In conversation with Giller Prize nominee Kim Thúy

On reading and writing in three languages and how she came to name her book ’Ru’
Brian Bethune
Author Kim Thuy in her home in a Montreal suburb on Thursday, October 11, 2012. Thuy is the author of Ru, a novel which won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French language fiction, and an English translation which is a shortlisted nominee for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize. MACLEAN’S PHOTO BY Vincenzo D’Alto
Photograph by Vincenzo D’Alto

Maclean’s senior writer and chief book reviewer Brian Bethune will be interviewing all five of the Scotiabank Giller Prize nominees. Here’s the last in the series, before Oct. 30th’s gala when the winner will be announced, with the author of Ru, Kim Thúy. (Find all of our coverage here.)

Q: I imagine you’re at least tri-lingual. Do you speak more languages?

A: I don’t speak any of the three properly, though! I had a chance to go back to Vietnam when I was a lawyer – I worked there for four years – so I speak Vietnamese in a very odd way: I can speak like a child or like a lawyer, but nothing in the middle.

Q: How old were you when you came to Canada? What year was that?

A: 1979, March, late March 1979. 27th of March, actually, one of the very few dates which I remember. I was 10.

Q: Did your family come to Québec because your parents already spoke French?

A: In the refugee camp in Malaysia there was a representative from the Québec government, and because we could speak French… well, my father spoke English also— but it was a natural choice because my mother could speak French.

Q: You write only in French, though.

A: I write in French. I have only written two books, so it’s difficult to say if I’m a writer, if I write in French, if it’s a habit.

Q: So that may change?

A: Well, I don’t know. No-no, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write in Vietnamese because there are so many limits in my head in Vietnamese, and French is a language with which I learned how to love, so I guess it will always be French. And English? Well, I’ve never been to school in English so I’d never be able to write in English, I think.

Q: You probably don’t read a lot of English-language books then.

A: Actually I read more in English than in French nowadays. I don’t know why, I just have authors I love. My favourite authors are Tim O’Brien and Nicole Krauss, for example, and Heather O’Neill from Montréal. So yeah, I do read a lot in English.

Q: And do you see a real difference, then, in Canadian literature in English and in French?

A: Absolutely, because even when I speak English I think differently than when I speak French, so the mentality, the way we see the world is a bit different. And also the language does shape us. And for sure when I speak Vietnamese I interpret the world differently. Not that I see the world differently but I think I would interpret it very differently. So absolutely, to me there are two cultures. It’s exactly the same thing with Vietnamese, now, when I read Vietnamese. How would I say it? Things are a lot less explicit in Vietnamese so there’s more place for interpretation than French or English where you’re allowed to name things by their name, you know, to call a cat a cat, for example. In Vietnam it’s very rare that you can call a cat a cat.

Q: We have to talk a while ’til we figure out what we’re talking about?

A: Yeah, for example in Vietnamese you cannot talk really about a sexual relationship. A doctor would ask you if you have been close with your husband and that would be the most that he can say. You know, that’s the closest that you can get to another person, “Have you been close?”

Q: That’s interesting. I remember reading a novel long time ago where the man was talking about his difficulties in learning English, that he spoke some – it was a fantasy novel – he spoke something like French. He was used to putting the adjective before or after the noun, it didn’t matter, but in English there was a big difference between a house cat and a cat house.

A: There you go! See, that’s why. It is, yeah, it changes us.

Q: So you have spent your whole life, almost, between two cultures, all the time.

A: Absolutely. Or with two cultures. I don’t think that I’ve ever been really between. I think I embraced both with, I don’t know, with a feeling of richness more than being torn between the two.

Q: And your children are, essentially, world citizens.

A: It’s very sad that they don’t speak Vietnamese because they were born in Asia when… well, it sounds very strange, but they were born in Bangkok when we were based there, so my older one spoke Thai instead of Vietnamese because of his surrounding, his entourage, and so I don’t know if they had a chance to have two cultures like I do. But of course they’re very close to my parents for sure, they eat Vietnamese a lot, and the values, I think they do have the values but not the culture or the language.

Q: They speak to their grandparents in French?

A: Yeah, my parents got lazy and didn’t force Vietnamese on them! They have become soft, they’re not forcing them to make an effort to speak Vietnamese.

