Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice
By Nam Le
This story takes place as the author attends a writing course in Iowa in the United States. He is Vietnamese-Australian, and the clash of cultures that has defined his life comes to the fore once more when he is visited by his father. The extent to which the author has strayed from his Vietnamese heritage is suggested by his admission “it felt strange, after all this time, to be speaking Vietnamese.”
Le’s father’s visit has come at a bad time, as he has an assignment due in three days, and is experiencing writer’s block. His father is sympathetic of this and expresses his desire not to get in the way of his son’s work. Le seeks advice from a friend, who counsels him to “Just write a story about Vietnam.” This prompts Le to remember that he does, in fact, possess a story that he knows will be great, but he is unsure of whether he should actually write it.
Le makes his first acknowledgement of the My Lai massacre almost in passing: “When I was fourteen I discovered that he [Le’s father] had been involved in a massacre.” At a gathering for Vietnamese men, Le’s father gets drunk, and begins to recount his past. He recalls a horrific massacre in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were killed by US soldiers. His entire family was killed.
Le uses this information to write his story, but his father takes the paper and burns it by a river.
The arc of Le’s story suggest that ambition and achievement will always be sobered by grief and trauma, and that it is often not worth exploiting the past for simple material gain. Such is surmised in the final line, “And how that world can be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.”
Le explores familiar and generational trauma and identity through the fraught relationships between father and son, as well as between Le and writing. Both of these relationships appear intertwined throughout the text, including in the visual imagery of Le imagining himself on a hypothetical ‘book-jacket photo’: after seeing himself ‘in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat,’ he ‘pictured my father in the same field, wearing his thread-bare fatigues, young and hard-eyed,’ conjuring an image of his father already impacted by war. After presenting his father’s story of the My Lai massacre, Le reasons ‘Maybe he didn’t tell it exactly that way. Maybe I’m filling in the gaps. But you’re not under oath when writing a eulogy, and this is close enough,’ reflecting not only on his father’s trauma - and his experience of hearing this brutal tale - but on the role writing and literature plays in negotiating cultural stories, underscoring the dissonance between Le as a writer and his father having experienced this cruelty. After his father ultimately burns the story Le wrote, the piece concludes with the observation ‘And how that world can be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.’ This simile and sibilance positions Le’s story as representative of a broader experience and question about both the nature of his relationship with his father, as well as the role and impact of the ‘ethnic literature’ previously eschewed by Le.
‘And how that world can be shattered by a small stone dropped like a single syllable.’
impact of lived trauma on literary work
‘I wanted to know how he climbed out of that pit. I wanted to know how there could ever be any correspondence between us. I wanted to know all this but an internal momentum moved me, further and further from him as time went on.’
longing for paternal connection
‘Maybe he didn’t tell it exactly that way. Maybe I’m filling in the gaps. But you’re not under oath when writing a eulogy, and this is close enough.’
reflective tone, personal anecdote
relationship with father and writing reflection on role and purpose of writing
‘Then I pictured my father in the same field, wearing his thread-bare fatigues, young and hard-eyed.’
relationship with father and heritage
‘That’s all I’ve ever done, traffic in words. Sometimes I still think about word counts the way a general must think about casualties.’
pun, violent imagery
intertwining of words/literature with violence reflection on literary pursuits