Vietnamese author Kim Thuy's new novel unfolds in the way a flower casts off petals: one small scene after another. Ru is an autobiographical novel in which memories are shuffled back and forth to tell the story of a 10-year-old born in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Like her story's narrator, Thuy and her family fled South Vietnam in boats, tossed and scattered across the world. They took shelter and struggled to survive in refugee camps, finally winding up in the suburbs of Montreal, where Thuy picked vegetables after school and sewed clothes with other refugees, became an interpreter, then a lawyer and a restaurateur.
Ru won Canada's Governor General's Award, and has been published in 20 countries around the world, and now here in United States, in a translation from the original French. Thuy tells NPR's Scott Simon that the word "ru" has a double meaning. "In French, in old French — nobody uses it anymore — but it means a brook, a very small stream." It's pronounced differently in Vietnamese, she adds, and is commonly used by mothers to soothe their children. "It means a lullaby, or to lull your child to sleep, and I just thought it was such a beautiful word, a poetic word, but used every day."
Thuy began thinking of the book during the weary drives home from her restaurant — she often nodded off at red lights because of the late hours, she says, and after a couple of fender benders, she began making shopping lists in order to stay awake. "And I don't know what happened, maybe it was a longer light or something like that ... I turned a book over and started writing, and that's how Ru came to be."
Thuy describes her autobiographical character as being one of the "boat people," Vietnamese refugees who left their homes during and after the war. But she says her family didn't suffer as much as many others. "We were very, very lucky because we spent only four nights at sea and only four months in a camp," compared with some families who ended up in refugee camps for years and endured thefts and assaults. "And we didn't encounter any pirates," she adds. "But, of course, being Vietnamese, I guess ... we couldn't be blind about these issues that really existed."
"I was lucky that I was young — I was only 10," she continues. Old enough to be aware of bits and pieces of her experiences, but not old enough to understand the wrenching decision her parents made to leave home with no assurances of safety. "Now that I'm older than my parents when they left, I still wonder how you could make this kind of decision. ... I think we expected to die more than to survive ... but the pressure was strong enough for them to make the decision to leave, but mostly, the biggest reason was for us to have an education."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Kim Thuy's new novel unfolds in the way a flower casts off petals - one small scene after another. "Ru" is an autobiographical novel in which memories are shuffled back and forth to tell the story of a 10-year-old who...well, let Kim Thuy introduce herself.
KIM THUY: (Reading) I came into the world during the Tet Offensive in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded, polyphonically, along with the sound of machine guns. I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers fragmented into a thousand shreds, colored the ground red, like the petals of cherry blossoms, or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two. I was born in the shadow of skies, adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace life that had been lost.
SIMON: Like her story's narrator, Kim Thuy and her family fled South Vietnam in boats. Tossed and scattered across the world, they took shelter and struggled to survive in refugee camps, finally winding up in the suburbs of Montreal, where she picked vegetables after school and sewed clothes with other refugees. She became an interpreter, then a lawyer and a restaurateur. "Ru" won Canada's Governor General's Award and has been published in 20 countries around the world, and now here in the United States, translated by Sheila Fischman. Kim Thuy joins us from the studios of the CBC in Montreal. Thank you so much for being with us.
THUY: Thank you so much for inviting me.
SIMON: And you describe your autobiographical character as being part of that group we call boat people, but I gather you're eager for people to know that many families had it worse than yours did.
THUY: Absolutely, absolutely. We were very, very lucky because we spent only four nights at sea and only four months in a camp, whereas just recently I've met one Vietnamese who was in a camp in the Philippines for 12 years. So, we were very lucky.
SIMON: Can you help us understand what it's like for parents, for grandparents to load their children into a boat not knowing where in the world it will wind up really, or if it will land safely at all?
THUY: I was lucky that I was young. I was only 10. I understood some bits then, but most of it I was not conscious of the weight of the whole decision. But now that I'm older than my parents when they left, I still wonder how you can make this kind of decision. But I guess the pressure that we had in Vietnam was big enough for them to take this chance or take this risk, I would say, not chance, because we really thought it was not 50-50 that we would survive or die. It was, I don't know, I think we expected to die more than to survive.
SIMON: What's it like to come from war, this perilous boat trip and a refugee camp, to the nice, soft pillowy snows of Quebec?
THUY: Oh, it was a new birth really. And that purity. You know, when you come from a country at war, again, with men in uniforms and curfews and - we didn't see blood as such, but still it was on our mind. That was the background of Vietnam. And then afterwards, we were in the refugee camp in Malaysia and we were surrounded by dirt basically and I was going to say the septic tank. But it was not a tank because it was not closed, it was open. So, imagine the colors and all of that. And when we got here, it was all white. You know, from the plane, that's what we saw. And that purity really changed us all, gave us a second birth.
SIMON: Can you recollect for me, as you describe in the book, the conversations that you and other young Vietnamese women had while sewing clothes?
THUY: Yeah. Well, you know, when we first arrived here, of course, we were very poor and we had to do many jobs. And one of the jobs that we could do after school and at night was to have a sewing machine at home. And we had the opportunity to talk a lot while we sew.
SIMON: I'm intrigued by the fact that you say that with eyes focused on the regular rapid movement of the needle, we didn't see one another. So, very often, our conversations were actually confessions.
THUY: Oh yes. When we talked, it was about telling stories more than to confess or to confine, I would say. But the fact that we did not see each other, you know, we became hypnotized by the movement of the needle, so it was easier almost to talk because we felt like we were just talking to ourselves.
SIMON: Towards the end, you write talking about their lives now, my Aunt Six and her husband travel first-class and have to stick a sign on the back of their seats so the hostesses will stop offering them chocolates and champagne. Thirty years ago, in our Malaysian refugee camp, the same Step-Uncle Six crawled more slowly than his eight-month-old daughter because he was suffering from malnutrition. Thirty years ago, we lived in the dark with them, no electricity, no running water, no privacy; today, we complain that their house is too big.
THUY: And it's true. It's true, it's too big. You know, at Christmas, we get to be around 40 people and it has three or four days, and we talk a lot. And my family, my husband, who's Canadian and the only child in his family, the first time he came, he said that, oh my God, it's like having 42 radio stations on at the same time. 'Cause everybody's talking and nobody's listening, of course. And, yeah, so, you know, we have rooms and then each family would retreat into a room. And so back then when we were all in the same small apartment for Christmas, I think that we understood each other a lot better because we were so close to each other. And I would love for us to go back to the small apartment with the 40 of us sleeping, some of us sleeping in a bathtub.
SIMON: Do you think there's something in your story that goes for almost any immigrant, including those arriving today in North America?
THUY: Probably. I didn't know, you know, when I wrote it I thought that I would be the only person who will read it. And then afterwards, I said, oh, maybe my children, you know, they would be forced to read it, and then maybe my family. But then my family's not interested because they know the story, they've lived through the same things. And so I thought my friends. So, I'm very surprised that today it's all over. You know, it's in 20 countries. And I would tell you that the nicest compliment would come from a Vietnamese person who would come up to me and said that, oh, thank you for telling my story.
SIMON: Kim Thuy. Her first novel "Ru," winner of Canada's Governor General's Award, published in the United States by Bloomsbury. Thanks so much for being with us.
THUY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.