These have been ordered by story, and a basic matrix with some initial critical literacy questions has been developed for each story. These could be used as ‘conversation starters’ in response to the stories, or to build awareness of some each story’s particular themes, values and ideas. Click on the story to download the matrix.
Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice (PDF, 82KB)
Ethnicity, resilience, family, dealing with the past, a writer’s obligation to memory.
Cartagena (PDF, 82KB)
Coming of age, friendship, loyalty.
Meeting Elise (PDF, 82KB)
Family (reconciliation), fate, mortality, acceptance, ageing.
Halflead Bay (PDF, 82KB)
Coming of age, grief/mortality, friendship, identity.
Hiroshima (PDF, 82KB)
Historical events, family, fate.
Tehran Calling (PDF, 82KB)
Dealing with the past, fate, cultural awareness.
The Boat (PDF, 82KB)
Seeking asylum/the plight of refugees, historical events, hope, family, sacrifice.
Note: There are several thematic threads running throughout two or more of the stories, if not the entire collection. Identity is perhaps the main one, but the collection is also concerned with definitions of place, concepts of home, emotional and geographical dislocation and trust.
- Direct students to Nam Le’s website. On this page about The Boat they will find a brief description of the book and some of its stories, and also 21 images of various cover designs of The Boat for its release in different countries. Ask students to consider at least three different cover designs — for example, French, Israeli and Italian — and summarise what they think these different covers illustrate about the book: themes, ideas, emotions. Students will return to their response to this task later in the unit.
- Have students consider the title The Boat and brainstorm some of the possible allusions and metaphorical images this title represents. Nam Le is the son of Vietnamese refugees and was a year old when his family fled to Australia in 1979. Two stories in this collection draw directly on this heritage; does this change the perception or understanding of the book’s title? Why?
- Students summarise their understanding of the short story form. What challenges does it hold for the author and the reader? How are the particular effects of the short story achieved with regard to structure and characterisation?
- The back cover of the 2008 Australian edition of The Boat features these commendations (among others): ‘Le displays uncommon virtuosity’ (Andrew Riemer);‘The Boat is a revelation . . . a tour de force’ (Tim Johnston); ‘Le’s emotional urgency lends his portraits enormous visceral power’ (Michiko Kakutani). What do these comments mean? In what specific way do they relate to the book?
Cultural dimensions – personal response
Students maintain a Reading Journal as they read The Boat. Each entry should broadly encompass two issues: reflections on characters/situations (focus questions below, offered as a guide only) and their personal response to the text. Ask students to record sentences or descriptions that have particular impact and explain why they think this is so. Note the location of each story and consider how Le evokes a sense of place and time.
- Who is the main character in each story?
- What do they learn about themselves by the end of the story?
- Where does the conflict/tension in the story come from? Is there more than one source?
- Upon completion of the book as a whole, explain why you think the stories have been sequenced as they have? In particular, consider the significance of the first and last stories in the collection.
- Develop an initial critical response to The Boat. Students might consider its reputation as a major literary prize winner and explain why they think the book has achieved this; ask students to summarise the impact the book has had on them; identify their favourite story in the collection and explain this choice.
- Who are the characters in the book that students can relate to? Why?
- What ideas does Le explore in The Boat? How do these ideas manifest themselves, in different ways perhaps, across multiple stories in the collection?
Outline of key elements of the text (notes for teachers)
Many of these elements will be addressed via the thorough and regular maintenance of the Reading Journal, as above.
Ask students to return to the author’s website. Choose one of the book covers from an international edition of The Boat. Write a short statement, of about 200 words, in which this cover illustrates the core theme in any one of the stories in The Boat.
Tell students to imagine they are the graphic designer for Nam Le’s publisher and have designed this cover of The Boat. In a presentation of no longer than five minutes, students must pitch this design to the publishing company’s board of management (the other students). They should justify their main visual decisions, the significance of the different elements of the image and how these relate to the core themes or ideas in the book.
Operational dimension: the writer’s craft
‘Fiction makes strange even the places we think we know.’ Nam Le
Hold a class discussion about what students think Le means by this. (Essentially, our experiences and identities make places unique to us; a character’s perspective, insight and predilections will influence his or her attitude to an environment. Fiction is the exploration of this, in many ways.)
- In groups of seven, have students form a circle. Either allocate one story to each student or ask them to choose. Students will read the first paragraph of their allotted story aloud to the group.
- Students then discuss the features of style, sentence length/structure and word choice that establish the tone and mood of each story.
- Discuss words that describe the tone or mood suggested by each opening paragraph. Possible examples: journalistic, oppressive, anecdotal, formal, lyrical, cynical, ominous, conversational. Record specific sentences, or words, that suggest this mood in each of the openings.
Questions of craft
- The Boat is a mosaic of characters, situations, emotions, locations and moods. How does Nam Le utilise literary tools such as point of view and characterisation to separate the stories from each other?
