Vietnam | 2009, 2010
Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. He has received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Book of the Year, the UTS Glenda Adams Award, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, a U.S. National Book Foundation “5 Under 35″ Fiction Selection, as well as other awards and shortlistings. He has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the University of East Anglia. His fiction has appeared in venues including Zoetrope, A Public Space, Conjunctions, One Story, NPR’s Selected Shorts, Prospect Magazine, and has been widely anthologised. He is the fiction editor of the Harvard Review. He returned to Santa Maddalena in 2010 and was shortlisted for the 2010 Premio von Rezzori.
I came to Santa Maddalena intending to write; I’d heard about writers writing like they’d never written before – breaking through, obliterating writers’ blocks and blues, whipping off unexpected chapters, poems, stories. One of my fellow residents came with the first draft of his novel and left with the second. I’d heard too about the writing studios at Santa Maddalena, and sensed for myself how steeped they were in the serious work they’d occasioned – how that work had charged the space with specific histories, lived histories. It truly is a domain of words.
Before arriving, I’d been frustrated with my writing. I was producing words and then immediately deleting them; several times I tried to push through, and several times I managed – only to eventually delete, wholesale, the resulting output. I’d determined that Santa Maddalena would be the site of my most concentrated, sustained assault. There I would break through.
Every aspect of Santa Maddalena, of course, is geared to such endeavour. The energy and beauty of the place – and the surrounding landscape – cannot be overstated: at times you feel almost as though within a waking dream, and the logic of it is in your work, and your work is where you live: you’re writing whether you’re at your desk, or taking a walk, or a bath, or a dip in the pool; and with you are the other fellows inside their own writing, and the knowledge of this – along with their company and conversation – is a constant inspiration. I was fortunate to share my time with Hisham Matar, Adam Foulds and Rachel Kushner, and they, along with the generous, wickedly charming Baronessa Beatrice Monti, as well as her wonderful staff, provided the best company I and my writing could have hoped for.
So did it work? My final tally: pages ultimately produced: 0. Words ultimately retained: 0. And—without a doubt—it was the most productive time I’ve had on this book for many months. As it turned out, the gift of Santa Maddalena—my breakthrough—was the perfect time and space to step back, think, and write, absent of any pressure to put pen to paper. I will always be grateful to Beatrice, and the Arts Council of England, for affording me this gift.