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Fragments that follow the logic of memory

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 -- Last March, while I was living in Paris, I went to the Salon du Livre, the annual book fair. At the information desk I asked to be directed to the Canadian displays but was advised immediately to go to where a Canadian writer had just been declared winner of the RTL-Lire Prize. RLT is a European Radio/TV/Production company and Lire a literary magazine. The prize is for the fair’s best fiction work.
A Vietnamese author was holding a copy of Ru, her book. The author was Kim Thuy, from Vietnam and Canada.
Kim Thuy was born in Saigon in 1968. Her father was a philosophy professor and politician. The family lived in an ornate house where the staff included one chef for Vietnamese cuisine and one for French. Vietnam was at war but Kim Thuy, her parents and two brothers lived in peace and comfort.
‘Ru’ means ‘stream’ in French and ‘lullaby’ in Vietnamese – a combination for a book composed of narratives and reflections, some no more than a page long, the opening sentences of which continue the previous thoughts, tracking the logic of memory, not of time. One reviewer said the fragments were like postcards. The book is short, the Canadian edition 145 pages.
Ru has received good reviews in Europe and the United States. French critics praised the writing for being light, sensual, imbued with innocence and devoid of bitterness. A French publisher, Liana Levi, printed an exceptional 25,000 copies.
A US reviewer said, ‘Each sentence adds layers of evocation that together capture with acute precision what Kim Thuy calls this empty identity … that sense of having been uprooted by force and everything that ensues …’
The book’s opening paragraphs are:
‘I came into the world early in the Year of the Monkey, during the Tet Offensive, when long strings of fireworks hanging from the houses exploded in polyphony with the sound of machine guns.
‘Saigon was my birthplace, and thousands of bits of old firecrackers covered the soil in red as if they were petals from a cherry tree, or the blood of two million soldiers, scattered through the towns and villages of a Vietnam torn in two.
‘I was born in the shadows of skies embroidered with fireworks, hung in luminous garlands shot through with rockets and missiles. My birth was to replace the lost lives. My life was to prolong my mother’s.’
Kim Thuy’s family left Vietnam in a rickety boat in 1978 and spent four months in a camp in Malaysia, before settling in Canada. The beginnings were difficult – the snow and cold, learning to eat with a fork, a new language, working to make ends meet. The father held several menial jobs, including delivering pizzas. The mother worked as a seamstress.
The children picked strawberries and beans for pocket money. But all three did well at school and graduated from the University of Montreal. One brother is a dentist and the other an actuary. Kim Thuy has degrees in law and linguistics and interpretation. She has worked as an attorney and owns an elegant Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal.
On November 16th Ru won the annual Canadian Governor-General’s prize for best fiction work in French. The jury said it was ‘an exemplary autobiographical novel’.
Kim Thuy has lived in Canada for 32 years, and writes in French because she thinks and feels in French. Vietnamese is the language of her childhood and of food. Ru is a gift to her two sons, so that they may appreciate their mother’s Vietnamese heritage.
She has been at work on her second novel, which will dramatize the life of an adult Vietnamese woman in Canada.
Ru is being translated into several languages.

The Liana Levi edition, in French, was published in 2010 and a Canadian edition by Libre Expression, in 2009.

By Elizabeth McLean
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