Ru, Kim Thúy’s account of her childhood odyssey from Sài Gòn — after the end of the Việt Nam 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.
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 Việt Nam?
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 Việt Nam 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.
How did your life change after the Communists took over South Việt Nam?
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.
Why do you think Ru has been so warmly embraced by French readers here and overseas?
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 Việt Nam, one journalist told me.
And because Việt Nam 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.
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?
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.
Did you aspire to be a writer?
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.
Ru is a memoir, a collection of remembered events in your life, yet you call it a novel.
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 Tết Offensive, for example, but soon after.
And I didn’t have a dance teacher.
I decided it should be called a novel.
By GREG QUILL
Source: The Star, Toronto