Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Ethnic Story

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 30.

[T]hat’s why I respect your writing, Nam. […] 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 hemorrhoids.”

That’s a line from Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” first published by Zoetrope and available on their website, here. I read it in the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 volume. The quote captures words said by a friend of the narrator (the narrator is also called Nam, and we are probably supposed to think of him as the author himself). So wait: Nam Le wrote about Colombian assassins?

Indeed, he did so in a story called “Cartagena,” and please humor me by reading the first few paragraphs of it, available online here. I’ll come back to them in a minute. It seemed strange to see a Vietnamese man raised in Australia and now living in the States writing about the thorny subject of teenage Colombian killers. “Cartagena” is part of a much talked about collection of short stories called The Boat. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewer said exultantly that “what is truly remarkable about these stories is that the language and tone of each one is perfectly suited to the characters and setting, even incorporating snatches of Colombian gangster slang.” Really?

The story I quoted at the beginning of this post also comes from The Boat. Before I go on, let me say this: it’s a good story. It works. It’s about a man—called Nam—from a Vietnamese family; he grew up in Australia and is now living in Iowa while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Nam had a very difficult relationship with his father growing up. As an adult, he still hides his drinking habits and his non-Vietnamese girlfriend from his father. Now Nam has to write a story for his class, he’s suffering from writer’s block, he’s running out of time—and his father shows up for a three-day visit. Nam decides to write about how his father survived the My Lai massacre, and how he was tortured later, after Saigon fell. Nam’s first try goes sour; his father says he’s getting stuff wrong. A story finally grows out of all those discussions. I can’t say a word else about the plot without ruining it, so there.

The language of the story is crisp and it has a good rhythm. We don’t get poetic flourishes, but we do get tight, precise, and suggestive descriptions like this one, said of a bum warming his hands by a fiery drum: “I smelled animals in him, and fuel, and rain.” Or this one near the end, about the nearly frozen river: “On the brink of freezing, it gleamed in large, bulging blisters. The water, where it still moved, was black and braided.”

The story combines quite well the mundane life of Nam with the (literally) tortured life of Nam’s father, weaving them together into the increasingly refined short story and the continuously shifting relationship between father and son. The attempts to write, and the musings about writing, are handled with ease.

In fact, the story has a very interesting discussion about one specific type of writing: ethnic fiction. “Ethnic literature’s hot,” says one writing instructor. Some literary agents say that “background and life experience” are what make fiction stand out from the vast array of polished writing. A friend of Nam’s complains: “I’m sick of ethnic lit […]. It’s full of descriptions of exotic food. […] You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab.” A little later he goes on to praise Nam for not writing about Vietnam—the bit I quoted at the beginning of this post. We know Nam searches everywhere for his stories. In fact, we had already heard him say this: “Things happened in this world all the time. All I had to do was record them.” When he does research, as in the story about his father, he’s sometimes “sloppy” with it. His father finds fault with some details, and Nam’s retort is this: “‘They’re stories,’ I said, casually. ‘Fiction.’” His father questions him for wanting to write that story specifically: “You want their pity,” he tells Nam.

Now all that’s very thought-provoking and convincing. Let’s bring it to bear on “Cartagena.” You can read a bit more of “Cartagena” here (some pages are missing). I have to be completely honest, though: I couldn’t read the story, at least not continuously and not with a straight face. It is just too flawed. For someone with a modicum of Spanish, and a smattering of knowledge of Colombia, it’s really difficult to take that story seriously, to see it as anything beyond a never-to-leave-these-four-walls classroom exercise in writing on something you know nothing about.

Let me share some of my discomforts. People familiar with colloquial Colombian Spanish wouldn’t go through the formality of saying the “autodefensas” would shoot them; a much snappier “paracos” would fit the bill. “Pipí,” in the context of the discussion, sounds bookish, amiss. “Salésio” (p. 30) would never bear an accent mark in Spanish. On page 36 (I’m referring to the page numbers from The Boat) and again on page 44 you find “puto,” an irredeemably flagrant case of a word extracted from a completely different linguistic landscape than that of Colombian slums. What on earth are the “mocós” (with an accent mark), on page 43? “Nero” (p. 50) means nothing in Spanish; “ñero,” instead, is true-to-life slang.

So my simple question is why? Why flaunt dubiously used Spanish lingo in a narrative voice allegedly translated into English? Why bother to go through all this, to produce a piece of fiction about Colombia that can only be read without grimaces by people utterly unfamiliar with Colombia? Why ruin what was working so well in the story I described earlier, in order to go off in a completely uninformed escapade? Of course, writers can write about things they’re not all that familiar with. Perfectly fine. However, please ask around. Look it up online. As Pynchon says in his brilliant introduction to Slow Learner, factual mistakes are unforgivable in a world with such easy access to information. Wouldn’t it be better to play it safe (at least, safer)? Or perhaps the answer comes from a voice in Nam Le’s story: “Ethnic literature’s hot.” As I said in a previous post, I don’t want to think Le’s stories would’ve gone unnoticed if they hadn’t become so obviously, freewheelingly ethnic—even if they refer to ethnicities foreign to the author.

I hope to read more of Le. He’s talented. And I hope what I read will be stories more of love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice—not of neros and mocós. Such details gone amiss shouldn’t turn good stories into difficult or even unviable reading.

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