The Young Novelist: Nam Le

Not many Vietnamese kids would dare tell their parents that they want to be a writer when they grow up. That's why Nam Le told his parents he wanted to be a lawyer.

But when he recently decided to quit his lucrative career as a corporate lawyer to try to write a book his parents were surprisingly supportive.

"I always had good marks in English and Science when I was a student. My parents were fine with me enjoying English, as long as my Science marks were high. But they knew my heart was into writing. So when I ended my career as a lawyer, they resigned to the fact that I like to do my own thing. They felt better knowing that I could always go back to being a lawyer, but they were also very supportive," says Le, with a friendly Australian accent. He was born in Vietnam but his family fled to a refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Malaysia before immigrating to Melbourne in 1979 when he was 1-year old.

"It's difficult for Vietnamese parents to accept their child wanting to be a writer. After all the sacrifices that they made to leave Vietnam, they want their children to become a successful doctor or lawyer - not take a gamble as a writer. But my parents believed in me and I'm fortunate that I could justify their faith with some success with my book."

Le is being humble when he refers to his book, "The Boat", as being somewhat successful. The Boat is a series of fictional short stories that has been positively reviewed by major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and the Houston Chronicle, among many other respected publications across the world.

Although the book is written for English audiences, Le's Vietnamese heritage shines through on several stories.

The first story is a semi-autobiographical tale about a young Vietnamese writer who is encouraged to write a story about Vietnam by his teacher. He decides to write the story of his father surviving the My Lai massacre - much to the dismay of his father in the story.

Le's real father was a former military officer who actually spent three years in a re-education camp after the war, but unlike his fictional counterpart, who hates his son's stories, Le's dad gave him good ideas. The last story, describes a refugee named Mai and her 13-day journey from Vietnam to a Malaysian camp in a refugee boat in the South China Sea. Since The Boat was published, the influential New York Times wrote: "Mr. Le not only writes with an authority and poise rare even among veteran authors, but he also demonstrates an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience..."

Recently, Le was named by the National Book Foundation as one of 2008's "5 under 35". At only 30 years-old, he has received the Pushcart Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and a fellowship from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is also the fiction editor of the prestigious Harvard Review.

Despite all his literary success, Le's biggest regret is that he can not write in Vietnamese.

"One of my biggest failures is my inability to read or write Vietnamese. I think I could do so much more for my community if my Vietnamese was better. And it's frustrating trying to be articulate when all I can do is speak politely in Vietnamese. I left Vietnam when I was a baby so I grew up with English, it was easy for me, but Vietnam is still very much a part of my heart and who I am," says Le.

"That's why I encourage parents to continue to be hard on their kids when it comes to learning Vietnamese and our cultural values. I don't think there's a danger of losing a generation of future Vietnamese artists and writers because parents want their kids to be doctors or lawyers. Part of the test of becoming an artist or writer is overcoming struggles and tribulations. The struggles and life experiences is what makes someone a good writer. I think we're on the verge of seeing a real blossoming of young Vietnamese literature."

Le blossomed as a writer when he got accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop and moved to the U.S. For two years, he lived on top of a barn, writing and doing research for his novel.

It was a struggle at first, as his stories got rejected by one magazine after another. He finally finished all his short stories and sent them altogether in a book to his agent and never thought about it again. One bleak winter night, he got the call that changed his life. His agent phoned him to tell him that a publisher wanted to turn his short stories into a book. Le was in shock. After jumping up and down with joy, he just sat there in the cold barn to let it all sink in. The first people that he called were his parents. He picked up the phone and told them something that he wanted to tell them since he was a child:

"Ba, me...I'm a writer."

Nam Le, Novelist
Nam Le

Written by Thien Huynh

Thien Huynh is a reporter for 24 Hours and appears on SUN TV every Thursday. If you would like to nominate someone for Pride of the Vietnamese or have a story to tell, contact him at or Thoi Bao at