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PEN World Voices Festival: Richard Ford and Nam Le at Morgan Library

By David Varno

PEN World Voices Festival

Richard Ford and Nam Le at Morgan Library, May 3, Gilder Lehrman Hall, also part of BOMBLive! series

Venerable fiction man Richard Ford gave a particularly generous introduction to young short story writer Nam Le, whose debut collection The Boat received several awards and much critical recognition last year, before launching into a challenging conversation on the mechanics of fiction and the forces that drive them.

íWe're not here to huckster the book,ë Ford said, who claimed to be envious of Le's sentences, holding his copy up to the audience. íWe're not?ë Le quipped.

Ford said he was excited to see where Le finds the story in his process, and began by asking if he'd brought any habits of mind from the legal field to his writing (like Ford, Le first worked as a lawyer). Le said that fiction is really the opposite of legal writing, which employs a ílanguage of obfuscationë in order to manipulate or hide rather than get to the truth. But he did bring over the discipline to his writing.

Then Ford, somewhat apologetically, cited Pritchard on the notion that writers live on the other side of the frontier, and asked if Le's frontier-crossing (born in Vietnam, he was later raised in Australia, then studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop) offered any clues for his writing.

íAs people, we're always trying to figure out who we are,ë he said. íA writer who is an outsider is in a better spot. Everyone feels like an immigrant to themselves.ë

The two went on to discuss the richness of the interior life as a place to mine for characters, and began to develop a more intimate, shorthand dialogue peppered with jokes. Ford asked, I think, if the “flummoxed” can be characters too, referring to those whose inner life is partly unknown, and Le said of course. I thought of E.M. Forster's distinction between “round” and “flat” characters/ This was the second discussion on character I saw this season to forge new ground on the subject; the first being James Wood's lecture at Columbia in March, in which Wood refuted Forster's notion that round characters are more interesting and pointed out that some of the better fiction, Chekhov's íThe Kiss,ë for example, has only “flat” characters.

Ford's next question, on Le's relationship to Vietnam in terms of storytelling, was empathetically ventured. Ford acknowledged that certain subjects can only be explored and understood through writing. íIf [the meaning of things] could be broken down, we wouldn't need stories,ë he said. Though Le writes in English, and the ensuing conversation centered more on the pratfalls of the market for multicultural writing, what followed can be useful for discussions on literary translation because of Le's insistence on exploring universal themes, whether as or about the èother.'

Ford read from Le's story íLove and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrificeë (the title of which cites Faulkner's íold verities),ë and took great pleasure in Le's treatment of the Iowa program and the book industry's encouragement of ethnic writing; íIt's hot…and important too,ë an instructor tells the protagonist. The story, first published in Zoetrope, functions to free the author to explore details around the war as well as Vietnamese notions of child-rearing, while simultaneously demanding that Le be read as working in a literary tradition, and not as exploitative of his experience or identity. He uses the subject as Faulkner used the south, but the place is not Vietnam or Australia; it's inside him.

Not until he published his book, Le said, did a connection with the stories of his birthplace develop. He explained that once The Boat came out, relatives and family friends from Vietnam began share stories with him, as though he now had license to hear them.

Revising the subject of exploring questions with fiction, Ford asked Le if he thought literature is about understanding. íI don't think so,ë Le said. íOh, good,ë he said, in the same approving tone he would use when Le said he doesn't write book reviews. íI'm a crackpot chemist when it comes to the elements. No one knows what gives life to things…what animates,ë he said, concluding with a question that neither knew the answer to: íWhat is the charge that gives us a connection to literature?ë Ford brought them to the next subject, of political fiction and its shortcomings, that human characters are flawed and can't truthfully demonstrate political messages. But they can be recognized as people, which perhaps answers the question of what draws us to literature.

Ford confessed that as he gets older, some of the forms of fiction become threadbare; the input of a character becomes insufficient; íit leaves you bereft.ë He asked Le what he struggles with in terms of mechanics, on whether it's as simple as getting a character into a room, and Le first reassured his elder: íIt might take you 30 pages to get your characters into the room,ë he said, íbut I'm still reading.ë Le said he struggles with structural thinking, and doesn't understand how other authors can make it look so easy, and Ford once again congratulated him on his sentences, claiming it's enough to have one good sentence after the other.

See earlier coverage at Critical Mass, with more quotes.

Published May 13, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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