Jose Borghino recently wrote a review of Wordlines, a new anthology of Australian writing edited by Hilary McPhee. I read this review today. Admittedly, I was reading the review with some self-interest because I have some pieces in this anthology (and, as it turns out, Borghino said something nice about them too: “Tom Cho’s surreal and delirious Three Dinner Pieces had me in fits of laughter”). However, what really prompted me to sit up was Borghino’s comment about Nam Le’s contribution to the anthology. Le’s piece in the anthology is Cartagena from his collection The Boat. The piece is set in Medellin, Colombia, and it is about a 14 year-old hitman named Juan Pablo Merendez. Borghino says:
Unrelenting in its depiction of violence, but with a romance, idealism and even innocence that constantly reminds us that Juan Pablo and his gang are mere children, Le’s prose maintains an intensity and an authenticity that would be noteworthy from a Colombian or an Hispanic writer. From a 30-year-old Vietnamese-Australian, it is astonishing.
What I want to ask is: why is it really so astonishing that a young Vietnamese-Australian can write convincingly and intensely about this Colombian scenario? Which is to really ask: Is it me or is there something faintly patronising about this compliment, as well-intentioned as it is?
While I’m at it, there’s this one part of Eleonor Limprecht’s review of The Boat for The Sun-Herald (accessed from the Australian reviews archived at Nam Le’s own website) that I want to point out:
Le’s subject matter is global. But he manages to involve us so deeply with the characters in each of his stories that we are left immersed in the strange, realistic worlds he creates and the vulnerable, lonely people who populate them… Truly, it is a welcome change from the pigeonholed ethnic author writing only about the world from which he has come.
This latter comment is all the more ironic because it nonetheless pigeonholes ‘the ethnic author’ at the same time as praising a departure from this stereotype. In other words: one hand giveth, the other taketh away.
Anyway, I’d best get back to writing my own fiction. (I’m Chinese-Australian but the story I’m currently writing is set in Sicily.)