Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Nam Le Won the Dylan Thomas Prize

It’s been more than a week since returning from the Gower Peninsula of Wales where I had the honor of serving as one of the judges for the Dylan Thomas Book Prize, which gives £60,000 to a writer under 30. Nam Le, 29, won for “The Boat,” his collection of extraordinary short stories.

My four days in Wales was a vivid experience. The drive in from Cardiff in a rented right-hand drive, stick shift Fiat Bravo was harrowing. I got a flat after scraping the front left tire against a stone wall when my left foot slipped off the clutch. (I was wearing leather dress shoes with wet soles…I now completely understand the whole idea of “driving shoes,” which seemed absurd to me prior to this trip.)
Then on arrival at the beautiful grounds of Fairyhill (no kidding!) I ordered a traditional Welsh breakfast of Laver Bread and cockles. Laver bread, as it turns out, is not bread – its seaweed (also known as black butter, purple seavegetable, or sloke). Uh, yum?

And then on the drive back to the Cardiff airport at 3 a.m. (to catch a 6 a.m. flight), driving very gingerly to avoid the suicidal livestock – aka sheep – that litter the roads, I went through a roundabout, took a corner and was forced to slam on my breaks for there, in the middle of the road were a trio of brown horses, cantering away…

There are still wild places on this planet, even in the midst of civilization.

So, regarding the prize, why did Le’s win? Well, he got my vote in part because his collection contained a least one piece I believe will find its way into literary anthologies for years to come: “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.”

In this passage from the story, the narrator, who is attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and very much resembles the real life Nam Le, struggles with the question of whether it’s appropriate to use his own past as fodder for fiction:

We had just come from a party following a reading by the workshop's most recent success, a Chinese woman trying to immigrate to America who had written a book of short stories about Chinese characters in stages of migration to America. The stories were subtle and good. The gossip was that she'd been offered a substantial six-figure contract for a two-book deal. It was meant to be an unspoken rule that such things were left unspoken. Of course, it was all anyone talked about.

"It's hot," a writing instructor told me at a bar. "Ethnic literature's hot. And important too."

A couple of visiting literary agents took a similar view: "There's a lot of polished writing around," one of them said. "You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?" She tag-teamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as though intoning a mantra, "Your background and life experience."

Other friends were more forthright: "I'm sick of ethnic lit," one said. "It's full of descriptions of exotic food." Or: "You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab."

I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington, D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat. Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his threadbare fatigues, young and hard-eyed.

"It's a license to bore," my friend said. We were drunk and wheeling our bikes because both of us, separately, had punctured our tires on the way to the party.

"The characters are always flat, generic. As long as a Chinese writer writes about Chinese people, or a Peruvian writer about Peruvians, or a Russian writer about Russians..." he said, as though reciting children's doggerel, then stopped, losing his train of thought. His mouth turned up into a doubtful grin. I could tell he was angry about something.

"Look," I said, pointing at a floodlit porch ahead of us. "Those guys have guns."

"As long as there's an interesting image or metaphor once in every this much text"—he held out his thumb and forefinger to indicate half a page, his bike wobbling all over the sidewalk. I nodded to him, and then I nodded to one of the guys on the porch, who nodded back. The other guy waved us through with his faux-wood air rifle. A car with its headlights on was idling in the driveway, and girls' voices emerged from inside, squealing, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"

"Faulkner, you know," my friend said over the squeals, "he said we should write about the old verities. Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." A sudden sharp crack behind us, like the striking of a giant typewriter hammer, followed by some muffled shrieks. "I know I'm a bad person for saying this," my friend said, "but that's why I respect your writing, Nam. Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. Like in your third story."

He must have thought my head was bowed in modesty, but in fact I was figuring out whether I'd just been shot in the back of the thigh. I'd felt a distinct sting. The pellet might have ricocheted off something.

"You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with haemorrhoids.

Would it surprise you if I revealed that Colombian assassins, Hiroshima orphans, and, indeed, Vietnamese boat people all feature elsewhere in Le’s book. The story is a masterful discussion of the notion of an “ethnic literature” and using one’s own story as fodder for fiction. I don’t have a word for what this kind of metatextual commentary is…post-modernism perhaps, or merely self-confidence.

Another of the shortlisted titles, Dinaw Mengestu’s “Children of the Revolution” (published in the US with the title, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears”) offers a perspective on the immigrant experience. It is a remarkable novel about a trio of African immigrants living in Washington DC who never quite feel at home in America, though know they have no other home to which they might return. It is very much an African novel set in America.

The other four shortlisted titles -- Ceridwen Dovey’s novel “Blood Kin,” Edward Hogan, “Blackmoor,” and Ross Raisin’s “God’s Own Country” all deserve to find readers and I would recommend them heartily. Dovey’s book – a group portrait of about the cronies of a corrupt president facing a murderous coup – is written in a plain, allegorical style reminiscent of early J.M. Coetzee and would lend itself easily to translation.

And, if you’re inclined to take bets on the long odds, I would venture to guess that the 22-year-old Leeds poet Caroline Bird, whose book “Trouble Came to the Turnip” greatly impressed the judges and is appears likely to make a number of reappearances on the shortlist. She was, if you polled those who attended the presentation ceremony in Swansea, the fan favorite. It is one of the most striking and enjoyable books of poetry I’ve read in a long time.

1 comment:

chekoala said...

I wish you could explain a little more.
Indeed the story you mention and also the story that is the namesake of the anthology read to me like the writings of someone who is destined to write compelling literature but the stress for me is on the future tense.
The stories inbetween just read like someone who has watched a lot of television and the musings of someone who has been told tales of a place but whose knowledge of what he writes is superficial and third hand.
'Meeting Elise' seems to owe more than a nod to Darcey Bussell's father.
Representations of MS in 'Halflead Bay' jar as the tellings of someone with little grasp of the disease.
'Cartegena', 'Hiroshima' and 'Tehran Calling' read like things written by someone after watching documentaries on South America, Japan and Iran.
I don't say that is the worst thing or that better things won't come from him (least of all now with the comfort of prize winnings) but it is hardly the great writing or the best current new writing as the hype would have us believe?