By her own account, Kim Thúy was a weak, spoiled, introverted child. She had numerous allergies, sometimes cried till she fainted and was too timid at school to ask permission to go to the washroom.
All that changed when her well-to-do family decided to flee South Vietnam after the north’s military victory in 1975. The terrors and privations of escape at sea, internment in a Malaysian refugee camp and eventual resettlement in Canada somehow erased Thúy’s allergies, and gave her new strength.
There’s a trace of Thúy’s early timidity in Vi, the narrator and title character of her latest novel. Her name, Vi tells us, means “the smallest one.” This encourages her ambition to become “a microscopic, invisible girl,” although she grows to be the tallest in her class.
Thúy , 49, is small physically, but her presence in Canadian and Quebec letters is large. Ru, her bestselling debut novel, won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction in 2009. The English edition, in a translation by Sheila Fischman, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012, and won CBC Radio’s Canada Reads debates in 2015.
Vi was published in French in 2016, and has just appeared from Random House Canada in Fischman’s English translation. Like Thúy’s two previous novels (including Mãn), it offers a distilled, fictionalized reflection on her experiences.
Like her creator, Vi escapes Vietnam on a boat, and studies translation and law in Montreal. She returns to Vietnam years later as part of an important Canadian delegation invited to offer advice on legal reform. Thuy did that too, in the company of former federal cabinet minister Marc Lalonde, her one-time boss at the Montreal law firm, Stikeman Elliott.
She believes she is still an introvert at heart. “That’s why my writing is very quiet. Everybody is surprised by how loud I am in real life,” she said, in the kitchen of the house in suburban Longueuil, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She let out a raucous laugh, over a pot of tea made from a compressed cake of blackened, 10-year-old tea leaves.
In person, Thúy seems a dynamo of energy. Her fiction, however, moves at a reflective pace. It’s less occupied with driving a story forward than with grasping the presence of a person, the effects of history and tradition on a relationship, or the sensations of living, especially of eating. She reports on her ancestral community as an insider who is wise to its secret codes and unspoken agreements.
The deep subject of Vi is what Thúy calls “the invisible strength” of women, especially Vietnamese women, whose men, during the war, made a more obvious display of strength as soldiers. “I didn’t see the invisibility of their power until I went back as an adult, and saw the difference between my cousins and me,” she said.
Patience, endurance and service to others are the pillars of this strength, which is not all about self-sacrifice. “We often misinterpret Asian women as kind, submissive and obedient,” she said. “On the contrary, that quietness is their way of being strong. They control from under the water, and that is where the current is, under the surface.”
Thúy recalled wondering why a well-to-do cousin in Vietnam would select and carefully pack her husband’s clothes for a business trip, when her servants could easily do the job. “You don’t understand anything,” the cousin said, explaining that her husband would feel her touch each time he unfolded an item from his luggage and put it on; and that her touch on the garment might also dissuade him from letting any other woman take it off.
We often misinterpret Asian women as kind, submissive and obedient. On the contrary, that quietness is their way of being strong.— Kim Thuy
The Vietnamese men in Vi are mostly inactive, drone-like creatures, who depend on women to adore and take care of them. Thuy says she was shocked when that was first pointed out to her.
“Oh my god, I’ve been mistreating Vietnamese men without knowing it,” she said, with another huge laugh. “I thought I put them on a pedestal!”
Non-Asians and Western ways show up in her novel most often as escape hatches from traditional practices, and as manifestations of alternative means of showing emotion. In the preface to a lavish cookbook she published in Quebec last winter (Le secret des vietnamiennes), Thuy writes of her “incapacity to verbalize love … or even to show it with affectionate gestures. Like my parents and my larger Vietnamese family, I rely on food to express my feelings and their unconditional nature.”
The cookbook, like her fiction, is filled with intimations of family. Her mother (who lives next door) and her five maternal aunts are all portrayed in full-page studio photos, and in brief descriptions or anecdotes. Aunt No. 6 was the fashionable, Westernized girl in the family, whose influence shows up in the wardrobe of a character in Vi – and on Thúy’s feet, wearing a pair of pumps during our interview which her aunt had found for her.
The recipes aren’t fancy. “They’re the very basic things any Vietnamese can make with their eyes closed,” said Thúy, who ran a restaurant before becoming an author. These simple dishes are in the book because she first ate them with family.
Her cookbook, which appears in English next year, was hard to escape in Montreal during the holiday season, thanks to giant posters in the windows of bookshops. They testified to Thúy’s status as a Quebec media star, whose gregarious presence is familiar on top-rated TV talk shows such as CBC’s Tout le monde en parle (TLMEP).
Her advocacy and image helped found a spot on TLMEP last year for Thúy and two quiet-spoken authors of a book about autism, called L’autisme expliqué aux non-autistes, for which Thúy wrote a preface. The younger of her two sons is autistic, and she sees the book by Brigitte Harrisson and Lise St-Charles as a vital step toward showing people how the world looks and feels to autistic people.
“Their brains are extraordinary, but so different,” she said. “And by misunderstanding them, we are torturing them” – usually by failing to realize how overwhelming any situation can seem to someone whose brain doesn’t sort sensations into a hierarchy that makes their profusion tolerable.
“I have learned so much from autism,” Thúy said. “Without it, I would not be able to write as I do. I had to slow down in order to understand my son. You have to analyze the evidence of the senses all the time. Why does he not want to go into this room? Is it the light, the smell, the colour, the shape of the furniture? I had to attend to details I didn’t notice before.”
Ms. Fischman, who as Thúy ’s translator has studied her writing more closely than most readers, sees a progression through the three novels. “I think there’s more abstraction now than in Ru, and her characters are more complex.” What has remained constant, she said, is the compression of the language, in which “every words counts.”
Thúy ’s brief chapters in Vi, usually a page or two in length, are filled with expressive details and subtle observations, like notebook entries that have been groomed and given narrative form. They seldom contain any dialogue, though not necessarily as a stylistic choice.
“I can’t imagine what another person would say,” said Thúy, who is never shy to admit what she can’t do. “I just feel like I’m talking to myself. Maybe I don’t have enough imagination. I’m not a real author. My writing is really just to share the beautiful things I’ve learned and experienced.”
Even though the refugee boat stands in her fiction as a central traumatizing image, Thúy also speaks of her forced emigration as a formative, liberating event. “I feel that if I had stayed in Vietnam, I would have just followed the rules, the expectations of my social circle,” she said. “I wouldn’t know how to fight my own fight, how to look for what I want, for what I dream.”