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Subtle emotion

by Dr Christopher Chapman, 1 June 2010

Christopher Chapman considers photographer Rozalind Drummond's portrait of author Nam Le.

High school, 2008
High school, 2008

Vietnamese-born Australian author Nam Le’s debut book, a collection of short stories gathered together under the title The Boat, has been showered with praise since its publication in 2008. In addition to overwhelmingly positive reviews and recognition by numerous awards, his peers have lauded Le’s work.

Australian writer Helen Garner described Le’s writing as a ‘fearless new Australian voice that accepts no geographical limits: these are stories of leaping power and the most breathtaking grace and intimacy’. American writer Charles D’Ambrosio said that Le’s book ‘nails our collective now, our kairos, with an urgency and relevance that feel visionary’. And Dominican Republicborn writer Junot Diaz said ‘Nam Le is a heartbreaker’.

The roll call of characters that Le inhabits in the stories in his book The Boat offers a sense of the breadth of his imagination. He describes with intimacy the thoughts and deeds of a teenage assassin in Columbia; an ageing New York painter of renown; and an Australian boy grappling with the responsibilities of manhood in a coastal town. He is able to evoke with rawness and subtlety the inner life of a Japanese schoolgirl in Hiroshima just before the bomb and a young American female lawyer who travels to Iran to visit her women’s rights activist friend. The stories that open and close the book deliver finely calibrated emotional veracity: a young writer struggles to describe his father’s experience of war in Vietnam; a young woman on a Vietnamese refugee boat bound for Australia finds delicate beauty in her situation. It is difficult to describe the deftness with which Le conveys the subtleties of emotion in the lives of his characters. The exactitude of his prose and his sensitivity to human feeling are capable of evoking in the reader tremors of emotional empathy and moments of visceral shock.

Nam Le was born in 1978 and came to Australia as a baby with his Vietnamese refugee parents. He attended Melbourne Grammar School and graduated in Arts/ Law from the University of Melbourne, notably writing his honours thesis, a critical treatise on wh Auden, in rhyming couplets. He worked briefly as a lawyer before moving to the usa to complete a master’s in creative writing at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

His first short story was published in 2006. For The Boat, his only book to date, he won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s most lucrative literary award for writers from any country under the age of thirty. The book also won the New South Wales and Queensland Premiers’ Awards and the Prime Minister’s Prize, amongst many other honours in 2008–2009. It was included on many local and international reviewers’ ‘best books’ lists and has been credited with reviving publishers’ faith in the short story. The book has been translated into thirteen languages. In 2008 Le was the David tk Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia in the uk. Le is currently the fiction editor of the American literary journal Harvard Review and says he is impressed by fiction that is ‘raw and strong’, and ‘strange’ rather than ‘familiar’. Le has said he is currently working on a story about Thai pirates. As a participant Nam Le is in constant high demand for writers’ festivals and literary events globally.

Last summer when Le was in Australia, photographer Rozalind Drummond made a group of photographic portraits of him, from which the National Portrait Gallery has selected one for its permanent collection. The portrait was taken in Melbourne at around 7pm on a Friday evening in January 2010. ‘The location was an empty area under the junction of Footscray Road, the City Link and Docklands Highway, next to the Port of Melbourne’ Drummond explains. She describes the location as a ‘non-space’, an empty site on the city fringe bounded by industry and infrastructure. In the portrait Le looks out at us in a calm and relaxed manner. Dressed in a casual and comfortable blue t-shirt, the portrait captures a sense of quietude and peacefulness. Le’s figure is set against the dramatic diagonal of the overhead roadway. The concrete highway looms and soars above Le’s head – it is a symbol of transit and an evocation of speed and change.

Rozalind Drummond was born in 1955 and trained in fine art in Melbourne from 1984 to 1996, when she completed her master’s degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. In 1997 she was awarded a Samstag Scholarship and undertook postgraduate study at the influential Goldsmiths College Department of Art at the University of London. In her work Drummond has maintained a strong interest in the psychological aspects of photography. For her 1995 exhibition Peeping Tom at Melbourne’s Monash University Gallery, she presented an installation of found photographs that explored the tensions that can exist between a photographer and their subject.

Over the past decade Drummond has developed and refined an interest in depicting environments that are desolated, denuded, or raw – in natural and urban settings. Concurrently she has cultivated a particular style of depicting people – her photographs of individuals and groups bear a lightness of touch and empathy that is tender and poignant. In 2009, for her exhibition How fine the air Drummond carefully installed groups of large photographs of people and places. In concert the images formed evocative narratives and subtle emotional themes. Rozalind Drummond’s work is subtle, considered and perceptive, and also entirely contemporary. Her portrait of Nam Le is a fine addition to the Gallery’s collection.

5 portraits

1 Kate, 2007. 2 Nam Le, 2010 Rozalind Drummond. © Rozalind Drummond. 3 Ty, 2007. 4 Untitled from Wildwood series, 2007-2010.

Related people

Nam Le

Rozalind Drummond

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