A journey with The Boat: students connect over a common story

Reading the same book can bring students closer together as a group. Students reading image from www.shutterstock.com

First-year undergraduate students at the University of Melbourne have been invited to participate in a new initiative. “Melbourne Summer Reading” identifies a book which speaks to some of the big issues of our time and of most relevance to students.

Before the commencement of the first semester students were asked to read Nam Le’s award-winning collection, The Boat. This common reading activity was designed so that they would have something to share and discuss with each other when they arrived on campus. Students could get together, either in person or online, discuss the book and get to know each other.

The collection of stories takes place in different parts of the world: from Iowa City and New York City to a small Australian community, from Tehran and Hiroshima to a refugee boat in the South China Sea during the Vietnam war.

Written from different perspectives of place, gender, age and race, Le confronts us with a range of emotions, from fear and violence to generosity and love.

Nam Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Melbourne, is a Melbourne University alumnus. His collection of short stories has won widespread international critical acclaim, winning the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Australian Prime Minister’ s Literary Award, the Melbourne Prize for Literature (Best Writing Award), and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Book of the Year.

It was also selected as a New York Times Notable Book and Editor’s Choice, the best debut of 2008 by New York Magazine and the Australian Book Review, and was chosen as a book of the year by The Guardian, The Independent, The Los Angeles Times, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age among others. It has also been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Le, currently fiction editor of the Harvard Review, responded enthusiastically to the project. He wrote “I’m thrilled, of course, and deeply honoured, and more than a little nervous. Particularly gratifying is the fact that this is happening at my alma mater”.

Nam Le holds a copy of his awarding winning book, The Boat. Flickr/Mosman Library

So why this book? And what importance does it have to the way we teach at the University of Melbourne?

One of the goals of the university was to remodel curriculum towards fewer broad undergraduate degrees with specialisation later on at the postgraduate level. This was done for many reasons, but chief among them was the goal of creating a better connection between students than was possible in one hundred undergraduate double degrees and many small postgraduate courses.

The project sought to kickstart this among the almost 6,000 new first-year undergraduates by getting staff and students to talk about the same book.

This was thought to be especially valuable for the several thousand international, country and interstate students, many of whom do not have an established network of friends on the campus. Coming to a large metropolitan university like Melbourne is exciting, but it can also be daunting.

The resonance of Nam Le’s gripping stories is such that other, later-year students also engaged with the discussion, in real and also in virtual forums.

The opening and closing stories foreground the Vietnamese-Australian story which for sixty years has been a compelling – at times tragic, at others enriching – dimension of the making of two nations. Nam Le begins his collection with the awkward, moving encounter of a young Vietnamese writer with his father, a former soldier, and ends with an unforgettable account of the voyage of a boatload of Vietnamese refugees. Both based, at least partly, on Le’s own experience.

The latter story speaks to us all of harrowing refugee experiences which continue to confront us today.

The collection, in this sense, is a powerful reflection of the past and the present. The stories are told in a way that students can connect with, particularly when many themselves may have Vietnamese heritage. Much like Le, they are the second and third generation Vietnamese going to the university of Melbourne.

Nam Le’s stories are a perfect literary introduction to university because they remind us both that we have a shared humanity despite our diversity and that the Vietnamese dimension of the Australian story is so special, both uplifting and harrowing.