An Evening with Kim Thúy
In a seamless blend of memoir and fiction, Kim Thúy’s first novel, Ru (Random House, 2012) tells the story of a young girl who leaves Việt Nam after the fall of Sài Gòn. Like Thúy, the girl and her family arrive in Canada via a Malaysian refugee camp, and settle in a small city where they begin their new life. Recently shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, Ru is no stranger to literary prizes. Originally published in French, the novel won a Governor General’s Literary Award for French Fiction, and also made the 2012 Giller Prize short list, among others. Quill & Quire editor Stuart Woods, the head judge for this year’s Amazon award, says “A first novel should be brash and ambitious, and announce the arrival of a new talent.” Kim Thúy’s Ru meets the bar.
The day after Ru made the longlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, the author took time out from the final edits of her third book, Mãn, (to be released in April) to speak to a crowd of about 130 people in Pointe Claire, a Montreal suburb. Ru is a lyrical, poetic and non-linear collection of vignettes, written from the twin viewpoints of the narrator as a ten-year-old and as an adult. A word or an idea from the end of each vignette sparks the beginning of the next in a meditative flow, and this is also the way Kim Thúy spoke to her attentive audience. She began the evening in a roundabout meander from topic to topic, and I wondered where she was taking us. A small person with a big presence, she spoke with lavish gestures and facial expressions, throwing her whole being into her bilingual presentation. As she spoke, she kept bringing in new threads, nimbly keeping track of the ones she had dropped, only to pick them up again later, weaving them all into a seamless narrative. Over the course of the evening, she linked each anecdote to the previous one in the same way that her book’s title grew out of Ru de Nam, the name of the restaurant she once owned, and the way each story in Ru takes its cue from the one before.
Thúy kept returning to the theme of luck, beginning with how fortunate she felt to have made the crossing from Việt Nam to Malaysia in just four days without meeting any pirates, and to have spent only four months in a refugee camp. Though her voyage to Malaysia was by no means pleasant, countless Vietnamese spent weeks or months at sea and faced starvation, pirate attacks and other horrors, including the death of boat-mates and family members. Many of them spent years trapped in refugee camps.
Thúy and her family were among more than 60,000 Vietnamese boat people to settle in Canada. Arriving in Granby, Quebec, when she was ten, they later moved to Montreal, where Thúy earned a linguistics and translation degree, followed by another in law. In 2012, Random House Canada published the English version of Ru, translated by Sheila Fischman, award-winning translator of over 150 Quebec novels. When a member of the audience asked how Thúy had managed to snare Fischman, she said “I’m so lucky! Someone from Random House just phoned and asked for permission for Sheila to translate it.” She also felt very lucky winning so many literary awards for Ru, including ones she had “never even heard of, like the Prix Prince Pierre (de Monaco) and the Italian Mondello Prize.” Later in her presentation, she said that each time she won a prize, she felt like she’d won the lottery.