Nam Le (BA(Hons) 2003/ LLB(Hons) 2003)
14 October 2013
Nam Le, the Australian writer whose first book of short stories, The Boat, won an array of local and international awards when it was published in 2008, talks about his childhood with a reserved intellectual detachment.
Nam's parents arrived in Melbourne in 1979, when his brother was three and Nam was a baby. The Le family travelled on a boat from South Vietnam for eight days and landed on a Malaysian island, where they stayed in a camp for about seven months before being accepted into Australia. Upon arrival the family stayed in immigrant hostels and public housing in North Melbourne before settling amongst the brick veneers of suburban Doncaster.
At primary school Nam was often the lone Asian kid in class. "When you are a kid, you pick on anything that is different and being Asian was just one locus of difference," he says.
His parents schooled him long and hard, and with the help of textbooks handed down from brother Truong, young Nam received a scholarship to Melbourne Grammar.
"It was quite common for immigrant parents to prepare their children for those examinations, so they just made me study all the time," Nam recalls.
"My parents had high academic expectations with education regarded as the way to social mobility and opportunity." It was 1991 and there were quite a few Asian kids at Melbourne Grammar. "I really dug school. I had a good time there," he says.
It was an environment that valued academic achievement, so the privilege, "which is quite self-protective and insidious in certain ways," nurtured the young Nam, who excelled.
In 1997 Nam achieved the elusive high VCE score and won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne. He resisted his parents' urgings to study Medicine and studied Arts/Law. "It was where I wanted to be," he recalls. Nam's passion was the classics but he stuck with the Law degree.
"It was an important tool of empowerment – to understand the modes and mechanisms of power and the essence of the social contract," he says. "But the arts was what I wanted to swim in."
Nam had no intention of doing articles and the pressure to secure legal cadetships was ignored in favour of poetry, theatre and a stint editing Farrago.
"With the application dates for articles rolling around I held my nerve and didn't apply." At the last minute, however, he "totally panicked" and with two firms left on the list Nam applied and got articles at big city law firm Baker & McKenzie.
He took the job offer letter to the bank, got a loan and spent the next nine months travelling. It was on this trip that Nam started to write.
Back home he duly completed his articles: "I was doing the best I could, while really knowing it wasn't for me."
Nam applied for and was accepted into the prestigious Iowa creative writing program. He was awarded a Truman Capote fellowship and a lifetime of academic success afforded him the luxury "to just write".
Two years at Iowa, a New York agent, a book deal and various 'writer-in-residence' grants saw him enjoy years of writing and teaching at universities across North America, the UK and Europe.
It's the sort of career trajectory usually reserved for Hollywood stars or rap artists. "I have had a lot of luck," he admits. But it is not just luck. "Part of it is desire."
"When I went to Iowa I understood how huge the opportunity was. To have the time and space to write was a gift. So I valued it and wanted to account for it." He also had the in-built resilience to endure.
"Coming from the Law into the Iowa workshop environment you learned to deal with criticism, remonstration, disappointment and failure – in a sense that's what writing is all about," he says.
"There are people who go to that workshop and never write again. It is full on. You have to put out something that is as intimate and meaningful as you possibly can and it is torn to shreds. It's not easy.
"The way I was brought up left me with no scope to wallow in failure and life is a never-ending series of failures, so you just have to pick yourself up and keep on going."
Nam's been back home in Melbourne for two years. "I'm still working on the second novel, it's kicking my arse, but I love it." He supports himself "with great difficulty" but has no regrets. Asked about the second book and how it is progressing Nam can't be specific.
"I'm not sure what it is about. I have culled so much of it. There are so many ways to cut corners and short change the material and I don't want to do that. I want to find a way that comes as close to what the material demands." Many in the literary world look forward to the result. One suspects it is Nam's biggest challenge yet.