The return of Nam Le: ‘As long as I’m terrifying myself a little bit, I’m on the right track’ | Australian books

The return of Nam Le: ‘As long as I’m terrifying myself a little bit, I’m on the right track’ | Australian books

In 2008, when Nam Le was 29, his debut garnered international attention. The Boat, a collection of stories unusual in its scope and global eye, brought prizes, headlines and lavish praise – and contractual commitments for a novel. Sixteen years later, Le has released his second book. Not the novel (it’s “getting there”, he says), but a brief, hardcover volume titled 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem: a collection of poems, or perhaps one book-length one.

While working on the novel, Melbourne-based Le, who did a stint as a corporate lawyer in an earlier life, had set himself strict limitations – no other projects, no distractions. But in the months after the birth of his first child (he has two), this intense focus was difficult to sustain. He turned back to poems, where he’d started. “I sort of let myself off the hook,” he says. “To be honest, I think it saved my connection with writing.”

36 Ways hums with the furious desire for, above all else, a private, uncategorised soul; the space to make art as “a complicated writer with full selfhood and scope” – and not as “an emissary”. The question always recurring for Le is “what it means to write as a writer that will always be described as a Vietnamese writer, or a hyphenated-Vietnamese writer – whatever you want to call that”. He is pushing, now as then, against “the onuses of representation, of explanation, of embassy … [the] limited stock of tropes and stories assumed and expected of such writers … and then the whole industry wrapped around that”.

‘I think that “authenticity” is such a trap, especially for writers of colour.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The paradigm that’s emerged around “authenticity” is problematic, Le says. “You’re [then] already trading in the vocabulary and the ethos of branding because something that is ‘authentic’ can then exclude the other things that are ‘not authentic’” he explains. “I think that that is such a trap, especially for writers of colour.”

“Just write about Vietnam,” one character tells the narrator of The Boat’s first story. In 36 Ways, Le does. But as he catalogues the many modes of his identity, his cultural and family legacies, and of the poetic form itself, he takes a scalpel to certainty on any of them. The subject makes him animated. “[For those] accustomed to and expected to write about certain things because of their visa status, or how they look, there’s not a lot of infrastructure to be read in other ways. So to write from a place of anger, or scorn, or self-doubt – or contempt, even, or ugliness – is confusing, I think, to a lot of readers. And to the infrastructure.”

36 Ways revels in this confusion. Le prods at the feelings “typically disallowed certain writers” (“You won’t let me not – / Lick the leash or bite it.”), the “unimpeachability” assigned to valorised versions of marginalised experience (“unbelievably / composed, above all, composed”), and the impossibility of ever fully defining one’s interiority (“What’s Vietnamese in me / Could fit in a poem.”). And through it all runs a thread of quicksilver – a dark, cutting humour and sense of play.

“What I would hope readers would get from the ludicrous rhyme of ‘Asia rhymes with erasure’ as a subtitle for a poem,” he says, wryly, “is that there is a tongue firmly in cheek in these moments.”

“I wanted to be able to say: ‘Look at this, this is ridiculous! Look in the mirror!’ to both writer and reader and myself. And at the same time sort of recalibrate, retune that way of writing, that way of reading: to hopefully see it again, anew.”

When we meet, Le’s searing vignettes of deep familial love and hurt have been on my mind for days – “the flailing net ropes of filial piety”, as one poem has it; the father and son in that story from The Boat, “locked in all the intricate ways of guilt”. In both books he stretches the testing of an ethic: what is yours, or anyone’s, to write? I ask Le where he’s landed on this and he laughs, cynical of “any sort of resolution about ‘X has the right to write about Y because of Z’.”

“If I wanted a rule that would apply to a body of people in an effective way, I would go into advertising,” he says. “When it comes to family, writers legitimately land on different thresholds: different apprehensions, and senses of risk and worth – so there’s no right answer. But I think that if the question hasn’t been seriously dealt with, then the work will not be serious.”

‘If you’re a serious chef, you wanna cook stuff that anyone can walk in off the street and be blown away by.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Serious art, for him, can be “read as a process rather than resolution” (on his list: Terrance Hayes, Monica Youn, Cathy Park Hong, Kaveh Akbar, Solmaz Sharif, Diana Khoi Nguyen). 36 Ways is drenched in allusions – Ho Chi Minh to TS Eliot; Emily Dickinson to Li Po – a book of clues Le hopes allows for refractions and reframing, that resists conclusion. His dream is that the work can sustain a “cold read” as easily as “an academic assault”. And, critically, “without condescension”.

“If you’re a serious chef, you wanna cook stuff that anyone can walk in off the street and be blown away by, and not feel ashamed for enjoying,” he says. “Then you also want to create food that speaks to the tradition in which you’re making [it] – that honours … the other cooks, and hands and minds and mouths, that brought you to this place.”

Le’s writing is intensely physically grounded. The Boat is full of bodies – yearning, grieving, ageing, giving up – but the sensuality of 36 Ways feels fiercer, more personal: “My heart, for me / To heave – and how! – / Into my own damn mouth.” He considers this. “It’s really important to me that the work live in the breath and the body,” he says. Two, electric, “reclamatory” poems seek “to re-mascularise Asian men’s bodies, and to desexualise, to some degree, Asian women’s bodies” (“essentialised into nothing”, reads a line elsewhere.) “It’s terrible and tragic to even have to say this, but the fact that basic scope of humanness – namely, bodily awareness, and allowance of other bodies – is so vexed still tells you how far there is to go,” he says.

There’s so much to talk about: Le’s screenwriting; his foray into film (as DA on Goran Stolevski’s Of An Age – something, he says wistfully, he wants to do more of); the use of fear in his work (“as long as I’m kind of terrifying myself a little bit with what I’m doing, then I feel like I’m on the right track”); and a certain cultural tendency he keeps noticing, a smoothing over. Which, if it’s not apparent by now, he is committed to destabilising. “Complexity is the weather of our lives,” he says. “That not-knowing – that having doubt, and changing your mind, and being full of contradictions and contrariness and antinomies – is just normal. It’s being human.”

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