It is exceptionally rare for a collection of short stories to take the literary world by storm, especially when the collection is an author's debut work. So when last year's The Boat won a string of awards and was hailed as one of the most spectacular debut works of fiction in recent years, Nam Le, 29, was stunned. 'The attention has been unexpected and humbling,' said Vietnam-born and Australia-raised Le. 'Expectations are so low for short story collections that any attention is somewhat shocking.' The Boat won a Pushcart Prize, a Michener-Copernicus Society of America award and the Dylan Thomas Prize, a biennial literary prize named after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, that is awarded to the 'best published writer in English under the age of 30 from anywhere in the world'. Le, who trained in law, has also been awarded fellowships from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy and the University of East Anglia. He is fiction editor of the Harvard Review. The Boat has been or is being translated into many languages, including French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian and Vietnamese. With short stories being so finely spun, sometimes more like poetry than prose, Le said there was bound to be some of his original nuances and meaning lost in translation, but that each translation is its own work of art. 'It's a real kick for me to think readers will be able to come to the book through other languages,' he said. 'I do think something is always lost in translation - languages being so varied and idiosyncratic - and one's relationship to one's chosen language so intimate and rich with history - but there's nothing to be done about that except to celebrate the effort of translation and the disseminating ethos behind the effort.' The settings of the seven short stories that make up The Boat range from the slums of Colombia and a tiny fishing village in Australia to the streets of Tehran and New York City, and Le evokes each place with an intense clarity. His characters are also diverse, and include a mother with multiple sclerosis, a teenage son about to play the most important soccer game of his life, an adolescent assassin and a young girl cast adrift for days in the South China Sea. Le said that what helped create these diverse characters and contexts was a yearning to understand what it meant to be human. 'I find myself subscribing to two opposing ideas. First, that we can never truly know ourselves, let alone the person next to us, or the person halfway across the world. And second, that only fiction enables - or fiction best enables - true empathy, that deep, clear, close inhabitation by the reader of another consciousness in another context,' he said. 'It is this idea of empathy that draws these stories to fix on different places, situations and characters as sites of exploration for the question of what it means to be human.' He said the characters originate somewhere 'in the friction zone' between these two ideas. In creating contexts - places and cities, some of which he has never visited - Le said he never aims to portray each place perfectly, but rather to do it justice. He begins by exhaustively researching all the facts and details, but then sets them aside when he begins to create. The next step in the process - putting the words on the page - was something Le described as a difficulty that can't be overstated. 'Although outstanding writing can do many things, one thing it always does is move its reader. In Nabokov's words: it sets off a little sob in the spine. I often quip that I hate writing, even though I love having written. But that isn't entirely true. 'There's a pleasure that's almost an exact counterpart to the frustration of writing, and the only way through - focus - can sometimes feel like a pleasure in and of itself.' Sometimes Le's focus turns to his own place in the world. The opening story, called Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, a title which is drawn from William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, centres around Nam, a young Vietnamese-American lawyer and aspiring author. The closing story, The Boat, returns to Vietnam in the form of a young woman on board a fishing trawler crowded with refugees. The symmetry but also difference between the first and last stories shows Le's complex relationship with Vietnam. 'For a long time I vowed I wouldn't fall into writing ethnic stories or immigrant stories. Then I realised that I was working against these expectations, market, self, literary and cultural, and I was working against my knee-jerk resistance to such expectations,' said Le, who escaped from Vietnam with his family in 1979, when he was only three months old. 'I'm a boatperson. In our first years in Australia, I remember my dad warning us kids that we'd be teased for being boatpeople but we should try our best not to feel ashamed. Little did he know how enraptured I was with what I'd heard of our past - war, adventure on the high seas, pirates and tropical islands. 'How could you possibly be ashamed of a family story so cool?' Nam Le is taking part in two events, both on Sunday, March15. At 10am, South China Morning Post books editor Stephen McCarty will talk to Le and author Miguel Syjuco about their paths to success in the Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia Presents Fine Fiction discussion at The Pawn. Tickets cost HK$250 per person including coffee and snacks. At 3pm, Le, Rana Dasgupta and Xujun Eberlein will discuss the art of the short story with Asia Literary Review editor Chris Wood in the Asia Literary Review Presents The Year of the Short Story event at The Fringe Theatre. Tickets cost HK$110.