An urge to roam land and seas

Times Staff Writer

Nam LE’s critically lauded first book, “The Boat,” is a story collection in name only -- no overarching theme, location or character ties it together. The stories take up youth, atrocity, friendships, family. They take place in Iowa and Iran and Colombia. They feature as protagonists a New York painter, a teenage assassin and a writer named Nam Le.

Le, 29, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, wrote the stories over several years, including those spent at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is now a writer-in-residence at Philips Exeter Academy, at work on a novel about Thai pirates. He talked recently by phone from his home in Exeter, N.H., about the worlds contained within “The Boat.”

Tell me about the character Nam Le, who appears in the first story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” Is he a character or is he you?

He resembles me, but he’s also very much a fictional construct. Every struggle in that story was either understated or amplified or contorted to make the contrivance of it more effective.


The story explored the idea of authenticity and how we see something differently if we think there are autobiographical elements, if we can ascribe elements of the protagonist to the author. But in many ways it intends to deal with how to write about atrocity and how to write about our background and our family and ethnic obsessions. And, hopefully, it’s also a story about life and fathers and sons.

In that story, a writing instructor says, “Ethnic literature’s hot.” Is there such a category? Should there be?

Everyone I know who has to deal with this question -- how much of my family background am I allowed or obligated or reluctant to write about? -- has strong reactions to it. But the category is problematic for me. It’s not that fiction shouldn’t deal with immigrant stories -- huge chunks of my favorite modern fiction deal with exactly those questions. But I think writers resist being pigeonholed. That can do violence to the whole contract that writers and readers should have, whereby writers get the chance to seduce, and the reader is swayed or not. If you preempt that with a label, any label, whether it’s “chick lit,” “ethnic lit” or “genre lit,” then it undermines that relationship.

If there’s a common thread to your stories, it’s the ocean. Judging from “Halflead Bay,” you’re a fisherman.

I’m what they call a spiritual fisherman, who knows nothing about it, but if I had to fill out a questionnaire in heaven and list an occupation, I might list that.

I’m enthralled and terrified and awe-struck by and in love with the ocean. One of my dreams has always been, and I’m still working on it, to get a berth on cargo ships that go to Antarctica. You go through these stretches of ocean that have waves from 50 to 100 feet or more high. It utterly overwhelms metaphor. And I think back to some of my heroes, Melville or Conrad, who actually were out there for months, on the stupendously high seas in dangerous conditions -- that romance really comes through in their words.

You do capture the romance or danger of traveling in many stories.

I think that the reason I travel is similar to the reason I read and write fiction: to experience other places.

But I will say that the correspondence between where I’ve been and what I end up writing about is not a very strong one. I guess part of that is because it takes some time for something you experience, especially if it means something to you, to find its way into works that don’t seem foreshortened.

You have some really profound teenage protagonists. Is there a reason you wanted to write characters at this age?

There was a project I had in mind -- to give adolescent consciousness the full scope of eloquence, dignity and complexity that we seem to automatically accord adult consciousness. So often, stories that have protagonists who are younger are either geared as young adult literature, or they’re written in retrospect from an adult point of view, or there’s some element of condescension. What we see as being the full richness of adult consciousness tends to characterize itself in terms of nuance, paradox, compromise. In adolescence we have the most unadulterated feeling, and maybe that’s closer to being fully human than what we settle on when we get older.

How did it feel to write Henry, an artist past his prime, while you seem to be entering yours?

I actually think Henry is a fantastic presence to look over any young artist’s shoulder. There’s an Ozymandian feel about him, he’s coming to terms with the idea that everything is transient, and sometimes the things that you hold on to the tightest are the very things that have held you back.

Can you discuss what led you to write about an American traveling to contemporary Iran with “Tehran Calling”?

Searching for belonging is something that haunts all of us, and part of that is national or political or religious. It’s charged when we start talking about who we are and who we identify with. And so that story for me was very much an exploration of those issues and how people outside a community can so easily fall into, even with the best intentions, ignorance or mischaracterization. It was a very challenging story.

Was it the hardest to write?

Every one was the hardest one as I wrote it. Really, I don’t mean to be facetious. They were all bloody hard.