📖 🇻🇳 #29: Autofictional vignettes from Vietnam

Kim Thúy's fictionalised tale of fleeing Saigon

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared this newsletter with a friend.

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Ru, by Vietnamese-Canadian author Kim Thúy, is a lightly fictionalised account of the author’s own experience as a Vietnamese émigré in Canada. Like Ru’s narrator, Thúy and her family fled South Vietnam to escape its Communist take over, travelling first by boat to a refugee camp and eventually settling in Montreal. Having been translated into over twenty languages, Ru is one of the most successful debut novels in Canadian literary history.

The story is told from the perspective of Nguyen An Tinh, a ten-year-old girl whose family flee their palatial home in Saigon to escape Communist rule. In short vignettes that move between the past and the present, An Tinh recounts her memories of leaving Vietnam, enduring a brutal boat journey, and arriving in Malaysia, where her family are accepted by an overcrowded refugee camp which is plagued by flies and maggots. Many months later, having been granted entry to Canada, An Tinh and her family settle in Quebec.

Sponsors help the Nguyen family settle into their new lives, first teaching them how to make their government allowances stretch to cover furniture and clothes by bargaining with market vendors. Next, their neighbours inundate them with overwhelmingly kind gestures: boxes of Minute Rice; trips to the zoo; and warm clothes.

Johanne… was one of an army of them who'd been parachuted into town to give us shock treatment. By the dozen they showed up at our doors to give us warm clothes, toys, invitations, dreams. I often felt there wasn’t enough space inside us to receive everything we were offered, to catch all the smiles that came our way. How could we visit the Granby zoo more than twice each weekend? How could we appreciate a camping trip to the countryside? How to savour an omelette with maple syrup?

Though An Tinh is a quiet child, in Canada she eventually starts speaking French and buys into the North American dream. Later, as an adult, An Tinh has two sons, one of whom is autistic. “He is… one of those children we must love from a distance,” she says, “neither touching, nor kissing, nor smiling at them because every one of their senses would be assaulted by the odour of our skin, by the intensity of our voices, the texture of our hair, the throbbing of our hearts.” Becoming a mother allows An Tinh to reflect on her relationships with her own parents, in particular the sacrifices they made to provide for her, with a new sense of clarity.  

Ru does not follow a linear narrative. Instead, the novel is propelled by triggers: visual cues; smells; and turns of phrase connect its self-contained episodes. In Ru, Thúy intersperses harrowing memories of war and communist re-education with wise reflections on language, identity, and parenthood. At just 140 pages—some of them comprising just a few lines of text—Ru is a short book with real dimension. Its structure is fascinating and Thúy’s unadorned, restrained style of writing is remarkable. I loved this book.

Ru by Kim Thúy, tr. Sheila Fischman (Penguin Random House, 2015)


More books by Vietnamese authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is breathtaking:

  • She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry

  • The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao

  • No Man’s Land by Dương Thu Hương, tr. Phan Huy Đường and Nina McPherson

  • Two Sisters by Cung Thị Lan, tr. Diem-Tran Kratzke

  • The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

  • An Insignificant Family by Dạ Ngân, tr. Rosemary Nguyen

  • Grass Roof, Tin Roof by Dao Strom

  • The Gangster We Are All Looking For by lê thị diễm thúy

  • The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

  • On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Lloyd Duong from PENVietnam for this issue’s recommendations. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!