National Post.Com: Book Review: Ru, by Kim Thúy

Ru By Kim ThúyAuthor: Kim ThúyKim Thúy’s autobiographical debut novel, Ru, describes a life-changing voyage from a childhood in strife-filled postwar Vietnam to a new beginning in 1970s Quebec. Unflinching in content and strikingly unique in form, the novel is itself an ambitious journey. Despite some moments of digression and occasional instances of thematic overreach, Ru is a poetic and highly individual exploration of what it can mean to straddle multiple cultures and identities simultaneously. The word “Ru” is Vietnamese for lullaby. In French it can signify a stream or flow. A fitting title for this book, given both Ru’s haunting and incantatory writing style and the migratory passage the Montreal-based novelist describes. Sensitively rendered in English by celebrated translator Sheila Fischman, Thúy’s novel originated with a French edition that won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 2010. Although the first-person narrator of Ru identifies herself in the novel’s opening pages as a woman named Nguyen An Tinh, the author has told the Quebec press that the book’s events accurately reflect her personal recollections of a life characterized by dramatic environmental shifts. That harrowing travelogue includes fleeing from an opulent lifestyle as a South Vietnamese child of privilege, to an overcrowded Malaysian refugee camp, to eventual settlement in and acculturation to Bill 101-era Quebec. In unadorned and dignified prose, Thúy spares no detail about the harsh passage by overfull boat, marked by abundances of scabies and excrement, and equal measures of terror and hope.

With uneven page breaks and ragged-right typography throughout, Ru visually resembles a short collection of prose poetry. Clocking in at barely more than 140 pages, the novel is divided into short, standalone sections, the majority of which take up less than a full page. Featuring lengthy sentences of poetical cadence, the novel is propelled not by a linear chronology of events but by one image triggering another. A visual cue, a scent, or a turn of phrase connects each section of text to the preceding one, disrupting the reader’s sense of time and simulating the ebb and flow of personal reminiscence.

This stylistic decision allows Thúy leeway to explore issues and experiences in a more imagistic, less documentary fashion. She moves back and forth between a young life of comparative luxury and challenging encounters with Communist soldiers, from the journey to Canada and raising bicultural children with a Québécois husband, to an eventual return to Vietnam for several years as an adult. Focused on the personal, her subtle expressions of politics avoid land mines of dogma or didacticism. In her even-handed view, an impoverished leftist guerrilla unable to identify the Parisienne brassieres in her family’s armoire is no better or worse than her father, a tennis aficionado who “talked about Proust while he ate madeleines.” Both are sons of Vietnam, each forged by circumstance.

The details of the author’s life story are by their nature thematically rich, and Thúy effectively exploits their potential. A trek that begins in a partitioned Vietnam and ends here in a nation famous for its “two solitudes,” Ru deftly reflects upon the notion of bifurcated identities. The complexities of acculturation are revealed throughout the narrative, as in an anecdote about a Québécois child who affectionately rubs the head of a Vietnamese teammate when the boy catches his first football. The boy responds with rage to a move meant to be congratulatory — for in the culture of his birth, that gesture is a grave insult.

Having arrived in Canada at age 10, Thúy represents the so-called “1.5 generation” immigrant experience, and the attendant blend of new and old cultures. Her protagonist’s immediate family is a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese ethnicity, which has implications in terms of political and career choices. The character’s children Henri and Pascal have a white father so they, too, are ethnically mixed. Another key theme of Ru is coming to terms with the experience of parenthood after surviving a childhood marked not only by extreme trauma but a strict and domineering mother.

Though Thúy handles all those topics well, there is only so much thematic weight such a slim volume can realistically support. Ru falters when the author attempts to address a raft of other issues that lie too far outside the scope of her personal story — from Western sex tourism and child sexual abuse to the fate of interracial offspring of American GIs. These are important topics — for some other book. Here, their passing mention is ineffective and distracting. Similarly, a number of sections of the story, such as one-off anecdotes regarding neighbours and distant relatives, are digressive and add little in the way of plot, theme or mood.

Such complaints notwithstanding, Ru marks the introduction of a talented voice. While the experience of people of Vietnamese descent in Canada and in particular Quebec has been the subject of much attention in the social sciences, this book is our country’s first literary glimpse into a significant aspect of our cultural fabric. A meditative and thoughtful first novel, Ru is worthy of attention.

Ru By Kim Thúy
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Random House Canada
141 pp; $25

• Shawn Syms is a Toronto-based writer and critic


The Star.Com: Q&A: Kim Thúy’s best-selling refugee odyssey, makes its mark in English

By Greg Quill

Author: Kim ThúyRu, Kim Thúy’s account of her childhood odyssey from Saigon — after the end of the Vietnam war — to a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually to a new life in Quebec, is already a French-language sensation, both in her home province and Europe, and in most Francophone communities around the world.

