Sometimes I’ll wander through mega-bookstore Chapters and my browsing really only goes as deep as “New & Hot Fiction” and to books turned so I can see the cover and not just the spine. For this blog, the Asian/Asian-American titles jump out at me and that is how I noticed this Canadian novel, 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, Kim Thuy’s Ru. This novel was published in French in 2009 and won the French-language Governor General’s award in 2010 and the English translation was published in early 2012.
Ru means lullaby in Vietnamese and a small stream in French which can also refer to the flow of tears, blood and money. The story is not linear and moves between times, while the linear sequence of events goes from a decadent lifestyle in Vietnam to escaping by boat to Malaysia and living in a refugee camp to arriving in Montreal and now a mother to two sons.
Going from a decadent, colonial lifestyle to that world crumbling before their eyes to escaping to a refugee camp in order to save their lives, if not their possessions, changed Thuy’s parents’ and her own world view. The future was highly uncertain.
Unable to look ahead of themselves,
they looked ahead of us, for us, their children.
Thuy poignantly writes about people she knew in Vietnam, their lives a struggle her privileged children will never know. “I tell … these stories to keep alive the memory of a slice of history that will never be taught in any school.”
In Montreal, the family continues to struggle but at least it is not for physical survival in the same way. Their past lives have left a scar present in her attitude towards life.
A Vietnamese saying has it that “Only those with
long hair are afraid, for no one can pull the hair of
those who have none.” And so I try as much as
possible to acquire only those things that don’t
extend beyond the limits of my body.
Although the family landed in Montreal, it is still the “American Dream” they chase and, to a large part, succeed in attaining. It is not without a loss, Thuy discovers when she returns to Vietnam for work. A waiter claimed she was “too fat” to be Vietnamese. He did not mean it literally and it marks a palpable change to immigrants to the West. “That American dream had given confidence to my voice, determination to my actions, precision to my desires, speed to my gait and strength to my gaze. That American dream made me believe I could have everything, that I could go around in a chauffeur-driven car … that I could dance to the same rhythm as the girls who swayed their hips at the bar to dazzle men whose thick billfolds were swollen with American dollars … but the young waiter reminded me that I couldn’t have everything, that I no longer had the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears. And he was right to remind me.”
That might very well be true for Vietnam, the disparity between the home country and new country is so great and Thuy is not propagating a stereotype about Vietnamese “fragility”. I’d like to think otherwise, if not in this generation but the next, as the Vietnamese economy strengthens. In the West, confidence is very brash and by comparison many other cultures with quiet confidence appear meek. On their home turf, I think the Vietnamese would conduct themselves within the norms of society and it is the outside perspective that finds them “fragile.” At least, that is the case with China.
Then sometimes Thuy would talk about love and her lovers and I didn’t know exactly where it fit in since she is now happily married with two children. Is it to show how the upheaval in her life made her passionate and emotional? In a mini language lesson, she talked about the different words for love. “In the case of Vietnamese, it is possible to classify, to quantify the meaning of love through specific words: to love by taste (thích); to love without being in love (thu’o’ng); to love passionately (yêu); to love ecstatically (mê); to love blindly (mù quáng); to love gratefully (tình nghĩa). It’s impossible quite simply to love, to love without one’s head.” I suppose she has learned to love simply and purely, a great gift from living her American dream.
As my name moved up the holds list at the library for this book, I got nervous that it might be a novel that I can’t get into. What if it was way artsy? It garnered the kind of praise that made me worry it would be abstract. The novel is very slender, just 141 pages. And it is written as a series of short one- or two-page vignettes in lyrical, free-form metered prose. The end of one vignette provides a segue to the next idea that is not necessarily subsequently occurring in time. I liked the flow and and it kept me captivated. At times, Thuy would switch from the lyrical meter to short paragraphs, the latter inferred urgency and weight to the message while the former was meandering and whimsical.
As an example, the following is one full vignette, an epilogue to the preceding vignette about visiting Madame Girard in her perfect house when Thuy was young. I thought this one chapter was perfectly showed the kind of writing in the novel that made it lyrical and a pleasure to read.
My father tracked down Monsieur Girard thirty
years later. He no longer lived in the same
house, his wife had left him and his daughter was
on sabbatical, in search of a purpose, a life. When
my father brought me this news, I almost felt guilty.
I wondered if we hadn’t unintentionally stolen
Monsieur Girard’s American dream from having
wanted it too badly.