- How specifically does the short story form assist Nam Le in creating resonant depictions of place?
- What might govern the decision to write a story in the first or third person?
- What effect does varying sentence structure have on the reader?
There are of course other craft-related queries that can be developed for analysis and teachers are welcome to develop their own or adapt one of the above.
To tackle these questions, stories from the collection have been placed in pairs, and each pair of stories presents the reader with a contrast of voices, characters, points of view and so on.
- Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice and Hiroshima
- Cartagena and Tehran Calling
- Halflead Bay and The Boat
(This leaves out Meeting Elise, which teachers can substitute for another story in one of the pairs if they wish.)
Students work in pairs, with one of the above questions and one pair of stories. Having determined some responses that address the question and unpacking the main literary strategies at work in the selected stories, a snowball strategy is used for students to share their ideas and consolidate understandings of the text. Two pairs should join up to discuss their stories and share responses; this group of four should then join another group of four. In a group of eight, some of the stories will be shared and so students should discuss any contrasts in their assessment of the literary techniques of the story.
Individually, students should then summarise, in writing, the conclusions of another pair — not the one in which they worked.
What sort of things are students looking for in this exercise? Here’s a possible example. Consider these groups of sentences — the first from Love and Honour and the second from Hiroshima.
‘The truth was, he’d come at the worst possible time. I was in my last year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; it was late November, and my final story for the semester was due in three days. I had a backlog of papers to grade and a heap of fellowship and job applications to draft and submit. It was no wonder I was drinking so much.’ (The Boatpage 4)
‘Keep a straight back, Mrs Sasaki says. Wipe the floor with your spirit. The floor is still cold from night and stings my knees. On my left, Tomiko makes her back straight and stretches out her legs behind her, left, right, like the morning exercises. She holds each leg for two breaths, in, out, in, out. I look away from her. I look down and see my face in the shiny wood. It looks half asleep.’ (The Boat page 186)
The first extract reveals, very economically, portents of both character and plot. We get a sense of the uneasy relationship between the narrator and his father, suggestions that the narrator is not taking the best care of himself, and indeed this story culminates in a startling moment of revelation in the bond between father and son. The information here is imparted anecdotally, in beautifully balanced sentences, using the semicolon to locate the story in time as well as reinforce the time pressure the narrator is under regarding his final story, the writing of which provides the basis of this story’s plot. The tone overall is conversational, informal, friendly; this character might be confessing his concerns to us over a beer in a pub.
Even though the second extract is also written in the first person, there are some stark contrasts and they illustrate Le’s virtuosity as a writer. We now see through the eyes of a young Japanese girl as she attends to a menial cleaning role. The sentences are shorter and more concise. The tone is more formal and this illustrates the formal nature of this story’s setting and perhaps the stricter nature of Japanese family culture. We can infer meaning relating to Mrs Sasaki and also of this character’s attitude to her position, one perhaps of resignation.
Text and meaning
Despite the variation and versatility present in the writing, setting and characterisation of the stories, they are in many ways united thematically. Consider some of the following ideas and how they might be present in each of the stories:
One of the simplest ways to explore the thematic nature of the stories is to ask students to consider the main character in each and identify ways in which they are different at the end of the story than at the beginning; in other words, how have the events of the story provided revelation, insight, or a realisation of some previously elusive truth? What does Henry realise at the end of Meeting Elise? Jamie, at the end of Halflead Bay? Nam, at the end of Love and Honour?
Then students can consider how Nam Le addresses some of these issues from different perspectives. The issues plaguing Henry Luff are very similar to those playing on Jamie’s mind, although the two characters are in almost complete contrast to one another. Is this a mark of Le’s gifts as a writer, and one reason for the very long list of awards this book as won? Why/why not?
Have students choose any one of the stories in The Boat. They then go back and reread their Reading Journal entry or entries relating to this story. In 250 words, ask students to explain how their understanding of the story has been enriched/altered/extended as appropriate as a result of the exercises undertaken in this section of the unit. Students should use one quote from the story to illustrate Le’s skill as a writer with regard to ‘less is more’ or ‘show don’t tell’.
Critical dimension: ways of reading the text
- Earlier in this unit students were asked to reflect on why the stories had been sequenced as they are in the collection. It is worth revisiting this question here. Are the seven stories in The Boat a collection of separate short stories or are they united by explorations of similar themes albeit from varied and diverse perspectives, both historically and culturally?
- In the essay that accompanies this unit, Cathy Cole states that ‘The Boat offers a new conversation about Vietnam and its aftermath’ (Cole, 2013). The first and last stories in the collection are taken from elements of the Vietnamese experience during and after the War. What were the implications of the Vietnam war for Australia, and how do they inform your reading of The Boat? (In responding to this topic, students may draw some context from the Australian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Priority Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia.)
