I can’t stand ethnic literature. They’re usually so formulaic, it makes me sad and depressed.
The Boat, Nam Le’s collection of five short stories, should have turned me off. The first story in the collection is a pseudo autobiography. The narrator—also named Nam—is a writing student at Idaho Writer’s Workshop scrambling to finish his stories to meet his deadlines when his estranged father comes for a visit. The story has all the tropes of ethnic lit: his father used to beat him when he didn’t study; he gets pressured to become, what else, a lawyer; he hates his job and quits to becomes a writer; and in the final act, he learns compassion for his father, which allows him to forgive.
But, I loved it. It’s because Nam Le is a natural storyteller. The characters are believable, sympathetic, and the stories engrossing. Nam Le exercises his writing chops with the three stories that follow: the first revolves around child mercenaries in Colombia and their loyalty to one another; the second, about an artist with hemorrhoids about to meet his long-estranged daughter for the first time; and the third is a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy in a sleepy town in Australia who learns to stand up for himself and come to grips with his mom’s impending death. Then he comes full circle and the final story in his collection is about Vietnamese boat people.
Writers are natural chameleons, but each writer has tell-tale tick that acts as their signature. Nam Le’s tick is that he doesn’t get wrapped up in one: he gets lost in his stories and characters. And the characters across the five stories are so different, it makes for a fascinating read.