“Write what you know / so they say, all I know is I don’t know what to write / or the right way to write it,” is a lyric from the musical, Newsies; but, this mantra could apply just as well to Nam Le’s dilemma in his short story, “Love and Honor.” Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen state in their book chapter, “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” that “the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1960-1975) serve as dominant themes of much Korean American and Vietnamese American writing” (Kim and Nguyen 59). As a Vietnamese Australian, writing about the Vietnam War should be easy for Le, right? However, Le challenges this common theme by presenting the difficulty attached to writing “ethnic literature” (Le 9).
As our Unit III title suggests, “Writing [about] War,” is a prominent topic in Asian American literature. Because of this topic’s prevalence, there is often an expectation that Asian American authors write about this theme. As a result, Asian American authors often feel pressured or obligated “to write about the war or at least find it difficult to get published if they do not write about the war” (Kim and Nguyen 67). This conflict brings up questions of identity and worth, which also connect to Le’s work. The question arises: Are Asian American authors only worthy of praise and notice if they write about war? Le’s narrator in “Love and Honor” challenges this notion by attempting to write other genres. Nam “choose[s] to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids” instead of the typical war narrative (Le 10). However, it is important to look at the beginning of this sentence and conversation. Coming out of a party, the narrator is talking with his friend about writer’s block. Due to the commonality of writing about the Vietnam War, as Kim and Nguyen mention, his friend suggests an “easy” solution:
You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids (Le 10).
The use of italics emphasizes the friend’s critique of Le’s choice to stray away from the subject matter expected of Asian American writers. Through “totally,” the friend is suggesting that “exploiting” the trope of writing about the Vietnamese War is an easy task. The italics add a nonchalance to the word. “Totally” becomes a phrase that anyone can use, insinuating a task that anyone can accomplish. The use of italics suggest that writing about war is an easy task for Asian American authors. Because they are Vietnamese, there is an expectation that Vietnamese writers automatically know about this event in depth and have a personal story to share about it. However, this is not always the case. Le looks to avoid this stereotyping by writing about different genres. Because he is looking to get as far away from the expected as possible, Le chooses rather obscure topics, including, “lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins” (Le 10). Yet, Le’s attempt to challenge expectations creates greater ridicule from his friend. Rather than following the norm and writing about war, his friend points out that “instead” Le picks peculiar topics that result in writer’s block and do not have a specific audience. Once again, italics emphasize the friend’s scorn towards Le’s choice. This ridicule, combined with writer’s block and approaching deadlines, causes the narrator to fall into the trap of writing about war. Therefore, even when Le attempts to challenge the norm and reframe the expected narrative, he realizes the reality of his situation. This revelation is not that “ethnic writing” is easy, but rather that it can become a default for producing work under tight pressures and popular opinions. Le tries something new; but, he is not immune to the pressures Asian American writers, and writers in general, are subjected to.
Le has good intentions when he “rebel[s] against this expectation of telling the ethnic story” (Kim and Nguyen 67). His narrator attempts to broader what is expected of Asian American writers, by selecting topics that are unique and daring for writers in general, not just Asian American ones. Yet, this risk does not reap the expected rewards. Ultimately, thanks to writer’s block, the narrator realizes that “ethnic writing” is not the easy route but an effective route for Asian American writers to take when pressures arise. This encapsulates the difficulty of being an Asian American writer who simultaneously wants to break down stereotypes, and advance the expectations of their capabilities; but, also wants to keep and secure their job. B4.
Kim, Daniel Y., and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by Crystal Parikh and Daniel Y. Kim. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 66 – 67.
Le, Nam. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” The Boat, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.