- In crossing cultural, chronological, historical, gender and physical boundaries, Le offers a ‘universal’ dissection of the human condition and its myriad complexities. Ask students which of the stories in the collection spoke most loudly to them? Why?
Comparison with other texts
- Comparisons are possible with Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Tim Winton’s collection of short stories The Turning. Winton’s stories are more parochial, being set in Western Australia, and are clearly linked through characters and situations but rely on the same economy of language and an intimate knowledge of place to create impact and explore emotional truths.
- The Arrival is a graphic novel dealing with the migrant experience in a cleverly layered and sophisticated way.
Evaluation of the text
As representative of Australian culture and significant to the world of literature:
- The Boat situates Australia as a global citizen and draws threads from recent history and, in the case of the story Halflead Bay, from the long tradition of ‘coming of age’ genre novels and movies to illustrate the dynamism and ethos of a multicultural, multilingual society.
- There are also resonances with the contemporary political climate, especially with regard to issues around asylum seekers, whether xenophobia still exists in Australia, elements of racism and so on.
Rich assessment task 1 (receptive)
Download the sample rubric (PDF, 185KB) to consider how these tasks might be assessed. This rubric is offered as a guide only.
Students: Your role is to individually draft, rehearse and present a persuasive address to the class in which you identify and examine ‘The Most Important Story’ in The Boat. Note that this story may not be the most enjoyable, the most accessible or your personal favourite, but ‘The Most Important’. As part of your address you might develop and explain some criteria that you use to make your choice. The talk should include a well-rehearsed reading of an appropriate extract from the story. The oral presentation might include, but should not be limited to, connecting the chosen story with personal experiences such as travel or conflict; identifying specific literary techniques and their role in shaping and defining the story; the emotional impact of the story; its cultural context; and some assessment of its truth as a piece of fiction, ie what does it reveal to you about human behaviour/relationships/nature?
Students: Choose a story from The Boat that is most at odds with your experience and/or cultural understandings. It may be one that challenges you, or one that you find difficult to ‘get into’. Complete a written response to this story in two parts: recount and explain, with as much reference to current research as possible, the cultural or historical context of the story. (For example, what events led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and what were the immediate and ongoing consequences? Approximately how many refugees undertook the harrowing journey revealed in the collection’s final story, The Boat?) The second part should adopt a personal reflective tone and address the effect this story has on you as a reader. What are its lessons? How does the chosen story reinforce the intellectual and cultural value of reading?
Synthesise core ideas
Students will synthesise the core ideas of the text by:
- addressing and justifying any revisions to the initial response
- developing a coherent, conclusive statement of understanding regarding the text and its themes, structures and/or techniques, as applicable
- reflecting on awareness of the text’s wider cultural value
- reflecting on one’s own processes of responding to and creating texts.
Ask students to complete the last entry in their Reading Journal. This might be around some simple writing exercises such as ‘I used to think . . . but now I think.’ Direct students to carefully reconsider their initial assumptions and perceptions regarding The Boat. How have they been refined, extended or challenged by the completion of the written and oral tasks in this unit? What have they added to your understanding of the short story form, the writing process or the consideration of stories in their cultural context?
To conclude, students will draft, develop and refine a definitive response to this statement: ‘The Boat is one of the most valuable books published in Australia in the last ten years.’ Students should be clear about whether they agree or disagree, and use thoughtful, well-connected evidence to support their position. The response should reflect students’ understanding of several of the stories in the collection, and the authorial processes that have shaped them.
Rich assessment task 2 (productive)
Download the sample rubric (PDF, 185KB) to consider how these tasks might be assessed. This rubric is offered as a guide only.
Students: Using simple movie-maker or animation software (drawing on a composite structure of still and/or moving images, as per preference) develop a ‘Story Trailer’ for one of the stories in The Boat. Write and record a provocative voice-over to accompany the trailer and/or utilise some appropriate music that reflects what you consider to be the key emotional texture of the story. Your finished trailer should be between sixty and ninety seconds long. Remember that the purpose is not simply to summarise the story using multi-media elements, but to persuade those who view the trailer to read it. So how can you ‘sell’ the story: what is its most appealing angle or feature and how can you use this to reach as wide an audience as possible? The finished product should represent a cohesive synthesis of theme, imagery, mood, character and appeal.
Students: Choose one of the stories in The Boat and write a short story ‘in reply’. Your story should not necessarily try to replicate the tone or style of Le’s story — unless you feel that is the most appropriate way to respond to the story — but think about what your short story can add to the literary, narrative or cultural conversation commenced by the original story. You might take the perspective of another character in the story, you might explore the story’s main theme in another format or style, or you might use the original story’s setting to explore another theme or idea entirely. Your focus must be on craft. Consider your sentences carefully, experiment with them, play with dialogue, explore ways to create a sense of place and mood very economically.