Melbourne-born writer Nam Le is causing an international sensation with his first book, The Boat, attracting a rave review from The New York Times star reviewer Michikio Kakutani, using words like ‘astonishing’, ‘powerful and remarkable’. In the latest of Readings’ series of features spotlighting new and emerging Australian writers (sponsored by the Copyright Agency Limited), fellow short story writer Cate Kennedy talks to Nam Le.
Nam Le’s ambitious debut collection, The Boat, is made up of seven stories that illustrate such a dazzling virtuosity with narrative voice, you start to wonder just how many lives this barely 30-year-old Vietnamese-Australian author has had. An ex-corporate lawyer, he been recognised in the US with several awards and fellowships, including the coveted Pushcart Prize, so this collection has been eagerly awaited, with writers like Charles D’Ambrosio unreservedly praising the collection as ‘tremendous, challenging and ambitious … this book nails our collective now with an urgency and relevance that feels visionary.’
It’s the scope and versatility of these stories that have garnered him this kind of critical praise. Longer than the average Australian short story by several thousand words, each one differs so markedly from the others in style, voice and setting that you are left shaking your head in admiration that they could all have been written by the same author.
That’s because Le is an author who can take you anywhere – Hiroshima in the day before the atomic bomb, nervy, present-day Tehran, a dead-end Australian coastal town – and bring it to life with extraordinary accuracy. Not only are the stories’ locales widely dissimilar, but their various protagonists emerge as entirely credible; no mean feat when you consider that they range in scope from a teenage drug runner for a Colombian drug cartel to an anguished, dying New York painter desperate to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
‘Looking back now,’ Le says of the stories, ‘I will say that by switching from place to place … I was in some way formalising the idea that there’s no place that’s not strange to us. Fiction makes strange even the places we think we know.’ But how did he achieve such a richly-detailed authenticity in creating these fictional places and voices? He concedes that it probably has a lot to do with an innate wanderlust, which has led him to travel widely. ‘I was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, currently live in the US, and have mucked around through chunks of Europe, South America and Asia. It’s not a stretch to say that the reasons why I travel and why I write or read are similar; to see other things, other places, situations and people, through other eyes.’
He agrees that the stories, in their ambitious scope, ‘are all over the map in more than just the geographical sense’. But he’s quick to point out that he didn’t write the collection merely to set the bar challengingly high for himself. ‘I never imagined, when I was writing the stories, that they belonged to anything more than themselves,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t test them for their fit within a collection, let alone any theme or scheme. I was trying to write what interested me, what moved me, in a way that tried to be interesting and moving. As for setting the bar high – I think just writing a story that works is setting the bar almost impossibly high. Sometimes it helps me to think of it this way: a story isn’t so much written as governed, and just keeping your eye on everything, having your hands on the hot, heavy levers, is all you can hope to do.’
The hot, heavy levers that Le seems to handle so effortlessly keep all kinds of subtle narrative machinery moving smoothly in his stories. He says ruefully that he’s learned the hard way: through writing an earlier novel which he considers ‘a spectacular multi-dimensional failure’, but which gave him a sense of what to expect in terms of the hard slog of writing. ‘I think it also freed me in a sort of pillar-of-salt way – there came a point I knew I’d be doomed if I turned back toward it. Short stories provided a great escape – I’d never written them, and frankly, hadn’t read too many, so I felt I had nothing to lose.’
It also gave him the chance to weave into the stories some of what has been clearly absorbed through the osmosis of travel and careful, compassionate, astute observation. Le is a writer with an uncanny knack for getting the details right, and rendering them in unforced, poetic prose. Through Sarah, the central character in ‘Tehran Calling’, he describes the appearance of the Persian written language as ‘half-open fish hooks, sickle blades, pregnant letters with dots in their bellies. An alphabet refracted in water.’ Henry, the irascible and brilliant Manhattan artist in ‘Meeting Elise’, recalls the last moment he fleetingly touched his daughter, when she was a sick baby: ‘the only thing that can make my hands feel graceless.’ Le is familiar, too, with the nuances of Australian adolescent awkwardness in ‘Halflead Bay’– so much so that he even names the deodorants the teenage boys use – and gives us a sensory world that echoes the exactitude of Tim Winton: ‘All along the walkway were canvas chairs, eskies, straight-backed rods thick as spear grass. A mob of fluoro jigs hopping on the water … Someone had a portable radio and music streamed in the air in clean, bright colours. The bay a basin of light.’
‘Details are hard,’ Le says of the process of finessing his stories. ‘You can err on every side: too many, not enough, too precise, too oblique, too suggestive, too showy, too subtle … I charge myself not with getting something right but with doing it justice. Capturing not the essence but an essence.’
He acknowledges, very modestly, that he did ‘a fair bit of research’ to find the right details (and that research must be fantastically meticulous, since he admits he’s never been to most of the places described in the stories), but it’s worn lightly and invisibly. Le comments on the delicate business of striving to create the sort of ringing authenticity that enables ‘that true empathy, that deep, clear, close inhabitation by the reader of another consciousness in another context. That’s the key, the gold in the ore – where imagination and understanding meet, recognising familiarity in strangeness, truth in otherness, and yourself, in a tricksy mess of words.’
Le’s work is never tricksy, though, and it’s clear that he’s spent a long time thinking about creating the precision and impact he wants. When we talk about the all-important connection between writer and reader, he laughingly describes the suspension of disbelief involved as a kind of seduction. ‘It’s a courtship, isn’t it? The writer sets the scene, starts the music, lights the candles, carelessly strews the right objects around – and the reader allows him/herself to be seduced. Or doesn’t. The end goal – the ultimate high – converges, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, when the writer’s and reader’s energies converge. That’s where the action is: the meeting point between “believe me” and “I believe you”.’
Allow yourself to be seduced – this is a terrific collection; intelligent, exhilarating and moving. Just as readers will find themselves immersed in the mysterious power of these stories, Nam Le himself is the first to admit that the instincts that work to breathe the visceral, sensory life into his fiction are sometimes just as mysterious to him.
‘No matter how many ways you slice it,’ he remarks, ‘no matter how ingeniously you deconstruct or reverse engineer a given story, you never know what it is that gives it life. Not in a way that’s redeemable or transferable. So what do you do? You stumble onwards. You follow your leads.’
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and is working on her first novel.