Get in the Boat, and Go Along for the Ride

December 18, 2008 at 6:31 am (Uncategorized)

As I just emailed someone else who privately weighed in, the continued blog fallout is just the icing on this week’s big shit cake, so I’m just going to eat what I’ve got coming to me, and hope no one’s offended when I don’t put my hand up for seconds. 

I won’t forget the lessons of the last few days, and I hope you know I never set out to upset or hurt anyone with the contents of this blog, but let’s move on. I made a mistake, and I’d be glad to shake the hand of the person who never has. You know where to find me. 

When all else fails, I turn to books (actually, I do that whatever happens), so let’s clear the air with a bit of a book blab. Haven’t had one of those in a while. As well as reading Changeling’s new manuscript, which I feel certain is destined to send her on her merry road to fat royalties and  a wide audience and great success, I’ve been reading Nam Le‘s collection of short stories, The Boat. In terms of voice, I have never come across a writer of this range. It’s like an ecstatic schizophrenia moving from one story to the next; that’s how distinct each (even third person) narrative voice is. It’s almost frightening. I just don’t know how he’s done it. From a purely professional point of view, read Le at your own risk, because you’ll be sure to despair of ever writing anything that comes close to his mastery of the trade. I was talking to a friend who shall remain nameless (ho ho) about the sheer range in this collection, and I wondered aloud if Le ever interviewed subjects ahead of writing his stories. I wonder. He’s just so authentically across idiom and age and ethnicity that you’ve got to wonder where the hell he’s getting it all  from. If I tried writing in the voice of a Colombian teen assassin, I’m confident it would descend into parody or cliche in no time. I cringe just thinking about it. I don’t even think I’d get away with it at a costume party. 

So how’s he doing it? Communing with his genius, maybe. Also he’s a Vietnamese Australian living in America, and I think that bilingual and trans-cultural people are better at picking up idiomatic nuances. I think they experience the aural world very differently, and I envy them that extra ear. I also think that refugee experience of his must have been formative and indeed transformative. When the Le family arrived in Australia in 1979 after a harrowing sea journey, they would have found an energetically racist country. I bet Nam Le worked pretty hard to fit in, and make friends, and get on. And that must surely have demanded the ability to be whoever his peers needed him to be in order for them to forgive him his otherness. Isn’t that what playground prejudice demands? Difference is punishable in the schoolyard, and it’s a nimble child who can turn that strangeness to advantage. My own guess is that young Nam Le – with his agile mind and, judging from his author photo, spunky self-possession – was such a child, and he’s now using what he knows to create beautiful and disturbing stories that swim so fluidly right across the full breadth of humanity. I haven’t gone to gibberish about a writer for a long time, but The Boat makes me stutter.


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