Following C B James' Short Story September challenge is taking me into highways and byways I either don't usually go, or haven't been for years. This story by Nam Le is from the collection The Boat but I actually read it in Prospect magazine (more of Prospect in another post).
In this thoughtful first person narration the "I "of the story, a Vietnamese immigrant to the USA via a childhood in Australia, is suffering writer's block. His words and his writer's identity seem to be lost in his confusions about his own identity, his family's past and his relationship with his father. All of this is reflected in the overlong and indecisive story title: "Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice" which, taking the terms from "Faulkner's verities"*, are the themes round which the narrator tries to sculpt his work.
The narrator's relationship with his ethnicity is very unsure. He uses it to try and reverse his writer's block, moving away from 'Faulkner's verities' to what aspiring writers view as a quick route to publication if not critical approval:
"It's hot," a writing instructor told me at the bar. "Ethnic literature's hot. And important too."
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."
For the narrator then his "Ethnic Story" is a sell-out, made suddenly worse by the unexpected presence of his father in his life, leaving us to wonder what will become of his identities now when he will have to face the real story not the "ethnic" one.
This is a readable piece that leaves you wanting to read to the rest of the collection. It is thematically interesting, probably even more so if you are a writer, as so much of it is concerned with the nature of writing and self. Oddly, for a piece about writers writing, it is rather flat in its prose (and that is 'flat' not 'spare'!). The 'writer' posited in this exploration then, perhaps cares more about subject matter than art, and this story is more successful on that level than with its language. Still it is a worthwhile piece, and probably a worthwhile collection.
* A writer must write "leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." William Faulkner's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1950