Kim Thúy: A Way with Words

Over the past five years, Kim Thúy has become one of the best known and most celebrated francophone writers of the Vietnamese diaspora. Born in 1968, Thúy fled Vietnam by boat at the age of 10. After ...

Over the past five years, Kim Thúy has become one of the best known and most celebrated francophone writers of the Vietnamese diaspora. Born in 1968, Thúy fled Vietnam by boat at the age of 10. After four months in a Malaysian refugee camp, she and her family immigrated to Quebec, where Thúy came to writing after holding a variety of jobs: picking vegetables and sewing clothes when she was young, later working as an interpreter and a lawyer, and most recently owning a restaurant.

Thúy is a writer of rare precision, attentive to the sounds of words, to the spaces between languages, and to the kinds of meanings made possible by fragmentary, nonlinear narrative. She is not the first author to address refugee experience—let alone adulterous passion—but her experiments with literary form bring a haunting and deeply moving quality to her work.

Thúy’s first novel, Ru, was published in 2009 and went on to win a host of prizes in both Canada and France.1 A lyrical, highly autobiographical account, Ru has been translated into multiple languages and published in some 20 countries; Sheila Fischman’s excellent English-language translation appeared in 2012. À toi, a conversation on language, writing, and cultural displacement that was initially conducted via email between Thúy and fellow author Pascal Janovjak, was published in book form in 2011. Last year, Thúy published her second novel, Mãn, which tells the story of a married Vietnamese immigrant whose life in Quebec is thrown into question when she travels to Paris and falls in love with a Frenchman. With an English-language translation (also by Fischman) having recently been published in Canada, Mãn seems poised to become another international sensation.2

Thúy’s appeal to readers may be due in part to the accessibility of her language, which unfolds with a quiet clarity and rarely draws attention to its underlying intricacy. In interviews, she is disarmingly humble, delighted but astonished at the reception of her books. She worries that her novels may require too much concentration, preferring them to be “as light as a caress” that can be felt “without effort.”3

The most striking aspect of both of Thúy’s novels lies in her use of short fragments, many less than a page long, to chart the lives of her characters. From a narrative perspective, the passage from one fragment to the next is rarely straightforward: Thúy leaps from the present to the past and back again, from the events of her narrators’ own lives to stories of their parents and grandparents, from the snow-covered landscapes of Quebec to the Saigon skies, “adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles.” The cumulative effect is to underscore the complexity of diasporic experience, in which each moment emerges through a network of sights, sounds, and meanings that link it to other times and places.

Thúy is a writer of rare precision, attentive to the sounds of words, to the spaces between languages.

In Ru, the sound of flies buzzing during a nature walk in Quebec leads the narrator into a harrowing description of the refugee camp: “I know the sound of flies by heart. I just have to close my eyes to hear them buzzing around me again, because for months I had to crouch down above a gigantic pit filled to the brim with excrement, in the blazing sun of Malaysia. I had to look at the indescribably brown colour without blinking so that I wouldn’t slip on the two planks … At those moments I escaped by listening to the humming of flies.” Instead of a chronological narrative progression, Ru follows a logic of memory and trauma, in which the image, sound, or cluster of words with which one fragment ends is taken up at the beginning of the next.

Thúy’s use of fragmentary narrative structure takes on an additional layer of complexity in Mãn, where each section of text appears under the heading of a Vietnamese word and its translation into French. These words (which range from “salt” and “scar” to “identity” and “culture”) serve to highlight central images or themes within each fragment, but they also open meanings that exist prior to the narrative itself; the headings become a dictionary of both abstract concepts and everyday objects out of which the story is generated. The bilingual nature of each heading recalls both the exilic trajectory along which the narrator has traveled, and the long and often painful history shared by France and Vietnam.

In one particularly arresting fragment that falls under the heading “tự điển / dictionnaire,” the narrator recalls a neighbor from her childhood in Vietnam, an older man whose French dictionary has been confiscated by the Communist government but who continues to stand outside every day, reciting from memory French words and their definitions. For the narrator, this “dictionnaire vivant” (living dictionary) embodies a form of forbidden, fascinating knowledge; for the other neighbors, he is nothing more than a madman. Here as elsewhere in the novel, the promise of translation comes up against the many factors, political and personal, that work to keep languages and people apart—at times, tragically so.

Unlike many diasporic authors, Thúy does not address racism or anti-immigrant sentiment at any length. Xenophobia among certain segments of the population in Quebec is acknowledged, but in passing. The warm recognition expressed in Thúy’s work for the opportunity to immigrate and to pursue “le rêve américain” (the American dream) is clear, and may even be a factor in her popularity. And yet, here too, things become more complicated on the level of detail. The narrator of Ru, for example, registers the difficult position of refugees facing the task of rebuilding lives, of imagining futures: “We were well acquainted with the dreams of our nearest and dearest: those with whom we were packed in tightly for nights at a time. Back then, we all had the same dreams. For a long time, we were obliged to have the same one, the American dream.” Without in any way diminishing her gratitude for the generosity shown to her and her family upon their arrival in Quebec, she manages to convey—in sentences so gentle that they might be a caress—the terrible weight such generosity can bring to those who have nothing to offer in return: “By the dozen they showed up at our doors to give us warm clothes, toys, invitations, dreams. I often felt there wasn’t enough space inside us to receive everything we were offered, to catch all the smiles that came our way.” This is what makes Thúy’s writing so interesting: her ability to tell so many stories, all at once, in the same fragment, with the same words. icon

  1. Those prizes included Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction (French-language) and the Grand Prix RTL-Lire at the Salon du livre de Paris. For a complete list of prizes, see here.
  2. In France Mãn was “consecrated” by the hugely influential Bernard Pivot, and Liana Lévi, Thúy’s French publisher, printed an initial run of 20,000 copies of the novel (“ce qui est énorme”). See Louis-Bernard Robitaille, “Départ en fanfare pour Mãn en France,” La Presse (Canada), May 21, 2013.
  3. “Jʼai toujours peur que mes romans imposent une concentration trop élevée aux lecteurs. Mon but ultime est dʼêtre légère comme une caresse et que les gens la ressentent sans effort.” Samuel Larochelle, “Sortie du troisième roman de Kim Thuy, une maîtresse des mots (ENTREVUE),” Le Huffington Post Québec, March 27, 2013.