Nam Le

Every now and then, in the literary field, a writer seems to come from nowhere to be, suddenly, everywhere. The latest example of this is Nam Le, a writer born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, and currently writer-in-residence at Philips Exeter Academy in the US. His first collection of short stories, The Boat, is now on the shelves in Australia. Michael Williams interviewed the author for "The Age".

Vietnam-born, Melbourne-raised Le is warm, direct and frankly surprised at the enthusiasm of his reception. On the phone from New Hampshire, where he is taking part in a fellowship at the Phillips Exeter Academy, he reflects on the trajectory that led him to this point.

"I didn't really start reading and writing short stories in earnest until I came to America. I'd been working on a novel back home and had applied to the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program here with chunks of that novel."

The novel has now been abandoned -- in one interview he described it as "a 700-page spectacular, multi-dimensional failure" -- and I press him to find out what went wrong with it.

He laughs: "You name it mate . . . more than anything it was a structural problem. What happened was I sat down one day, drew up a 20-chapter outline and somehow never gave myself permission to deviate from it. Before long each chapter had swelled to 10,000 words and the whole thing just ended up being cumbersome and clumsy."

Michiko Kakutani reviewed the book for "The New York Times": "Whether it's the prospect of dying at sea or being shot by a drug kingpin or losing family members in a war, Nam Le's people are individuals trapped in the crosshairs of fate, forced to choose whether they will react like deer caught in the headlights, or whether they will find a way to confront or disarm the

In "The New York Sun", Benjamin Lytal found that "All sincere works of the imagination, these stories yet bear a self-conscious riposte to conventional wisdom. If ethnic writers are doomed to exploit their own heritage, the Vietnamese-Australian author seems to say, then let them exploit other, totally alien heritages as well." The "LA Times" also talked to Le.

If there's a common thread to your stories, it's the ocean. Judging from "Halflead Bay," you're a fisherman. I'm what they call a spiritual fisherman, who knows nothing about it, but if I had to fill out a questionnaire in heaven and list an occupation, I might list that. I'm enthralled and terrified and awe-struck by and in love with the ocean. One of my dreams has always been, and I'm still working on it, to get a berth on cargo ships that go to Antarctica. You go through these stretches of ocean that have waves from 50 to 100 feet or more high. It utterly overwhelms metaphor. And I think back to some of my heroes, Melville or Conrad, who actually were out there for months, on the stupendously high seas in dangerous conditions -- that romance really comes through in their words.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 4, 2008 11:40 AM.

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