Kim Thúy first arrived in Malaysia 33 years ago aboard a fetid, overcrowded wooden boat that broke into pieces minutes after hitting the beach, leaving the young Vietnamese refugee and her suddenly penniless family to an unwholesome fate behind the barbed wire of an equally fetid refugee camp.
She returned to Malaysia for the first time since last November, following Governor-General David Johnson down a red carpet unrolled on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur airport as an official member of the Canadian delegation that toured the region last fall.
Officially, Thúy (pronounced twee) was attending in her capacity as the winner of the 2010 Governor-General's Literary Award for French language fiction for Ru, a slender, poetic memoir that made her a literary star on both sides of the Atlantic well before its recent appearance last month in a new English translation by Montreal's Sheila Fischman. Unofficially, Thúy was there as the most vivid possible propaganda for the Canadian way.
Exhibit A: The perfect immigrant.
It is a role to which the uncommonly accomplished mother of two is now accustomed, having been conscripted by a Canadian ambassador on her pan-European book tour to lead an informal symposium on Canadian immigration policy. Among other things (including professional translator, restaurateur, seamstress and proud toilet scrubber) Thúy is a constitutional lawyer -- flying to Italy from Montreal to receive an award "for multiculturalité or something like that."
And like everything else in her exceptional life, she enjoys it. "I've always loved all of the things I've done!" she exults over the phone from her home in Montreal, laughing and vivacious throughout a long, meandering chat.
"I loved washing dishes at the restaurant," she says. "I loved it!"
But the return to Malaysia -- bringing Thúy from open-pit latrines to police-escorted limousines -- forced a pause in the endless cycle of her enthusiasms.
"It was very, very strange and it was very emotional," she says. "It was the first time I was forced to look back and really see how many kilometres we've travelled. For the last 33 years we just ran."
Thúy was just beginning the race when her family landed in Quebec after a year's involuntary stay in Malaysia. Less than 20 years later, after she had acquired a degree in translation and qualified as a lawyer, with a job at Stikeman Elliott under the wing of former Trudeau cabinet minister Marc Lalonde, she was back in Vietnam as one of a group of Canadian experts advising the country's Communist leadership in its tentative embrace of capitalism.
To encourage the Vietnamese to relinquish state control of the economy, the Canadians re-branded "privatization" as "equitization"
"In French it's even better," Thúy says. "It's called socialisation."
Married to a Quebec-born lawyer with an international practice, Thúy lived in Bangkok for more than two years, where she gave birth to two sons. There, she opened a restaurant.
"That was such a wrong idea!" Thúy exclaims, whooping with laughter at the memory of her folly -- learning to cook on the job, working 16-hour days with two young boys at home, falling asleep at the wheel. "I finally gave up." And began, for the first time in her life, to write.
Taking its title from the Vietnamese word for lullaby, also the French word for a small stream -- and figuratively, according to its epigraph, "a discharge -- of tears, of blood, of money" -- Ru retraces Thúy's journey in the form of a collage rather than a conventional novel, linking the delicate fragments of a very personal story into a loose arrangement with a powerful effect.
In addition to the Governor-General's award, Ru won three prestigious literary prizes in France. Its impact there was such that Le Monde requested an hour's interview with the author "only to discuss the structure of the book," she says.
A more pretentious writer might have played along but Thúy was frank: Ru has no structure, she explained. It was just one long rush of words with no chapters or even line breaks when she first submitted it for publication. It was what happened almost automatically when her husband advised her to take a break from her hectic career and think about what she really wanted to do.
"I cheated," she says. "I just wrote instead."
Thúy harboured no burning desire to memorialize the Vietnamese experience, to extol the virtues of multiculturalism or to serve as anyone's role model. "I didn't choose to write it or not to write it, or to structure it in any specific way," she says. "I just wrote, and I followed its internal rhythm. For me it's one breath."
After a lifetime of unremitting work, Thúy turned to writing as recreation. " Ru was never meant to be a book," she says. It was just me playing, enjoying myself. Every single minute I was at the computer writing I had this smile on my face."
Her only real tutor was her youngest son, whose autism forced her to explore modes of communication deeper than any she had previously contemplated. "He basically taught me to be very aware of my senses," she says. "Without him I don't think I would have been able to write Ru as I did, with that kind of awareness."
Although she continues to write, Thúy hesitates to call herself a writer -- mainly because she doesn't think of it as work. "And of course," she adds, her frank immigrant mentality moulded by the seminal experience of loss, "one day it will be taken away from me. I cannot live this privileged life forever."