Kim Thúy and the burdens of the past
The beloved novelist’s latest is an answer of sorts to her critics
Ru, by the Montreal writer Kim Thúy, was one of the most successful debuts in Canadian literary history, sold to twenty countries, winning a Governor General’s Award and CBC’s Canada Reads at home, and receiving an Italian prize for multiculturalism as well as three French awards, including Salon du livres de Paris, abroad. The story is told from the perspective of Nguyen An Tinh, a ten-year-old girl whose family flees Vietnam to escape Communist rule. Readers were mesmerized by Thúy’s lightly fictionalized account of her own experience, in which the Nguyens, along with two hundred fellow passengers, cram into a rickety boat, surviving for days on biscuits soaked in motor oil. Their vessel smashes to bits on the coast of Malaysia, where they suffer many months in a refugee camp before being sponsored and granted entry to Canada.
As compelling as the story itself is the manner in which it is delivered: Rather than comprising uninterrupted chapters, the narrative is broken up into chunks of text often less than a page long, fitted together to form a vivid mosaic, a pastiche effect that mirrors the workings of memory. An Tinh recounts her early years with simplicity and candour, but the book’s overall tone exudes a quiet sophistication.
Critics expressed astonishment at the confidence of Thúy’s first effort. Jurors for one of the French awards celebrated the book’s structure and form. Ru does recall the precision and understatement of French writers like Gide and Camus. Although Thúy may not have been a practised writer when she published Ru, she was almost certainly a practised reader. The novel is a testament to her impeccable, quite musical ear.
In Vietnamese Ru means lullaby. In French it means the flow of a river or tears. Thúy is fascinated with language, its nuances within and across cultures. Yet she is as frugal with words as she is with memories. An Tinh explains:
I never leave a place with more than one suitcase. I take only books. Nothing else can become truly mine. I sleep just as well in a hotel room, a guest room, or a stranger’s bed as in my own. In fact, I’m always glad to move; it gives me a chance to lighten my belongings, to leave objects behind so that my memory can become truly selective, can remember only images that stay luminous behind my closed eyelids.
Thúy’s economical prose is reflective of a personal ethos, a drive to relinquish the heavy burdens of her own past. The entire family in Ru presses steadily toward the American Dream symbolized throughout the novel by the horizon. Which is not to say that An Tinh never looks back—she does. As an adult she returns to Vietnam on an extended business trip, though, admittedly, she is not the same. Her time in her new home has made her “more substantial, heavier, weightier. That American Dream had given confidence to my voice, determination to my actions…,” she says, “I no longer had the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears.”
In general the experience of exile manifests as tension between the present and the past. The curious thing about Ru, however, is An Tinh’s invincible forward march, which, at least in terms of the literature of Canadian immigrants, offers an original conception of time.
Time is the first subject we hear about in Thúy’s most recent novel. Vi, the book’s eponymous eight-year-old heroine, is the youngest of four children, the only girl in a prosperous Saigon family. Her favourite daily task involves tearing a page off the calendar that hangs high on the wall. Vi is the family’s “guardian of time.” But when her twin brothers turn seventeen, the passage of time becomes threatening. Soon the two boys will be drafted into the army to fight in Cambodia or at the Chinese border. Their mother is convinced that either posting will result in death. So, with the help of Ha, her bold, Americanized friend, she plans her family’s escape from Vietnam. Shockingly, her husband declines to accompany them on this perilous journey. Spoiled by his wealthy parents, doted upon by his lenient wife, he cannot fathom a life of struggle.
After a terrifying voyage, Vi’s family washes up on the shores of Malaysia, living a year in a refugee camp before moving to Canada and settling in Quebec City. This premise is similar to that of Ru, and in fact Vi can be read as a response or reconsideration. While her first work earned international accolades, it also met with criticism for taking a view that appeared to absolve the French colonial government for its deplorable politics and deadly actions. Other readers voiced skepticism about Thúy’s portrayal of Canada as a nation warmly welcoming of refugees; they questioned, as well, the psychological ease with which An Tinh and her extended family seemed to assimilate into the Canadian mainstream.
