as large—and as perilous—as Faulkner’s old verities, demanding much more than a slick dip into one’s “background and life experience.” How can it be fit into a fiction, then, and particularly the type of fiction, which is produced by the cramped expectations of publics and publishers eager for the latest exotic tragedy? Love and Honor… is direct in addressing this uncomfortable situation.
“My relationship with Vietnam is complex. For a long time I vowed I wouldn’t fall into writing ethnic stories, immigrant stories, etc. Then I realised that not only was I working against these expectations (market, self, literary, cultural), I was working against my kneejerk resistance to such expectations. How I see it now is no matter what or where I write about, I feel a responsibility to the subject matter. Not so much to get it right as to do it justice. Having personal history with a subject only complicates this — but not always, nor necessarily, in bad ways. I don’t completely understand my relationship to Vietnam as a writer. This book is a testament to the fact that I’m becoming more and more okay with that,” Nam Le stated in an interview with the Asia Pacific Post in 2008.
Nam Le is a man of many and varied talents. He was a corporate lawyer. He is a writer with an international profile on the basis of one book, and he earns his living as a professional poker player. This is not the usual state of things for professional poker players or writers. His publisher and his readers questioned him whether poker playing was getting in the way of writing his second book, which has been highly anticipated.
“If it got to a point where poker was encroaching in a way that is detrimental to the writing than I would definitely take a break.” He says it is too hard to earn a living from writing alone.
“Writing just takes as long as it takes. In some ways it’s like the bubble in poker. It just happens when it happens. I used to feel a lot of pressure for the second book, but because I blew all my deadlines I feel it a lot less now.”
During an interview published in Poker Listings, Josh Bell asked Nam Le if his second book would be about the poker world?
“I really hope someone writes the great poker fiction book! I’ve been thinking about how to marry poker to drama, because poker is so full of drama, it’s so full of characters. Maybe one day it will be me who writes it.”
Then he slyly added, “Writing about poker is probably the only way I can get revenge on some of these players crushing me at the table!
Writing as revenge, now that is an intriguing notion for a book. Perhaps, we will learn more from Nam in person at the next Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.