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“Fiction best enables … true empathy”

July 12, 2011

Nam Le, The Boat, 2008

I prefer the full meal of a novel to the snack of a short story, but after reading each of Nam Le’s stories I felt I’d been at a feast. How can Nam Le fit novel-deep characters facing the “flares of desperation” into such short spans?

Each of the seven stories in The Boat uses either first person narration or is exclusively told from one character’s point of view. In this way Nam Le inhabits the consciousness of seven utterly different individuals from diverse cultures:

  • A young writer who sounds like (but isn’t) Nam Le himself;
  • A fourteen-year old Columbian hit man;
  • An aging New York painter who becomes his own worst enemy while trying to meet the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was a baby eighteen years ago;
  • A teenage boy dealing with fear and lust in a Victorian fishing village;
  • A Japanese girl in Hiroshima just before the atom bomb is dropped;
  • An unhappy American lawyer who visits Tehran at the invitation of her Iranian friend, whose traumatic past seems to give her the depth that the American feels she lacks; and
  • A teenage Vietnamese girl experiencing terrible suffering as a refugee on a boat that has been disabled by a storm.

As discussed in a previous post, what defines writers is the ability to enter the point of view of a person who differs from them, whether by gender, race, culture, age, sexuality or class. By this criterion Nam Le is a great writer.

The first story is a masterfully subtle unpicking of the writer’s task, this inhabiting of the other, and its dangers. It addresses the question: can a writer who has not experienced the extreme suffering of another person write about the trauma from that person’s point of view? How does the writer maintain respect for people who have endured the atrocities being described? Is it possible to tell the story by not telling it?

All seven stories are powerful. In Tehran Calling Nam Le takes us right into the intensity and chaos of Ashura, the national religious holiday, making us feel the menace from the “men of God” and the sense of terrible danger as a group of activists debate whether it is the right time to perform a play about the sexual assault of a child. This is the background for the psychological drama being played out with Sarah, the American, envying Parvin, her Iranian friend, for her past suffering.

Nam Le has said: I find myself subscribing to two opposing, maybe contradictory ideas: first, that we can never truly know ourselves, let alone the person next to us, let alone the person halfway across the world; and second, that only fiction enables – or fiction best enables – true empathy, that deep, clear, close inhabitation by the reader of another consciousness in another context.

These stories arise from Nam Le’s embracing of this contradiction. Writers are often urged to write what they know. Nam Le has done the opposite, and presents us with his surprising discoveries.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 9:33 pm

    Thank you for reminding me about this amazing young writer, I have put a link on my blog to lead people to this post.
    I woinder what he’s working on now…

  2. July 12, 2011 9:34 pm

    Um, sorry, that’s wonder, not woinder. (I’m still getting used to a new keyboard with smaller keys!)

  3. July 13, 2011 12:33 am

    Loved this too … the first story is a very clever look at the writer’s art and I felt he was playing a little game with the credulity of people there too. (Have come here via Lisa’s blog)

  4. Bryce permalink*
    July 13, 2011 8:31 am

    Thanks Lisa and Whisperinggums, I hope Nam Le is still working on the novel he has previously referred to (“with Thai pirates in it” according to the Q&A on his website, although that could be meant to lead us astray). I like “woinder”. Sometimes keyboards come up with apt new words.

    • July 13, 2011 9:10 am

      It could (be meant to lead us astray I mean) … as I think he did in the Love and honour and … story in The boat. A character says to the narrator in that story “instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires , and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – and New York painters with haemorrhoids”. And in fact ALL those are in The boat EXCEPT the lesbian vampires. A little joke I think that tells us to to take EVERYTHING at face value!

  5. Jacinta Arnold permalink
    August 26, 2011 11:32 pm

    Yes I loved this too. So rich and diverse. I heard him speak at a Brisbane writers festival. I agree with you when you say, “what defines writers is the ability to enter the point of view of a person who differs from them, whether by gender, race, culture, age, sexuality or class. By this criterion Nam Le is a great writer.”
    I recently attended a “bookclub” organised by the creative writing department of QUT, as a spin off of the William Robinson exhibition. Three members of the public came and there were four academics. The book discusssed was The Tree of Man by Patrick White (maybe accounted for the low turnout). I found the book boring and lacking depth of characterisation. The academics really drew out every interesting point, theme and connection. It made me realise that the book was the best White could manage for someone who seemed to have so little empathy. His characters had only inner lives. They were never part of a community (which wasn’t even mentioned), and had straitened, tight relationships. The characters were almost stylised. Its hard to believe White was so lauded. ….or maybe I’m missing something.

  6. Bryce permalink*
    August 27, 2011 1:19 pm

    Interesting point about Patrick White having little empathy. I’ve always assumed that despite his misanthropy he did have the ability to inhabit the mental/emotional world of people who were very different from him, such as the four characters in Riders in the Chariot – holocaust survivor, indigenous man, heiress, washerwoman. But maybe they are not so different from him. Maybe they are all Patrick White, like Voss is, or Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector (many critics believe Duffield is autobiographical). I read The Tree of Man when I was very young and loved it, but when I tried to read it again in mid-life I was so bored I couldn’t finish it. I think it did have something to do with the characters. Not sure what I would find if I re-read some of the others that I remember fondly, such as Riders in the Chariot.

    • August 27, 2011 7:11 pm

      Interesting discussion. You imply Jacinta that because White’s characters had no empathy, because they are stylised, he should not be lauded? I’m not discussing here whether I agree with your assessment of his characters but what you think is laudable? When I look at a writer I look at what the writer has done and what I think s/he is conveying – and then how well they’ve done that. As I see it, White often conveys dry, withdrawn, alienated characters. That is often his point. When Bryce talks about empathy I think he is talking about the ability of the writer to get inside the head of others, not in terms of whether their characters have empathy. I think what is quite devastating about White is his ability to get inside isolated, alienated people. Does that make sense – or, have I missed your point?

  7. Jacinta Arnold permalink
    August 28, 2011 10:51 pm

    Perhaps he should be lauded… Ive only finished two of his novels that I’ve started. I found them too dense and dry. I recall that A Fringe of Leaves was so enjoyable it felt like a different author had written it.
    I said above, that White seemed to have little empathy. The mental and emotional world of the characters he created were so flat so as to be unbelievable, compared with the complex “inhabiting of the other” that Nam Lee appears to strive for and achieve. White’s main characters had inner lives and that’s about it. Critics have described the book as an alternative Australian rural allegory. That accounts for the stylisation. Perhaps he was hampered by the nature of his place in 1950’s Australia. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine the rich social interactions of most of those rural communities as he appears to have been quite reclusive at Castle Hill. I agree that he portrayed isolated characters, but the landscape he wrote them into was so one dimensional,even cliched, that there wasn’t much contrast with those characters. I suppose I just didn’t like it.


  1. The Boat, by Nam Le « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  2. “Trapped in conviction, like rats in rat traps” « The Echidna and the Fox
  3. Can White Authors Write Black Characters? | The Echidna and the Fox

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