Ethnic Lit: A Hot Topic & License to Bore

It’s hot. It’s important. It focuses too much on exotic food. It’s a bore. It’s a mean of exploitation.

All of these phrases are used to describe one thing in Nam Le’s “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”: ethnic literature. In this short story, protagonist Nam struggles with reconnecting with his abusive father and with writing & submitting a story in three days. Because Nam and his father are refugees of the Vietnam War, Nam is torn over whether or not he should write a story about his personal experiences and background. While Nam understands the importance of telling a personal story, he does not want to confront his family’s past or fall into the expected category of “ethnic writers.” As Nam mulls over these problems, thoughts of contrasting perspectives and various pieces of advice from literary agents, colleagues, and friends fill his head, highlighting the juxtaposition of ethnic literature’s roles in the story.

Though Nam’s thoughts are fictional, his issues with ethnic literature, identity, and categorization are grounded in reality. Vietnamese American authors, like Nam, have struggled with separating their writings from the Vietnam War. As noted by Daniel Y. Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Literature of the Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Vietnamese Americans “express deep ambivalence about writing a literature that is marked so indelibly by war, colonialism, racism, and the experiences of being exiles, refugees, and immigrants…Vietnamese Americans tend to be visible so long as they speak of [the war] and invisible when they speak of other matters” (Kim & Nguyen 66 – 67). Thus, Vietnamese American writers find it difficult to assert their own independence in the writing world since most people expect (and perhaps wish) for their pieces to be about their Vietnamese backgrounds and experiences with the war and refugee crisis that followed.

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The categorization of Vietnamese American authors as a race of people whose works are only worthy if they write about the war creates an identity that Nam greatly dislikes. This racial categorization is represented in the story when two literary agents talk to Nam: “‘You have to ask yourself, what makes me stand out?’ She tagteamed to her colleague, who answered slowly as through intoning a mantra, ‘Your background and life experience‘” (Le 9). The fact that the words “background” and “life experience” are italicized demonstrates how much these terms stand out to Nam and how the two literary agents like to emphasize them. Additionally, the choice to use the word “mantra” implies how often the literary agents have pitched this idea to potential ethnic writers, highlighting the racial categorization present in Le’s story.

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But not all of the people in Nam’s life implore him to focus on his racial identity when writing. A drunk friend rants about how “it’s a license to bore” (Le 9) because people of a certain culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are constantly writing about their own background, creating predictable stories filled with characters who are “always flat, generic” (Le 9). Although the very same friend later encourages Nam to “totally exploit the Vietnamese thing” (Le 10), his argument on categorization and predictability bring attention to the juxtaposition of ethnic literature. The comparing and contrasting of the perspectives, pros, and cons of ethnic literature help paint a larger picture: we are able to see how ethnic literature is important because it helps shed light on the experiences of minority communities but at the same time, puts ethnic people in a box of assumptions, such as Vietnamese Americans being expected to write about the Vietnam War. Thus, the juxtaposition of ethnic literature highlights the assumptions that Vietnamese American writers must combat and makes us readers take into consideration how a person’s culture, race, or nationality does not automatically guarantee the production of a story based on these factors.

B4

Works Cited

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, Knopf, 2008, pp. 3 – 28.