“Writer’s block? How can you have writer’s block? Just write a story about Vietnam.” An unidentified friend lectures Nam Le’s fictional narrator at the beginning of Le’s collection of short stories: “The Boat.” Le takes this advice and does the exact opposite.
Profound, explosive, and self-conscious, Nam Le takes the reader on a cross-cultural journey that introduces peoples of various societal niches including an urban, poor Columbian youth hit-man, a wealthy artist in New York, an Australian youth, a child living in Hiroshima during the Second World War, an American woman visiting Iran during a period of hostilities, and a brave young girl seeking shelter from Vietnamese Communists. Each of these accounts introduces the reader to a rich tapestry of humans experiencing loneliness, desiring love, and facing a loss of identity.
While Le artfully captures the scope of human emotion in the face of harrowing circumstances, he seems strained as a writer. Throughout the collection I can’t help but feel a taste of identity crisis pursing in-between the lines. I commend Le for his eagerness to explore diverse characters, but at times his words read insecure, as if they grapple for authenticity.
One of the most important underlying themes is this search for genuineness—the quote above eludes to that theme that surface in all of the stories. It seems that Le feels stifled by contemporary literary expectations of ethnic writers recounting their cultural past. In opposition to these expectations, Le flexes his ability to freely explore a variety of lens including cultural, socio-economic, and gender perspectives. A masterful storyteller that perhaps feels constricted by his own antagonism, Le has produced a selection of stories that marks him as a significant young writer.
Le introduces his short story collection with what seems to be a fictionalized account of him. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” details the life of a younger Le, aimlessly writing his final project for his graduate school program. Having not seen his father in three years and swamped with mixed emotions towards his father and the stresses of producing one last piece, Le faces the consequences of cleaving oneself from one’s culture and past. Le’s father arrives amidst this chaos to bear witness to his son who has slowly chosen to become more and more Americanized. The differences between Le and his father don’t reveal Le’s motives to separate himself from Vietnam as much as his hesitancy to capitalize on his cultural past. Immensely insightful, this piece perfectly segues the reader into the rest of the text.
Possibly Le’s most successful cultural journey takes the reader into the streets of Cartagena, Columbia with a youth who has been employed by a ruthless gang to work as a hit-man. Startling and flooded with human emotion as the boy grows up quick in a violent world, “Cartagena” explores the value of family, brotherhood, and the fragility of life. Le’s ability to grab the reader and slowly walk them through, detail-by-detail, incredibly dire and suspenseful scenes leaves a lasting imprint in his work. In addition, Le’s character, flawed and seemingly alien at first glance, breathes accessibility.
“Meeting Elise,” Le’s third short story, immediately straps the reader into the emotionally and physically deteriorating world of Henry Luff, an artist living in New York City. Having lived a life of riches and success, Luff faces cancerous diseases and cancerous people who slowly tear down his spirit and challenge his personhood. The descent begins with his lover’s death from a long heroin addiction and accelerates with his own prostate cancer and daughter’s reappearance. “Meeting Elise” reads heavy and precise as Le juxtaposes the materialist world that Luff lives in with the turbulent, emotional world where he spends his days. In the end, this section reflects Le’s ability to explore the human soul between the tip of his fingers and the keys that lay below them.
The fifth out of seven short stories, “Hiroshima” abruptly shifted my feelings about Le’s quest to write totally out of his comfort zone. Set in the World War II era in Hiroshima, Japan, “Hiroshima” is a story about a young girl, separated from her parents. The diction Le uses is simplified and most of the time the sentences do not naturally flow as the narrator jumps from one thought to an observation of the sights around her. Initially, I felt as if this represents Le’s attempt to emulate the speech of a child—or perhaps a way of recounting such a devastating event with suspense and confusion.
“The Boat” by Nam Le is quite the novelty of short story collections. Rocking from shore to shore, it sails the reader through emotional disorder and a scope of human experiences. Le explores characters diverse in personalities, gender, time, place, and much more, but never fails to remind the reader the beauty of this diversity is in their humanity—and in ours. Is he successful in his quest to write from these different perspectives? Read and find out!