Friday 28 November 2008

Playing with postcolonialism

The Boat, by Nam Le

Earlier this month Nam Le was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize for Young Writers, the most generous literary prize for writers under the age of 30, with prize money of £60,000. He won for his fiction debut, the short story collection The Boat, beating authors from the UK, South Africa and Ethiopia.

The Boat opens with ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, an apparently autobiographical account of a young Vietnamese writer in Iowa, struggling to write something of value. Showing great awareness of the literary world of which he is a part, the character describes his peers’ responses to his identity as an ‘ethnic’ writer. With lines like, ‘How can you have writer’s block? Just write a story about Vietnam,’ and ‘You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn’t have the vocab,’ Le drolly summarises the debate around postcolonial writing.

Despite his mockery of the genre, the unnamed character does end up following his peers’ advice that he use his ethnicity in his writing, and finds his authorial voice through exploring his father’s horrendous experiences in the Vietnam War. By doing so he imagines himself in the guise of ‘the postcolonial writer’, recalling other ethnic writers of short stories, such as Bharati Mukherjee. Le plays with this genre, yet ultimately refuses to be confined by it, choosing to use aspects of the immigrant experience in his writing, yet avoiding any sense of didacticism.

What connects the stories in this collection is not the immigrant experience per se, although this does play a role in several of them, but the discomfort of difference and the experiences of those who find themselves isolated in their own heads.

Le is eventually prevented from exploiting of his father’s story for his own ends, because the barrier between the two men too great to allow effective communication. In ‘Meeting Elise’, a man dying of cancer is denied the opportunity of communicating with his estranged daughter. In the title story, set on an immigrant boat sailing from Cambodia, Mai’s hopes of a future as a surrogate mother to a little boy are dashed and she ends up as alone as she was at the start of her journey. The tone in these stories, as in the whole collection, is sombre, but not pessimistic. Despite the pain and failure that Le’s characters experience, each story concludes with a degree of understanding having been gained. The message is ultimately hopeful: whether mentally or physically, Le’s characters do manage to overcome their troubles.

Le’s prose is evocative and beautiful without being overwritten. In the first story, the frustrated writer’s irritation at not being able to transmit his words to paper is ironically expressed in the graceful syntax and imagery of the accomplished author: ‘How hard could it be? Things happened in this world all the time. All I had to do was record them. In the sky, two swarms of swallows converged, pulled apart, interwove again like veils drifting at crosscurrents. In line at the supermarket, a black woman leaned forward and kissed the handle of her shopping cart, her skin dark and glossy like the polished wood of a piano’.

Character too is handled masterfully. The stories in the collection are set in diverse contexts and treat the experiences of a wide range of protagonists, from the adolescent assassin of ‘Cartagena’ to the heartbroken Portland lawyer holidaying in Iran at the centre of ‘Teheran Calling’. Le is utterly convincing in each setting, switching into the necessary voices with seeming ease. He writes as if he is intimately acquainted with all his characters, unlikely given the breadth of ground he covers. The result is that nothing jars in this collection. In terms of style,
Le’s writing is practically perfect.

That is not to say that there are not weak points in the book. ‘Halflead Bay’, the longest story in the collection, at 68 pages, loses the momentum that Le builds in the preceding three stories. It describes Australian teenager Jamie’s first experiences with the opposite sex and his attempt to cope with a mother in the final stages of MS. The characters in this story are completely true to life but too much time is spent in Jamie’s head for ‘Halflead Bay’ to be truly compelling.

‘Hiroshima’ is another strange tale. Narrated in the first person by a young Japanese girl evacuated to the countryside during the war, its form is almost stream-of-consciousness. The only other first person narrators in the collection are knowledgeable and self-assured; compared to them little Mayako’s story makes for an awkward read. This story and ‘Halflead Bay’ come across as experiments that haven’t quite succeeded, the attempts of a young writer to work outside his comfort zone. Their failure however does not take away from the success of the collection as a whole, which is a triumph of short story writing.

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