24 Jul 2008

Word Trafficking

By Rod McGuinness
Filling in gaps in the literary historical record and making sense of a "hodge-podge" of cultures, Nam Le's debut collection of short stories has garnered accolades from around the world
Readers may be thrown by the opening story of The Boat, a collection of short stories by acclaimed 29-year-old author Nam Le. In ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' the main character is Nam Le, a former Melbourne lawyer attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Not only that, he is being visited by the estranged father who brought him from Vietnam to Australia by boat as a baby. The parallels to the life of the actual Nam Le are striking but the story, the author insists, is not autobiographical.

The real Nam Le was born in Vietnam, coming to Australia as a refugee with his parents and older brother when just a few months old. He studied law and after graduating worked as a corporate lawyer before travelling for a year. After hearing about the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, he applied and was accepted, moving to Iowa where he spent the next two years. Another two years on, The Boat was released.

The collection is closed by the title story, the tale of a Vietnamese woman who flees the Communist government and undertakes an arduous journey to Australia. It's simply harrowing. Nam Le has said previously that "The Boat' ... (sought) to flesh out an experience that's been lacking on the historical literary record."

I asked Le if, given his background, he felt obliged to write about the experiences of ‘boat people'.

"First, I should clarify that I was referring to the title story, ‘The Boat' and not the book as a whole. I was talking about how the various stories in the book were conceived, trying to make the point that another story, ‘Hiroshima', developed almost entirely in negative relief — that is, in it I wanted to capture something real, relatable, human, behind a historic tragedy that's absolutely saturated in previous expression and assumption — whereas ‘The Boat' ended up taking the opposite tack, seeking to flesh out this ‘boat person' experience that's been underrepresented on the historical literary record.

"I don't feel any obligation whatsoever to write about refugees. The obligations I feel are simultaneously more specific and more abstract: to bear down on whatever material is in front of me, to stay alert to its exigencies, to not let myself off the hook just because the material may feel too foreign — or too close — to me, and to do justice to whatever I'm writing about — whether it manifests in setting, theme, character, or story.

"There's no doubt I feel my writing entering a charged zone when I venture into personal or family history. I was three months old when I became a ‘boat person' — so my first-hand experience is almost entirely second-hand — but yes, it's changed the way I see myself, chiefly because it enlists me in the set of people who have had this experience."

There's obviously a long history of difficult journeys to Australia, most recently the passage undertaken by asylum seekers during the Howard years, so it's surprising there is a lack of these experiences on the historical literary record.

Perhaps we haven't heard more stories like these because Australians are uninterested in the migrant experience. I asked Le how much he drew on his own experience growing up as a migrant within a predominantly white culture.

"I'm unsure Anglo-Australians aren't uninterested in migrant experience. Nor am I sure that I grew up in a dominant white culture; I very much felt that I grew up in a hodge-podge of cultures and subcultures that broke along class, economic, urban/rural and educational lines, as much as racial lines (and indeed, it seems important to note that ‘white,' as racial moniker in Melbourne — if it downplays the differences between, eg, English, Greek, Lebanese, Italian and Eastern European communities — can be inexact at best, and tribally exclusive at worst.)"

"This isn't to say that there's no dominant culture, or no dominant set of ideas of ourselves as a culture, but when our sense of ‘Australia' is made up of ideas we don't challenge or test about ourselves, that we take as given — from abstract ideas of egalitarianism or ‘mateship' or ‘larrikinism' to concrete preoccupations like footy or surfing or barbecues — sometimes the effect can be solely to give ‘insiders' a sense of security in their membership in the dominant culture".

"To my mind, such security is illusory — is too often a product of inertia or indolence. Not only that, it short-changes the largeness of these ideas; as a personal example, if it's quintessentially Aussie to love the beach, I remember my family deriving a secondary pleasure from the idea that this pleasure was nevertheless accessible to all, that although it was indistinguishable, qualitatively, from a ‘Vietnamese' enjoyment of the beach, it carried the gift of invitation — of cultural communion — and as a result broadened the principle of pleasure to accommodate private modes and methods depending on where you were from."

"Australia's experience of immigration has enlivened our ideas about what it means to be Australian, and a lot of Australians, Anglo or otherwise, are interested in this. Every one of us is a member of many minorities; is in many senses immigrant to ourselves. Where fiction is richest for me is where people deal with deep and constant agitations as to whether they belong, what it is they're belonging to, and why they want so badly to belong".

The Boat is published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Australia.

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