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Nam Le's 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem

  • 05 April 2024
  Nam Le is one of the strangest writers in the history of Australian literature and is also one of the most incandescently brilliant — which is very weird if you bear in mind that his primary claim to legendary status is a book of short fiction published in 2008. The Boat has been followed, according to legend, by all sorts of drafts and fragments (a very striking story about brothers published in some anthology) but not the great novel — or indeed, any kind of novel — that The Boat portended with the certainty of a star guiding the way to a nativity. And things are made weirder by the fact that Nam Le is only just middle-aged: 46 in fact.

Not that any of this has stopped him from publishing poetry in The Paris Review, Granta, The Monthly and wherever he wants to throw his hat. He has won God’s plenty of awards, including the Prime Minister’s Award, in the absence of any book of poetry, and he has until recently been the fiction editor of Christina Thompson’s Harvard Review (she being the former editor of Meanjin and South Seas expert). 

Nam Le is a fascinating figure because he seems to have a profound ambivalence about writing.  He has worked as a lawyer, indeed a finance lawyer, and his reputation as a writer, while absolutely deserved, is based on the armada of novellas that constituted The Boat and on the potential presaged in the flotilla of his output thus far. In 2023 he published (in the Black Inc. Writer on Writers series) an essay about David Malouf, which was deconstructive and artful. It left an intense but somewhat nebulous impression of Nam Le himself; there was a sense of him being evasive, as though uncertain about what he knew or wanted known about his self or what it stood for.

Now we have a handsome hardback book of poems, 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem, published by Scribner (a branch of Simon and Schuster) on fine creamy paper but printed and bound in China. There are effusive thanks to Le’s publisher Ben Ball and blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, who invokes Finnegans Wake, and by David Malouf, who says 36 Ways is a masterly performance. Is there a coincidence that these are two writers who have made their way in times past in the academic world? Well, there is also a ‘Moving and