Books

Nam Le
On David Malouf

“School, as everyone knows, is where books go to get sterilised,” writes Nam Le in his essay On David Malouf, part of Black Inc’s “Writers on Writers” series. But if a classroom can sound the death knell for a love of literature, Le does the opposite in this intellectually rigorous monograph. Less literary critique than a personal exploration of race, politics and art, it sees Le using Malouf as a springboard for his own meanderings and thoughts. These range from Le’s days as a student, cast out for his love of words, to his apprehensiveness at being used as a spokesperson for refugee issues: a default for many due to the fact that he and his parents arrived in Australia by boat.

Vietnamese-born Le is, of course, most famous for his collection of short stories, The Boat, which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2009. In On David Malouf the idea of “Australia” and what that means – both in concrete terms and as a literary conceit – bubbles underneath the surface of the book.

Malouf, as Le points out, is an Australian writer who should be commended for rejecting easy categorisation. He is half-Lebanese but that does not define his work; he is gay and yet that, too, has not become a theme. As Le puts it, Malouf, a former academic, understands “that such openings are enticements to academic spits: once stuck, writers can end up turned eternally on the same skewer, basted in the same sauce”.

At the same time, however, Le struggles with his own identity. Most immigrants in this country are English – yet there are next to no “English-Australians”. By contrast “Vietnamese-Australian”, as Le is referred to, is both common and has “subservience” built into it. And even as Le commends Malouf’s work – saying his poetry “stayed and sprung its rhythms, chorded its ideas, concentrated its images” – he also is unafraid to critique him. A questionable scene involving three Japanese men, in particular, is held up to interrogation.

Above all, Le – a witty, at times funny, curious and self-deprecating narrator – never pretends he has the moral upper hand or that the world is black and white. Identity politics, he insists, is gaudy in writing; and “correct” literature at the cost of “good” literature must be avoided at all costs. Or, to put it another way, “Culture can’t be trusted, after all, to shoot straight; it’s changeable, capricious, tightly coiled, better at asking questions than taking orders.”

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

Black Inc, 112pp, $17.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Nam Le, On David Malouf". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore