Kim Thuy’s Ru: The First Vietnamese Canadian Novel

Guest author Vinh Nguyen follows up on Kim Thuy’s novel Ru, that had first appeared on diaCRITICS with a review of the original French publication by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.  First published in 2009, Ru is Kim Thuy’s reflection on immigration and a Vietnamese childhood in Canada. At that time, Ru was only available in French, but now with Sheila Fischman’s new English translation, Vinh Nguyen gives us a review of the Vietnamese Canadian novel.

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At a recent reading in Toronto to promote the newly-published English translation of her awarding winning French-language novel, Kim Thuy asks me in Vietnamese: “Isn’t ‘ru’ the most beautiful word in our language?” The mono-syllabic word, meaning a lullaby or to lull in Vietnamese and a small stream, flow, or discharge in French, is the carefully-chosen title of her book, and it manages to, rather miraculously, both frame and encompass the heterogeneous fragments that comprise Ru’s narrative. The novel’s major themes – war and migration, motherhood and family, struggle and renewal – resonate in the single word “ru.” It is what Kim Thuy manages to accomplish with one word – indeed, with very few words – that makes “ru” and the novel that bears its name so beautiful.

A trained linguist and former translator, the author’s love of words is immediately evident in person, and Sheila Fischman’s elegant translation of Ru retains this passion for language and meaning, this quality of poetry. Kim Thuy has stated that she tried to capture a sense of silence and lightness during the writing process, and in Fischman’s hands even the most gut-wrenching descriptions come through with haunting effervescence. Consider the following passage describing the narrator’s escape from Vietnam on boat:

The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water’s depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. (3)

Illustration by Jiny Ung

Ru’s strength lies in the way Kim Thuy tells the now familiar Vietnamese story of war, migration, and resettlement. The core narrative recounts the experiences of Nguyen An Tinh – a thinly veiled stand-in for the author – and her journey from war-torn Vietnam to Canada. Along the way, the narrator muses on issues as diverse as autism, prostitution, Amerasians, love, and diasporic returns. Instead of feeling scattered and digressive, the vignettes gel together to give the novel a structureless structure – a result of the author’s attempt to mimic the disjointed everyday practice of storytelling, the elliptical nature of memory and remembrance.

Kim Thuy’s writing is graceful, and her story compelling, but what makes Ru so interesting to me is the fact that its publication marks a historical moment in Canada. Ru is the first Vietnamese Canadian novel, or rather, the first novel written by a person of Vietnamese descent in Canada, or rather, the first book by a Vietnamese Canadian to be marketed as a novel. As I mentioned above, the fictionalized narrator shares the details of Kim Thuy’s life, and the book itself could easily be considered a memoir were it not for the simple change of name. Yet, with the decision to replace Kim Thuy’s “I” with a fictional “I,” Ru earns the distinction of being Vietnamese Canada’s first novelistic work of fiction.

The novel joins a small cluster of texts that, taken together, constitute what we might call “Vietnamese Canadian literature”: memoirs by Vietnamese Canadians (Nguyen Ngoc Ngan’s The Will of Heaven: A Story of One Vietnamese and the End of His World, co-authored with E.E Richey; Minh Thanh Nguyen’s Leaving Vietnam; Kim Phuc’s The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, The Photograph, and the Vietnam War, co-authored with Denise Chong; and Thuong Vuong-Riddick’s The Evergreen Country: A Memoir of Vietnam), poetry collections by Vietnamese Canadians (Thuong Vuong-Riddick’s Two Shores / Deux Rives), works by Sino-Vietnamese Canadians (Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and The Headmaster’s Wager) and novels written by non-Vietnamese Canadians with prominent Vietnamese characters (John Bergen’s The Time in Between and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For). While many of these works have been successful in their own right, Ru’s arrival on the scene, its massive critical and commercial success, has brought public attention to Vietnamese Canadian experiences and to the literary rendering of these experiences, to the possibility of Vietnamese Canadians expressing themselves through the beautiful art of fiction.

Vinh Nguyen is a PhD Candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

diaCRITICS is thrilled to have Jiny Ung’s original work grace this post. Jiny Ung specializes in mold-making and animation. She has done production and design work for short films in Southeast Asia. Current animation projects focus on themes of guilt, loss, and queer heroes in the form of fruit-robot-animal hybrids.

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