Friday, July 1, 2011

The Nam Le twist in straight narratives


Photo as adapted by the National Weekender.
Three years ago the name Nam Le was unknown throughout the literary world. Then in 2008, courtesy of Penguin Group (Australia), book lovers woke up to the arrival of this Vietnamese-born Australian author as “a disturber of peace.”


His critics raved on, among them the well-respected Barry Oakley who wrote, “The Boat (title of Nam Le’s book of short stories) raises the bar for Australian writing”, adding with irrevocable endorsement somewhat that “Nam Le has a nerve and a power, a refusal to take any setting, local or American or exotic, for granted, that leaves quite a few of our prize-winning authors for dead.”

Those words of appraisal in mind we would think that Nam Le’s mission in literary creativity is more than the phenomenon of ethnicity, whatever that may be, and which promises to dwell on reminding the world at large that it got all its literary perception and perspectives wrong. A question that immediately comes to our minds is how non ethnical Nam Le is when treating his art as overtly universal and seemingly indifferent to fixed local settings.

Perhaps the answer to that lies in Nam Le’s willingness, as a literary debutant, to seriously look at certain existing literary devices that for centuries man has been too timid to explore. After all, writing, and indeed literature, should be about re-writing literature as much as history, particularly the one that, as Barry points out above, sets a bar right across the board of what is and what is not. Storyboard believes Nam Le wants to do more than explore those literary devices, more particularly those devices that fall under the category of metaphor as a fitting mode of prose narrative.

There are seven short stories in The Boat and a telling aspect of them all is that each story is about as long as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or about as long as a single sentence in William Faulkner’s novels (most Faulkner novels are single sentences that run for over 300 pages). And it is from William Faulkner that Nam Le derives the phrase “love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” as the title of his opening short story. The other six are, consecutively: Cartagena, Meeting Elise, Halflead Bay, Hiroshima, Tehran Calling and The Boat.

We can see by the titles of the stories that there is a kind of literary mapping offered by the author especially those that appear as geographical contours tracing the reader’s literary consciousness. In the first story with strong Faulknerish albeit apocalyptic reflections we see glimpses of a father re-united with his son after years away through the son’s parents' separation. The son by then is doing a course at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There one of the requirements in the form of a major paper is to submit a short story with strong sentiments of ethnicity. Notice the duties that the professors have assigned this budding writer: “I had two and a half days left. I would write the ethnic story of my Vietnamese father... I fed in a sheet of blank paper. At the top of the page I typed ‘ETHNIC STORY’ in capital letters. I pushed the carriage return and scrolled down to the next line. The sound of helicopters in a dark sky. The keys hammered the page.”

The Vietnamese father talked about in that story was one of the victims and survivors of the famous (or infamous) My Lai massacre, a major sequence in America’s withdrawal of its forces from Vietnam. It is, of course, a true story as related by the father to the son so that it could be written down. But rather than sound piteous about the massacre and how many lives lost, the author chooses a certain mode of narrative that, ethnicity or not, make us think of it as all too familiar.

“May be he didn’t tell it exactly that way,” writes Nam Le. “May be I’m filling in the gaps. But you’re not under oath when writing a eulogy, and this is close enough. My father grew up in the province of Quang Ngai, in the village of Son My, in the hamlet of Tu Cung, later known to the Americans as My Lai. He was fourteen years old.”

On the day that the major paper is to be submitted for assessment the father had, in the act of not only chastising but critiquing his son’s creative efforts, burnt the whole manuscript and sent it packing in the form ashes downriver. There goes the truth about My Lai.

The other six stories are similarly narrated: strong, incisive, less piteous, and all the time nudging the well experienced writer that “this is how it is done in creative literature.” And the literary device used therein is the metaphor, touching powerfully the edges of the surreal and the absurd: an old run down junk full of ghostly beings fleeing a certain fate (The Boat); a fourteen year-old boy in Columbia being manipulated as a drug pusher, getting “promoted” to an “office job”, a post where he will be closer to the drug lords and their empire, only to learn that to qualify he must eliminate a rival who happens to be his close friend simply because the friend has converted to a United Nations humanitarian aid program of sorts thereby placing the whole drug ring at risk, and that he must act fast since his own life is at risk, and that in his choice of suicidal assassination when in close range of the drug lord whom he is meeting in person for the first time, his hand in his hip pocket, having pulled out the pin of the hand grenade, he realizes to his dismay that the leader, the benefactor of all youth of Cartagena, is an albino, meaning a black man (Cartagena); a grade three little girl smiles before a camera just to be blinded temporarily by a sudden streak of bleaching flashlight from the lens (Hiroshima); a small town youth challenges a bully over a girl with threats of ethnic violence looming menacingly at the background (Halflead Bay); a haemorrhaging cancer-riddled father half bleeding to death in anticipation of meeting a lost but remorseless daughter after eighteen years (Meeting Elise); and a middle aged American woman curious about the complexities of gender issues in the Islamic world (Tehran Calling).  
We could talk about The Boat and Nam Le’s art more, space permitting, but for the moment just the mention of the book’s relevance to PNG. We have to read as much as we can books of this quality in order to get our world view polished up a bit. That book coupled with those of the Arabic world telling you about the oil rich desert countries, about those that romanticize Diaspora such as which Mogadishu- or Bengali-born individuals are trying to make do with what they have as their roots somewhere in the middle of New York, London or Paris, or about those that tell you, a respectable Papua New Guinean reader, that a certain Turkish-born Orhan Pamuk deserves to be read because he is the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and so on. (Mr. Orhan Pamuk must forgive us here but his surname in Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin denotes a term of the same spelling with strong sensuous connotations.)

But out of that variety of books we must certainly consider The Boat an equally enlightening bargain for the well-informed PNG reader.