Since Thúy bases her stories on personal experience, they are difficult to quarrel with. That said, in Vi she spends more time describing the horrors the boat people faced and their lingering emotional consequences. After Ha is gang raped by a group of pirates, she staggers through life devoid of feeling. A woman in the camp wails day and night after witnessing her son and daughter attacked and thrown into the sea.
Thúy also places greater emphasis on the role Vietnamese-Canadians play in helping their countrymen adapt, rather than focusing on the contributions of the Canadian sponsors. Once in Canada, Vi’s older brother, Long, becomes head of the household, guiding his siblings in their social and educational choices. Long’s friendliness and generosity, along with his mother’s delicious meals, transform their humble apartment into a gathering place for Vietnamese youth. By such clever, subtle means Thúy affirms Quebec’s cultural diversity.
In Vi, multiculturalism emerges as an important theme. So does race. Vi’s mother’s inner strength derives from having to battle racism. Her dark skin reveals her partly Indigenous roots. In Da Lat, where she grew up, the lighter-skinned girls bullied her mercilessly calling her “monkey,” “savage,” and “transvestite.” Vi rarely meets a person without contemplating their colour, and the reader may tire of hearing about an individual’s “pink cheeks.” It often comes across as though Vi prefers white skin, even though her own complexion is quite dark. Still, Thúy makes her point. She bravely exposes the sordid reality of racism in Vietnam, where Indigenous groups not only face discrimination and crude slurs, but fight to retain their languages, lands, and cultural autonomy. We learn that professors at Hanoi University insisted on giving Vi’s paternal grandfather a French name, even though his parents, “as an act of resistance,” had not done so. He becomes Antoine Le Van An, a judge and a wealthy landowner in Saigon, where, in 1954, the new government’s agrarian reforms will reduce his property by half. We never discover the family’s real name, which is lost to them. This novel about one family’s flight from Vietnam is also a bitter history of a colonized people.
Vi is short form for Bao Vi, literally “tiny, precious, microscopic,” a name perfect for a sister and daughter in a traditional Vietnamese family. As she comes of age in Canada, Vi strives to exert autonomy over her education, her lifestyle, and her sexuality. Later, trained as a lawyer and a linguist, Vi travels to Cambodia for a symposium on law, colonialism, and capitalism.
If we ignored the amputees and the weapons resting on the restaurant tables, it was easy to imagine the “Pearl of Asia” that Phnom Penh had been, with its sumptuous temples and villas. But all it took was a visit to the temples of Siem Reap, where you stumbled over the head of a Buddha, plundered and abandoned by a looter, to hear the footsteps of those marching towards death under the regime of Pol Pot.
Soon after, she returns to the region, this time to Vietnam, as part of a Canadian organization providing aid for political reform. In Hanoi, she meets Vincent, a French ornithologist preoccupied with saving endangered birds and also endangered peoples. As a character he may sound contrived, but Thúy touches only lightly upon Vincent’s motives, which quickly fade from our mind. The two fall deeply in love. “Vi”, a fragment of the name Vincent, is another example of Thúy’s playfulness with words. In particular, Thúy studies distinctions between languages as if this scrutiny might divulge the reasons for distinctions between peoples. “How did ‘bribe’ become ‘pot-de-vin,’ a jug of wine, in French?” Vi wonders. The novel, a slim 144 pages, has words and phrases scribbled in the margins, resembling markings in a notebook. Indeed, the word “notebook” (cahier in French) calls to mind Aimé Césaire’s Cahiers d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), a surreal, book-length poem on the psychological consequences of colonialism in Martinique. Aspects of the novel are evocative of black experience.
As regards style, Vi, like Ru, unfolds in brief passages. The prose again is simple and frank, although not quite so precise and sometimes a little unwieldy. Perhaps this is because the story feels freighted with history. In Ru, An Tinh described her desire to jettison extraneous memories. Vi, on the other hand seems increasingly preoccupied with the collective past: “The history of Vietnam and the Vietnamese endures, evolves, and grows in complexity without being written down and recounted.”
Each of these characters asks the reader to travel in a different direction: While An Tinh encourages us to move forward and forget, Vi advises us to go back and remember. She is ever the guardian of time.