Other friends were more forthright: "I'm sick of ethnic lit," one said. "It's full of descriptions of exotic food." Or: "You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab."
I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington, D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed.
"It's a license to bore," my friend said. We were drunk and walking our bikes because both of us, separately, had punctured our tires on the way to the party.
"The characters are always flat, generic. As long as a Chinese writer writes about Chinese people, or a Peruvian writer about Peruvians, or a Russian writer about Russians ..." he said, as though reciting children's doggerel, then stopped, losing his train of thought. His mouth turned up into a doubtful grin. I could tell he was angry about something.
"You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids."
All the best of 2009 lists started popping up recently, and although I usually eschew the whole list-making thing, it did set me thinking about my best reads this year. My top four came to mind instantly, but then I had to pause. Unlike many bloggers, I do not keep spreadsheets or review every book I read so I do not really have a reliable record upon which to look back. So I headed to the shelves. And there it was, loved but inexplicably forgotten - The Boat by Nam Le.
This collection of seven short stories is masterful in both its range of subject matter and the author's ability to adapt his prose to that specific subject. As if the words originate not from an individual authorial voice but from the story itself. Each piece in the book seems to warrant a new style of expression. The author's approach is hinted at in the shiniest short story in the book, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" in which a Vietnamese student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop is urged by his friends to mine his personal experience as refugee for writing material.
The clever thing about having this particular story open the collection is that has some obvious autobiographical elements (the author and protagonist share a first name, same background as Vietnamese emigre turned lawyer turned writing student), and so it provides a novel framework upon which Le can introduce his own philosophy about the craft.
As protagonist Nam wrestles with whether or not to exploit his background for material, his father arrives for a visit, and the quiet conflicts between the two highlight the choice in front of Nam as a writer. Does he embrace the static as exemplified by his father's love of the proverb or does he create something new? The humor shown in the quote above quietly slips away as the relationship between father and son rises to the fore as they seek to define both personal relationship and the ties that bind them to their birth home. Personal story and story about the craft of writing merge in a dramatic and satisfying ending.The six remaining stories are set in Iowa City, the slums of Colombia, Manhattan, coastal Australia, Hiroshima, Iran and the South China Sea with characters as far afield as these locales. All memorable. Great emotional impact without sentimentality. Filtered through the individual. Lending credence to the belief that great literature often represents the voice of one rather than many. Delivered with such confidence as to propel a reader through the whole book in one fluid, easy movement. Loved it.
Check out the book's site for more details.