Ethnic literature is hot.
This is what a “literary” agent told me (verbatim) after flipping through my “unsellable” work and zeroing in on the one story I have set in Iran. (“If you ever write the Iranian Kite Runner, let me know! Or a family saga about Iranian women!”)
This is what a professor admitted when an Asian classmate said, “If I want to get published, I need to give all my characters Asian names, right? Find and replace?”
This is what the character in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is told in his writing workshop at Iowa. Blocked and unable to finish the last story of his degree, his classmates encourage him to delve into his Vietnamese-ness for material, particularly his father’s war experiences. He’s done this only once before with a story about Vietnamese boat people, preferring in general to mine his imagination rather than his ethnicity. When his father visits, though, the writer asks for his painful stories, records them, and the idea of writing one’s family comes to a head.
Nam Le, the author, is a Vietnamese-Australian writer who attended Iowa and was encouraged to write about being Vietnamese. This all could have been a too-cute, too-confusing, too-post-modern nightmare.
Instead, the first story was transcendent: true, beautiful, insightful and painful. The two stories that followed it, one about a fourteen year old Columbian hit-man, the other about a dying American painter trying to connect with an estranged daughter, were only slightly less moving. They lost nothing in veering 180 degrees from Nam Le’s biography.
Where the collection faltered was in the middle set of stories. They swing from contemporary Australia to Japan during World War II to present-day Iran. If you read reviews of the book, no one mentions these stories at all. Whereas in another collection they might have been standouts, following those first three, they tilt towards forgettable.
But, when I got to the final story, “The Boat,” I was actually physically affected. First, the writing was that good: desperate and visceral, a harrowing account of refugees from Vietnam on a treacherous boat. Second, it was the story about Vietnamese boat people the character from “Love and Honor…” had written. I was nearly in tears realizing this. Instead of being too-cute, too-clever, it was a move almost too brilliant to bear. A collection where the stories seemed to have no connection to each other at all, given how across-the-map they were, suddenly had an overall narrative, something even bigger to say.
It’s easy to get angry about the “ethnic” thing in the “can we please talk about the quality of the writing?” kind of way. Nam Le’s “Vietnamese” stories could have been vindictive, there to kick someone in the ass for trying to put him in a box. Instead, with this collection, he said, “I can do this, and this, and this, and no matter what I do, it’s going to make you think and it’s all going to be good.”