The book, first published in 2008, comprises seven short stories which take the reader to such places as Colombia, New York City, Iowa, Tehran, Hiroshima, and small-town Australia. In the opening story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, he writes about a Vietnamese-born character called Nam Le who is attending a writing workshop in Iowa. In a conversation with Michael Williams he said about the practice of using a narrator close to "self" in a story:
A lot of people presume if I'm writing a narrator who has clear parallels to me, that's just sheer inertia; that there's a natural adaptation from so-called life to so-called text. But any careful reader or writer would understand how much artifice and contrivance go into making this self-standing and self-contained. Actually it's tougher: if I stick in something that has more resonance for me than is communicated on the page, then that's a failure of my charge as a writer . . . I'm not creating a good enough space for the reader to come in and fully partake in that scene or that language or that line."
Each story provides "a snapshot of a pivotal point in the characters' lives".
Nam Le has said of his Vietnamese heritage and writing that:
My relationship with Vietnam is complex. For a long time I vowed I wouldn’t fall into writing ethnic stories, immigrant stories, etc. Then I realized that not only was I working against these expectations (market, self, literary, cultural), I was working against my kneejerk resistance to such expectations. How I see it now is no matter what or where I write about, I feel a responsibility to the subject matter. Not so much to get it right as to do it justice. Having personal history with a subject only complicates this — but not always, nor necessarily, in bad ways. I don’t completely understand my relationship to Vietnam as a writer. This book is a testament to the fact that I’m becoming more and more okay with that.
Australian short story writer Cate Kennedy, interviewing Nam Le, said that The Boat has put the short story back in "the literary centre stage".