Kim Thuy and her family fled the Communist regime of Vietnam when she was a child, ending up in Quebec's Longueil. After trying her hand at being a farm worker and a chef, among other careers, she wrote Ru, which won the 2010 Governor General's Literary Award for French-language fiction. Her new novel, Mãn, is about fidelity.
Why did you write your new book?
It's a bit like asking why one would have more children when the world is overpopulated. All subjects have been written many times over, so why write again? I suppose my motivations are mostly selfish – the act of writing and the opportunity to play with words give me a special thrill. When I find the right word and get to make the right sentence, it gives me the same pleasure as hitting a tennis ball right at the middle of the racket.
When I write I get to tell a story to myself, transforming and distorting reality and facts as I see fit. I remember seeing red poppies on the highway between the airport and downtown Paris. At the same time, the taxi driver pointed out the trash and the dirt. But if I were to write about this car trip, I would describe only the red poppies growing out from concrete, defying the wild grasses and the hostile environment. I would leave out the bottles and papers and plastic bags so that over time, I will most certainly forget the trash altogether since the written story would replace my memory of what I saw.
The only purpose I have when I write is to share with the readers the beautiful things I see and the wonderful experiences I've had the chance to live. A new book is like a making a call to friends reminding them to enjoy the cherry blossoms at springtime even though they had already seen them before.
With Mãn, my intention was to record the little daily gestures of attention, affection and love we forget to notice.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Knowing I am a weak person, my mom advised me that whenever I felt scared or fearful, that's exactly the right moment to jump in head first to face the monster by looking him in the eye. And I've found that when I get that close to the "monster," I stop being afraid because I lose perspective and see only the details instead of the monster itself. If I hadn't been taught this lesson, I think I would have never left my house since I'm scared of everything and anything.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?
We don't have to go back in time to witness over-the-top experiences of the human kind – from incomprehensible wars to scientific discoveries, from revolutions to feats we once thought were superhuman. The difference is that we have never been more informed and conscious of what we do and who we are, thanks both to technology and the sheer volume of statistics and studies at our fingertips. So I prefer living and being part of the 20th and 21st century more than any other, except for a brief moment where I could go back into the carriage where Daniel Day-Lewis opened up the button of Michelle Pfeiffer's glove in The Age of Innocence.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten, or legendary after death?
I like to believe there is nothing after death. Therefore, I would not waste any time thinking about being a legend or not after death. In any case, life is already more than I can handle! To me, success means no time has been wasted while I'm living. I do end my days by saying I could have done more. But it has been rare where I consider I've ignored an opportunity or not responded to a moment of good fortune. By that standard, I'd consider myself quite successful during the last thirty years or so.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
I have not studied literature and have read very little. I know bits and pieces of the classics but don't know enough to despise. It is easy to love but it takes a whole lot of knowledge to hate. And I have no knowledge!
Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?
I've never fantasized about trading places with those I admire. I prefer my favourite authors well elevated on a pedestal as they bestow upon me their lives, their worlds, their characters… My veneration for the authors who have created my favourite characters can veer towards the extreme: I'm certain they never have to go to the bathroom nor do they leave breadcrumbs on the counter. Maybe due to this distance, I've never wished to be the creator of a character I love. I need them to remain out of my reach, larger than life.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
I wished I could be that young French girl living in Indochina, standing in the heat of a ferry crossing the Mekong and seeing and understanding 'le désir' for the first time, as described by Marguerite Duras in The Lover. She lived the untold side of the history of Vietnam, which is to me as important as the facts found in history books. And the other reason I wish I could be her is because Duras made her express the most beautiful words and phrases that I've ever encountered.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
How often I've fallen asleep while reading my own work!