I identify myself, in my heart, as Native American. My mother grew up with the Native American experience, and though I don't look Native American--Mom married a Scots-Irish man whose genes overpowered hers--I've always considered myself part of that ethnicity, and identified with that culture, for good and for ill.
So this review by Hari Kunzru caught my eye. It begins:
In the opening story of Nam Le’s first collection, we find a writer named Nam, who is on a tight deadline during his “last year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.” Le is struggling with writer’s block, an affliction his classmates find perplexing. “Just write a story about Vietnam,” one of them advises. Instructors and “visiting literary agents” reinforce this. “Ethnic literature’s hot."
Of course, those of us working in the field know that ethnic literature's hot. My problem, as a Native American, is that if I write about the real condition of Native Americans it's pretty bleak. But what I love about this review is this part, excerpted from the book:
“I’m sick of ethnic lit,” says one of Le’s anonymous interlocutors. “It’s a license to bore.” This friend then congratulates the writer’s fictional alter ego: “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.”
Kunzru gives Nam Le a very good reading. This is a thoughtful review, and worth having a look at for its analysis of an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) sort of writer:
“The Boat” is transparently a product of the increasingly formalized milieu in which American writers train — a well-wrought collection that, in its acute self-consciousness, trails a telltale whiff of “the industry” that is its initial concern, of the “heap of fellowship and job applications” the fictional Le needs “to draft and submit” when he’s interrupted by his father. “Ethnic lit” is unhappily what emerges when identity politics head into the marketing meeting, and for any writer with a non-WASP name, it’s all too easy to feel one is being pimped for one’s “background and life experience” (real or imaginary), and somehow colluding in the production of a crude, essentialized version of oneself in return for an advantage over ethnically uninteresting peers.
Personally, I'd rather read about the lesbian vampires.