Monday, April 1, 2013

Ru by Kim Thuy


by Kim Thuy  

This is a short, poignant, beautifully sculpted account of a girl's transition from a palatial home in Saigon to a new home in Quebec.  In 1979 and 1980, our newspapers were full of the tragedy of the Vietnamese "boat people," and Canada admitted 50,000 of these refugees.  They were sponsored by individuals, church and community groups across Canada.  Because they spoke French, many were welcomed into Quebec communities.  This is the story told by a participant, a young girl whose family settled in Granby, Quebec. Thuy's story is largely autobiographical.
There are multiple settings, maybe too many: Saigon during the Vietnam War, the escape by boat to Malaysia and the refugee camps, life in Granby, a return trip to Saigon long after the war, and life as an adult in Montreal with an autistic son.

A picture of Thuy's life is revealed through trenchant allusions and episodes.  There is no attempt to be chronological; the connections are interior but the cumulative effect is a picture of the range of emotions and experiences of a family snatched up in events that were larger than they were.

The narration is completely non-chronological.  One chapter starts with mentally handicapped Aunt Seven in Saigon before the war, progresses through a reminiscence of street vendors, then flashes to a visit to Hanoi with a friend after the war, moves forward to Granby and the adaptation to Canadian food (breakfast is never soup) and ends in the present with the statement that she rarely eats breakfast now that she is a Canadian.  This stylistic device allows the author to write a personal account with connections that follow themes and memory triggers.  She tells her own story and creates an amalgam of the events which shaped her life. 
Although the events are harrowing, there is no melodrama. Thuy's prose is disengaged and rather than a plea for pity, this is a celebration of the human ability to endure.

The style is spare and allusive.  One description or episode, recounted in detail, is illustrative of many others. The difference between North and South Vietnam is shown through a comparison of language differences.  North Vietnam had no words for coca cola, spies, rebels, Communist sympathizers and illegitimate babies whose fathers were American GIs.  The extent of adaptation required of these transplanted Asians is epitomized in the discovery of the necessity for winter and summer clothes.  The gap between rich and poor in Vietnam is illustrated by the Communist inspectors who thought that ladies' brassieres were coffee filters.  The Europeanization of Vietnam's rich families is embodied by Thuy's grandfather who ate only butter imported from France. 

For all the skillfully selected episodes which illustrate a time or place, I found the characters elusive.  There are allusions to Thuy's difficult relationship to her mother, the practical family organizer who neglected her daughter's emotional needs, and who cast off her past like a skin and rediscovered herself through dance at age 55.  But I was never sure whether Thuy understood her mother or resented her.   As an adult in Canada, Thuy became the mother of an autistic child.  This challenge is also incorporated into her tale, a struggle that I think is part of another book. 

There are many, many themes, a lifetime of experiences and observations in this one small book: class structure in Vietnam, transitioning in society, the validity of the American Dream, differences and qualities of parenting styles, life in a vanquished country, life in refugee camps.  It is a rich book, with many ideas and viewpoints to consider, maybe too many.  But all the ideas are complex and thoughtful and connect us with one of the many cultures that are changing our Canadian society.  

When first released in French in 2010, Ru won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction.  Its translation by Sheila Fischman, Canada's leading English-French translator, is a testament to its quality.

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