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Nam Le is back and he believes that being slightly scared is a sign of heading in the right direction.

Nam Le is back and he believes that being slightly scared is a sign of heading in the right direction.


In 2008, at the age of 29, Nam Le gained significant recognition for his first published work. The Boat, a series of unique stories with a global perspective, received awards, media attention, and high acclaim. This success also led to a book deal for a novel. After sixteen years, Le has now released his second book, but it is not the novel he had hoped for. Instead, it is a compact hardcover edition called 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem, which could be seen as a compilation of poems or even a single book-length poem.

During the process of writing the novel, Le, who is based in Melbourne and had previously worked as a corporate lawyer, imposed strict guidelines for himself – no other projects and no distractions. However, after becoming a father for the first time (he now has two children), he found it challenging to maintain this level of focus. As a result, he returned to writing poetry, which was where he began. “I allowed myself some leniency,” he explains. “To be frank, I believe it helped me maintain my passion for writing.”

The main desire of 36 Ways is to have a personal and undefined identity, giving room for create art as a complex writer with a unique individuality instead of being labeled as a representative of a certain group. The persistent question for Le is the pressure of being identified solely as a Vietnamese writer or a writer with a hyphenated-Vietnamese background. He continues to challenge the burden of representation and stereotypes placed upon him in the writing industry.

Australian poet Nam Le in Sydney CBD, NSW, AustraliaView image in fullscreen

Le explains that the concept of “authenticity” is problematic because it often leads to using branding terminology and excludes anything that is not considered authentic. He believes this can be a dangerous trap, particularly for writers of color.

One character urges the narrator to focus on Vietnam. In 36 Ways, Le does just that. However, he also addresses his diverse identity, cultural and familial heritage, and the poetic form itself. He challenges any solid beliefs about these subjects. The topic sparks his passion. He notes that individuals who are expected to write about specific topics due to their visa status or appearance can face limited options for alternative perspectives. Therefore, writing from a place of negative emotions or introspection can be perplexing for readers and established views.

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.

The speaker amusingly says that the silly rhyme of “Asia rhymes with erasure” used as a subtitle for a poem has a playful undertone, hoping that readers will catch onto it.

I desired the ability to express: “Observe this, this is absurd! Look at yourself!” to the writer, reader, and myself. Simultaneously, I hoped to adjust and readjust the style of writing and reading in order to view it with fresh eyes again.

After encountering Le, I’ve found myself constantly contemplating his poignant depictions of intense familial love and pain. “The flailing net ropes of filial piety,” as one of his poems puts it, and the tangled relationship between father and son in his story from The Boat, where they are “locked in all the intricate ways of guilt.” Through his writing, Le challenges the idea of moral responsibility in writing – who has the right to write about what? When I inquire about his stance on this, he chuckles and cynically rejects the notion of a definitive answer with regards to “X having the right to write about Y because of Z.”

“I believe that advertising would be the most effective tool for implementing a rule that applies to a large group of people,” he explains. “When it comes to families, writers often have varying views on acceptable limits and perceptions of value and risk – there is no one correct answer. However, if the issue has not been given proper consideration, then the work will lack depth.”

Australian poet Nam Le in Sydney CBD, NSW, Australia

“Display the image in full screen mode.”

He believes that true art can be understood as a continuous development rather than a final solution. His list of recommended artists includes Terrance Hayes, Monica Youn, Cathy Park Hong, Kaveh Akbar, Solmaz Sharif, and Diana Khoi Nguyen. The book 36 Ways is filled with references to various figures such as Ho Chi Minh, TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Li Po. Le hopes that the book can provide clues that allow for different interpretations and perspectives rather than a definitive conclusion. In addition, he hopes that it can be appreciated both as an intellectual exercise and by readers who are not well-versed in academic analysis. Most importantly, he wants it to be received without any hint of superiority or condescension.

“An accomplished chef desires to create dishes that can impress anyone, regardless of their background, without feeling guilty. They also aim to pay homage to the culinary traditions that have influenced their cooking, acknowledging the contributions of past chefs and their skills, thoughts, and taste buds that have led them to their current level.”

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 is much to discuss, such as Le’s screenwriting and his venture into film as the DA on Goran Stolevski’s Of An Age. He expresses a desire to do more film work in the future. Le also explores the use of fear in his writing, stating that he aims to strike a balance between frightening himself and staying on track. He has also noticed a trend of cultural smoothing over, which he actively seeks to disrupt. He believes that complexity is a natural part of human life, and that doubt, contradictions, and changing opinions are all normal.

Source: theguardian.com