Q: Ru is not your life, but a lot of its contents were part of your memories.

A: Of course. My first motivation was to play with words, to be with words, to write, and so when you write there’s the technical side to it where you choose the words and the way you shape the sentence and the structure, and so you play with the story itself. I allowed myself to be fictive, in a way. From the first line, you know: I was born during the Tet Offensive at all, I was born in September, ’68, not February, ’68, so I was just conceived at that point! But it was important for me to talk about that event if I talk about Vietnam.

Q: If you were born in Vietnam in 1968 what you would remember about Vietnam in 1968 was Tet.

A: Exactly. So to me I was born during the year of the Tet, because to all Vietnamese 1968 was the Tet Offensive. It was the turning point of that war, and it was the first big American deployment, and the war became full-blown at that point in time. So it was important to talk about that. Of course many things are true in the sense that it’s the way that I saw or understood, but there are so many stories that I had to break into smaller pieces to make it readable. And then certain others I had to put two or three together to make it interesting enough.

Q: The novel is one image after another, almost the way people really remember things, not in a linear fashion, and you made your own narrative out of those images. I think this is what the Giller jury was getting at when it praised you for reinventing the immigrant story.

A: I was surprised. I thought that my story was so, you know, ordinary and flat! Yeah, and I didn’t know where I reinvented!

Q: Well, two of them are immigrants themselves, so I think that might have really struck a chord in them, and they’re thinking, “Well, it’s not the, ‘Grandma showed up on the dock in 1897 and then we went here and then this happened,’” it’s different, it’s not linear, and it’s more of a kaleidoscope. I think that’s what they meant by it.

A: And I think maybe also because it’s so imperfect, that I don’t give many facts. I only see small details, ever.

Q: You make a point regarding the difference between the narrator’s name and her mother’s name, which is fractional. Is that the sort of thing Vietnamese pay attention to a lot, these tiny things in names that foreigners miss?

A: Yes, absolutely. Our names have meanings, so the name is very important in this instance, there’s a meaning to it. So yes, but in my case, my personal case, there was no meaning: my mother just wanted to use her name and change the accent, that’s it. And luckily I’m the only girl, otherwise we would have exactly the same name here: if we were four then we would be four Kim Thúy, it would be Kim Thúy, Kim Thúy, Kim Thúy, Kim Thúy, right? But here you don’t write the accent so we wouldn’t be able to make the difference between us. Except for the birth date, I guess.

Q: Oh, I see. So you and any sisters would have had these slightly different names but they would have looked the same to Canadians.

A: Exactly the same, yes. I think I paid attention to the accent because I said to my mom that I prefer the other accent, l’accent grave instead of l’accent aigu, right? The meaning of l’accent grave, because the Thùy with l’accent grave means someone who is very soft and delicate, and I said, “Why didn’t you give me that name? I would have been a delicate girl,” you know?

Q: And what does your name mean?

A: It has no meaning!

Q: Was the title of your novel—ru is a lullaby in Vietnamese, a small stream in French— in your mind for a long time before you wrote it?

A: Actually, no. It was saved under Document 1 for a long time. At one point I named it Après la Pluie, After the Rain, because in French you have this expression, right, après la pluie le beau temps, and it was also the name of a soap, Après la Pluie. It sounded very fresh in my mind, and I wanted the book to be fresh, somehow. But at one point – I don’t know why – it became Ru very naturally. But Ru comes from the name of my former restaurant, Rue de Nam, so I just took one part of the restaurant and turned it into words. And it’s probably what I did a lot with the different stories, I would take one word from one chapter and send it into a different direction altogether.

Q: Was that a Vietnamese or a French restaurant?

A: It was a Vietnamese restaurant.

Q: So it meant lullaby?

A: Yes and no, because Rue de Nam, “de” is really from the French, so it was a mixture. And “Nam” is of course from Vietnam but it means also “from the south”.

Q: You could translate that anyway way you wanted.

A: Exactly.

Q: The Lullaby of Vietnam, Flowing from Vietnam.

A: Yeah, when we wanted to be wicked, in Vietnamese you put different accents and it became “Come flirt with my aunt number five”.