The Boat – captivating Australian literature from Nam Le

The Boat coverThese short stories give powerful perspectives from a cross section of voices in the contemporary Asian and Australian region. We are compelled to read on and consider each narrative’s unfolding drama. Of particular relevance and accessibility for my students would be a close study of two stories: ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ and ‘The Boat’.

‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ reads as a memoir, rather than fiction. The drama unfolds in first person perspective from a strongly descriptive opening paragraph. Students could consider a range of language features effectively used to engage the reader as we learn of the strained relationship between son and father. There are several suitable candidates for a game I play with students known as Sentence of the Week: to consolidate our understanding and appreciation of literature, we nominate excellent examples of writing by nominating a particular sentence. Consider these:

Through the rain, the sky was as grey and striated as graphite.

I went to him, my legs goose-pimpled underneath my pyjamas.

In ‘The Boat’, we follow the perilous journey of Mai, an asylum seeking refugee. Numerous difficulties are depicted with gut wrenching clarity and provide a vivid reality for students who may have adopted stereotypical attitudes toward ‘illegals’. Consider these possibilities for Sentence of the Week:

She tried to recall her father’s stories – storm at sea, waves ten, fifteen metres high! – but they rang shallow against what she’d just seen: those dense roaring slabs of water, sky churning overhead like a puddle being mucked with a stick.

Time, which had distended every moment on the boat – until there had seemed to be no shape to it – seemed now to snap violently shut, crushing all things into this one task.

Nam Le

The bio from the inside back cover of my edition informs us that “Nam Le was born in Vietnam and grew up in Melbourne. He is currently the fiction editor at the Harvard Review. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his awards include the Dylan Thomas Prize, a US National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ Selection, the Pushcart Prize and the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award. The Boat, his first book, has been translated into eleven languages.”

Published by Penguin Books in 2008, The Boat is a featured text on the Reading Australia website

The ‘Publishers Synopsis’ on the website states: The Boat takes us from a tourist in Tehran to a teenage hit man in Colombia; from an aging New York artist to a boy coming of age in a small Victorian fishing town; from the city of Hiroshima just before the bomb is dropped to the haunting waste of the South China Sea in the wake of another war. Each story uncovers a raw human truth. Each story is absorbing and fully realised as a novel. Together, they make up a collection of astonishing diversity and achievement.

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