Now Ru — the word means “lullaby” — has found a second life in an English edition translated by Sheila Fischman that was published in January and has already garnered piles of critical praise in the world’s English-language media.

Thúy, who ran a restaurant in Montreal for many years before earning a law degree, sat down with the Star during her recent visit to Toronto — she was a featured guest at the Authors at Harbourfront reading series — to talk about how she adapts to constantly changing circumstances in her life, and her sudden literary celebrity.

Though she says she has mastered neither, Thúy (pronounced “two-ee”) is fluent in both official languages, as well as her native tongue, and speaks in English with an affecting French-Vietnamese tang.

Ru is her first and, so far, her only book.

Q: Your book has had phenomenal success in Quebec and French-language nations. It has won several important awards, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award for French-language Fiction in 2010, and is on tertiary education reading lists in several European countries. Were you fluent in French as a child in Vietnam?

A: No. I was 10 when I left Vietnam. I’m 43 now, so my French is what I learned in Montreal. I spoke no French when I came to Canada, although I’d been in French Immersion kindergarten in Vietnam before those schools were closed down by the Communist government after the war.

After 1975, from age 7 to 10, I had no exposure to French, except through an aunt at home, who sometimes gave us secret lessons.

Q: How did your life change after the Communists took over South Vietnam?

A: Adjusting to the new regime was chaotic. We had to reorganize everything. Our way of living, our way of dressing, even our way of eating had to be relearned from scratch. We weren’t allowed to use French words or customs at all, otherwise we’d have been branded revolutionaries.

Q: Why do you think Ru has been so warmly embraced by French readers here and overseas?

A: I don’t know! I wish someone would tell me. To my knowledge it had nothing to do with Vietnamese immigrants in Quebec — there aren’t enough of them.

It surprised me that what I was writing became a book in the first place. It was a bigger surprise when it got published. And the sales figures . . . I couldn’t even imagine those numbers. It’s now in 20 countries. I’ve been to some of them with the book, and every country has a different angle on it, a different reason for embracing it.

Why is it so popular in Romania? Apparently because of a shared experience with Communism — poverty, rationing, hunger. Romanians know what we went through in Vietnam, one journalist told me. And because Vietnam has flourished in the years since the war, it gives them hope, a light at the end of the tunnel.

In Italy Ru was awarded the Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism, apparently because it was evidence of Canada’s superior immigration policy, a happy immigrant story.

In France, where Vietnamese immigrants have been a presence since the early 1900s, the book won a literary award for language and structure . . . nothing to do with the content. And yet I haven’t mastered French at all. I still have trouble with male and female nouns and pronouns. When they called to tell me I was the Governor-General’s Literary Awards Laureate, I had to ask what a laureate is. I thought it was a radio station prank.

Q: The structure of the book is unusual. It’s a series of what seem to be vignettes, an epistolary memoir. That makes it easy to read and enhances the poetic quality of the writing. How did you decide on that form?

A: I didn’t. I just sat down every day and started at the last line I’d written. I just let it flow. I was aware the language had an internal rhythm, and that’s all I followed. I’ve never studied literature. I know nothing about the rules of writing, or form or structure.

There were no chapters, no paragraphs. I wrote in complete silence so I could hear the music of the words in my head, even though I’m completely unmusical. I can’t sing. I can’t even hum a tune. To me my writing seems not just simple, but also simplistic.

The text was broken up during the editing process, but to me it had to remain an unbroken chain. If my editor wanted a particular story moved out of the sequence, I’d have to re-write the entire manuscript because the rhythm and melody had been disturbed. Fortunately that didn’t happen often.

Q: Did you aspire to be a writer?

A: No. I just took on whatever came to me … a typical immigrant. I just felt lucky to have a job, or the skills and tools to be able to cope with whatever came my way. I’ve been so busy learning what I needed to get by in my life.

My husband, who’s also a lawyer, suggested I take a month off work to think about what I wanted to do next … I was 39, and I’d never had the luxury of choosing my next step. I had some notes, reminders of my past, that I’d written to myself over the years, and I started filling them out. That’s how the book began.

Q: Ru is a memoir, a collection of remembered events in your life, yet you call it a novel. Why?

A: The French-language edition has no specific category. The publisher asked me what category it should be, and I didn’t know what to say. To me it’s not even a book.

The English version had to have a designation, and because I’d fictionalized certain elements — I wasn’t born during the Tet Offensive, for example, but soon after, and I didn’t have a dance teacher — I decided it should be called a novel.