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.
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]