The Boat by Nam Le

Vietnamese-Australian writer, Nam Le

The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.

When this book came out in 2008 the Australian literary scene lit up! The collection of longish short stories heralded a major new writer of extraordinary scope and skill. He was 27.

The first story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice is as one would expect. The narrator, Nam, a Vietnamese Australian living in the US and studying writing at the Iowa Writers Centre is hosting his father, a Vietnamese war veteran whose relationship with his son has been fractious. It is now better but still not grounded and never easy. References to the other stories in this collection make this first story work like a preface to the book itself. When Nam, then a lawyer, told his father that he was quitting his job in Melbourne to go to Iowa to become a writer his father said ‘The captive buffalo hates the free buffalo.’ He was prone to talk in proverbs.


His description of peak-hour traffic: it’s rinse of noise.
His smile was as stiff as his suit.
… their amusement, coughing it around their circle like a wet scrap.


The second story, Cartagena, is set in Colombia and is very unexpected. It knocks your socks off!
The syntax is simple, no contractions, the occasional use of favela Spanish, restricted punctuation – no quotation marks, and a recurring misuse of a verb: ‘Luis, who had the same age,” makes it sound like a mistranslation. All these grammar tricks conspire to give veracity to this 1st person narrative. It feels authentic, belying the fact that the author is not a young Colombian thug, but a young Vietnamese Australian. The narrator is Juan Pablo, fourteen and a half years old, a sicario – hitman – who has been obedient, a faithful soldado and loyal to his agent, El Padre, except recently. He did not make his last hit. He said he could not find him. He lied to his agent whom he has never met. The hit is his best friend, Hernando. Juan Pablo is in deadly trouble. He knows this because he has been summoned. Everyone knows this can only mean one thing. No spoilers here but, well, a devastating climax. It was this story that was scorched in my brain from my first reading over a decade ago.


And then comes Meeting Elise. A completely different tone, more traditional grammar and another 1st person narrative: a middle aged artist whom women leave and who’s having trouble with hemorrhoids and colon polyps. He fucks things up by talking too much, mostly the truth, he reckons – too much verbiage, too much booze. He’s getting ready to meet his long lost 18 year old daughter, a musician, whom he hasn’t seen for 17 years. He’s exhilarated but scared, sorry but expectant. It all sounds like the work of a different writer.


Halflead High
This story is a 3rd person coming of age; a coastal high school student full of raging hormones, adult disappointments, and life getting in the way; an ill mother, high school jealousies, loves, lusts, and betrayals. It’s touching, recognisable, and insightful. 


His mother was dying and seemed torn between ignoring it and rushing towards it.


It’s lines like this, and those above, that for me cements a writer’s worth. Something clicks in the reader – it did with me – simply stated but describes an unrecognised truth made manifest in a line like that.

Story No. 5 is a 1st person narrative: this time a young Japanese girl in an evacuation centre sleeping “four mats away from the radio”. She and all the other children scrub the wooden floors of the temple till they shine and press their hands together for the glorious Imperial Forces who fought the reviled enemy China and now the cowardly enemy, America. Soybean rice with mugwort grass is better than pounded rice cakes. Do without until victory.  Honorable death before surrender. It’s the last days of the war. The text is dense, no delineated dialogue, just a stream of consciousness from a little girl. Short, plain sentences. Present tense. Subjects jump around: scrubbing floors, running during exercise, Big Sister, Mother covered in dust, rice soup, Imperial heros, the wind, the loud warnings, Big Brother who has gone to Confidential Place, sore knees, the sounds of  B24s, or is that a B27? cicadas, hunger. The rabbity mind of a little girl, named Little Turnip. The title, Hiroshima, is ominous.


The 6th story is the least successful; Tehran Calling follows a young American woman travelling to Iran to see her old university friend only to be caught up in youth unrest, Iranian hypocrisy, and self-deception. However, the syntax and form is different from each of the other stories. It’s as if Le is searching for his voice, his tone, his style, the work he feels most comfortable with. But astoundingly each story has a style that is different but authentic, authorial, with weight and verisimilitude.

Style is everything. Style is eye, window, and view. And, of course, when it serves its purpose, style is beside the point, is rightly subsumed by subjectivity and subject. Perhaps the handiest definition of literature is language where style and subject are inseparable. (2021) He certainly proves it.

‘Why do you write about Colombians, Japanese, and Iranian girls? What about us!” says his father in the first story. So he does.

The last and title story, The Boat; I was forced to schedule daytime reading time for it. Reading it before sleep was impossible. The opening scene of the view from the crowded bilges of an unstable refugee boat on the very high seas is terrifying. In appalling, almost unimaginable conditions where bodily functions are just part of the boat’s geography. Drinking water is rare and hallowed; human relationships based on nothing but instincts. A little boy obsessed with counting heads after every splash overboard. A little boy, like an old man squeezed within a skeletal frame.

It was a face dead of surprise. 

The range, skill, and boldness of these stories is breathtaking. Seventeen years ago a novel was eagerly anticipated as if short stories weren’t somehow good enough. How stupid is that? If Le writes nothing ever again what he has written here will cement his name in Australian literature as a voice to be honoured. Along with Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, every Aussie home needs this book on their shelf.

Here you can watch Nam Le reading a short excerpt from the 1st story.

And here you can hear Nam le talk intimately about writing and why he does it.

You can buy the book is various formats here.

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