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A Review of Nam Le’s The Boat

Nam Le’s The Boat is an interesting development for what might be called Asian American literature because Le does not contain most of his settings in the same locale, nor does he seem content to investigate stories that through most specifically articulate the dimensions of the Asian American experience. The collection is framed by the two stories which would traditionally grant us an entry to discuss this text; that is, they introduce elements of the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American experience. The first story, I think, is the strongest due to its amazing conclusion that completely subverts an affectual impulse desired by most readers in which we see the main character lovingly detail the strained relationship between his Vietnamese immigrant father and himself. Titled, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” this short story also immediately and self-consciously subverts the desire on the part of the reader to link up the ethnic background of the author to the content on the page. I think this piece is essential in setting up the ones that will follow because they are all completed, more or less, from ethnic, spatial, and national trajectories which will move the collection far afield from what might be called “authorial essentialism.” “Cartagena” seems to be a story written from the perspective of one slum-dwelling inhabitant of a Spanish shantytown, although I wasn’t quite sure even after having done some research. As Le takes on the persona of one of these shantytown denizens, he radically de-links authorial ethnicity from the textual character in a way that Asian American writers tend not to do. Indeed, he invests the narrative with a number of Spanish phrases and explores the incredibly austere environment of a tigurio. “Hiroshima” follows the perspective of a group of characters just prior to the atomic bombing on the titular Japanese city. The tragedy invoked in this story is one related to representing the Japanese ideology that led to the citizenry living in a sort of ideologically constructed fantasy world that spectacularly crumbles as the bomb finally falls. The final story, “The Boat,” details the harrowing experiences of Mai, a young woman, as she escapes Vietnam. Her parents hope that her leavetaking will grant her a better future, one not conditioned under the auspices of communist “re-education” camps. Even here, where there is the possibility that Le is drawing upon an autobiographical experience, the first story makes too perilous this connection. Further, because the narrative is centered not on the Vietnamese American experience, but rather on the tale of forced migrations, exiles as it were, an essentialist approach fails to encapsulate the impossibilities of a simple ethnically informed linkage between author and his story.

Le’s The Boat is an important book for Asian American literature and American literature more broadly. Even though I have heard rumblings that short story collections do not sell well (much in the same vein that I hear of the failures of poetry to sell at all), there is obvious literary merit to this work that I would hope grants this collection a life far beyond the marketplace. The short stories are for the most part elegantly crafted and even in instances where I felt the “leaps” from one narrative context to the next felt a bit jarring, I am reminded the title of the whole collection is meant to remind us of transit and shuttling from one place and one subjectivity to another.

All in all, a satisfying read, an important work, and a welcome debut to the ever-burgeoning field of American letters.

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