31 Days of Short Stories, Day 27: “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” by Nam Le

August 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

From The Boat.

the-boat[T]he young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

– William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1950

The opening salvo in Nam Le’s acclaimed 2008 collection is an ironic piece of postmodern storytelling focusing on a young writer named Nam, born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, who scandalizes his father by chucking his career as a lawyer and becoming a writer. He attends the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where a friend of his quotes Faulkner’s Nobel speech and goes on to say that the reason he likes Nam’s work is that Nam doesn’t “just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time,” but instead writes stories about “lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – and New York painters with hemorrhoids.” Le is clearly flexing his postmodern muscles here: Nam’s biography mirrors that of his creator, and if one keeps reading through Nam’s collection, one will indeed encounter stories about Vietnamese boat people, a Colombian assassin, a Hiroshima orphan, and a New York painter with hemorrhoids. (True, the lesbian vampires are missing, but Le is after all a postmodernist, not a dark fantasist.)

He is also an ironist, an ethnic writer who calls into question the utility of writing from an ethnic perspective. The same friend who approves of Nam’s wide imaginative range chastises him for suffering from writer’s block: “How can you have writer’s block? Just write a story about Vietnam.” This advice is repeated by a writing instructor who tells Nam that ethnic fiction is “hot,” and by a pair of literary agents who suggest that Nam should focus his writing on his “background and life experience.” Staring down an imminent deadline, Nam capitulates and writes a piece entitled “Ethnic Story,” dealing with the childhood experiences of his father, who was present at the My Lai massacre.

The tension in Le’s story arises out of Nam’s difficult relationship with his father, and their conflicting ideas about the power of fiction to tap into Faulkner’s “old verities” and “universal truths.” Nam’s father doesn’t like his son’s “ethnic story” because it takes liberties with the facts: “There are mistakes in it,” he says. Nam’s father suggests that his experience is not something that can be contained by fiction, that “it’s not something [Nam will] be able to write.” When Nam argues that he wants people to remember the horror of My Lai, his father dismisses the notion: “Only you’ll remember. I’ll remember. They will read and clap their hands and forget.” Nam’s father’s belief that his life experience can’t be comprehended by readers is reflective of the fiction writer’s dilemma in exploiting real life for material; Nam admits to “filling in the gaps” of his father’s story when his memory fails him. Moreover, his girlfriend accuses him of romanticizing his father’s past because Nam is unable to confront the reality of the tumultuous relationship he had with the older man. There is also the implication that Nam’s own motives in writing about Vietnam may not be entirely pure: “If I write a true story,” Nam says, “I’ll have a better chance of selling it.”

Ultimately, “Love and Honor” is about the way in which a fiction writer incorporates his own history into his writing, and the dangers inherent in this process. Like a true postmodernist, Le emphasizes what Derrida referred to as “the infinite play of signification,” the conflicting interpretations that each successive reader places on a given text. By mining his past for material, whether it be in the pursuit of money or literary fashion, Nam discovers the effective power of words, which are fraught with different implications for each individual reader.

Comments

2 Responses to “31 Days of Short Stories, Day 27: “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” by Nam Le”
  1. aisha says:

    “ethnic writer” ? “ethnic perspective” ? i’m sorry, but i’ve never heard of a writer (or person) without an ethnicity…

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Fair comment, but you need to read those terms in the context of Le’s story, which is an ironic deconstruction of just such ideas.