Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A lucky but well deserving chook

Nam Le has won the Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers for his story collection, The Boat. Congratulations, Nam!

According to the folks at the Dylan Thomas Prize, the prize is to "recognize the best young writer in the English-speaking world and ensures that the inspirational nature of Dylan's writing will live on." They mean writers under 30. That's very nice, but the £60,000 would come in very, very handy too. That's AUD$140,000! From what I gather from this morning's Radio National Breakfast show, it is one of the richest and most prestigious literary prizes for young writers globally. You can hear Nam Le talking about this prize in his usual self-deprecating style to Radio National's Fran Kelly this morning – if you hurry and before RN take the audio off-line.

Writer Nam Le at Mossman Library
Nam Le has certainly made a splash in Australia and around the world for his first book, The Boat, a collection of short stories – some of which are short in name only. He drew a very big crowd at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival, and his packed-out conversation with Sophie Cunningham was transmitted live by satellite to the Edinburgh Festival of Books, and I believe The Boat was one of the highest selling books at the Festival. It is certainly one of the highest selling books of short stories in recent years.

And he's been winning a slew of awards, honours and prizes. Yet, however much prizes such as the Dylan Thomas claim to celebrate the best, they are pretty much just competitions, and there are many, many young writers out there slogging it and coming within Cooee of the Dylan Thomas. Even Nam Le is pretty low-key about the significance of this recent prize. As he told Fran Kelley on RN this morning, literary prizes are a chook lottery, and he happened to be the lucky chook this time.

Nonetheless, he is a good writer, and he deserves it. But for all the talk of Nam Le's talent, which I sincerely admire, his emergence from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, his rise to fame with The Boat, and his success as fiction editor of the Harvard Review, I think it is important to take some perspective in remembering where he came from.

No, I don't mean so much Australia, where he grew up, or Vietnam, where he was born and from which his family fled by boat when he was a three-month-old baby (although the Dylan Thomas Prize strangely describes him as a "critically acclaimed Vietnamese writer" rather than an Australian writer...). Though I do think that for a Vietnamese refugee boat person to be a good writer and make it good on the Australian and world literary stages is a great achievement to be celebrated.

What I mean is where Nam Le's stories were first published, and where we – Australian readers particularly – first encountered him.

I first heard of Nam Le when I was blown away by his story 'Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' in The Best Australian Stories 2007, edited by Robert Drewe. Before that, its first Australian publication was in the magazine Overland, and before that it was published in the US Zoetrope: All-Story.

And I don't mean it lightly when I saw blown-away by that story when I read it last Christmas. So I am truly grateful for Drewe picking the story for the collection, though he would have been foolish not to. And I'm very grateful that Overland published the story first in Australia. In fact, of all the previously published stories collected in The Boat, only 'Love and Honour…' had been previously published in Australia.

And here is the crux of my rant. If it weren't for Overland publishing that story in Australia – and going on publishing more and more Australian stories each edition – and Robert Drewe picking it up in time to be packaged by Black Inc for a whole lot of Australians' Christmas/Summer reading last year, I wonder if I would have heard of and been impressed by Nam Le as I was. And I wonder if his writing would have made such an impact on me as it did.

And I wonder if I would have liked The Boat as much as I do.

Seems to me we need more magazines and places for short stories to be published – and read – here in Australia. Otherwise, we may miss the next Nam Le. Or worse, miss their stories.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

[Image: Nam Le at the Mossman Library, Queensland. Photo by Mossman Library, used under Creative Commons license]

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At November 13, 2008 8:59 am, Anonymous Helen said...

I love short stories. I read somewhere - can't remember where - that short stories had been the poor relation of the literary world and are just coming back into vogue. Bring. it. on.

I am HUGELY amused and delighted by the fact that Nam Le has won this highly anglocentric literary prize, because I have a brother in law who was separated from Pauline Hanson at birth. I can't wait to tell him what this "Vietnamese Boat Person" has done! I might even buy him a copy for his birthday. He'll throw it aside with great force, maybe, but the royalties will still go to Le! LOLOLOL!!

At November 13, 2008 9:19 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a TV PRODUCER working for the Animal Planet. May I email you about this project. I believe I read that you knew Trevor Wilson and I'm searching for him and others. Can u
help? Thanks Karen Gruber

At November 13, 2008 9:31 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Helen, as you can probably tell, I love short stories too, and I really want more places for them to be published so we can enjoy their resurgence.

What is it about brothers and brothers-in-law? In a group of people I was with a couple of weeks ago, two people remarked they had brothers who sound just like your b-i-law. Some say there's one in every family, but both my brothers-in-law couldn't be anything like that. Thankfully.

I reckon getting him The Boat isn't such a bad idea, really. I'm all in favour of royalties going to writers.

Karen, I don't know who you're referring to, but you may email me (details on the sidebar) – though is it actually Helen you're after? You didn't say.


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