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Kim Thúy

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Engaging with the past

After receiving international accolades for her debut novel, Quebec author Kim Thúy is poised to win over English Canada with her personal tale of journey and struggle

In November 1978, at the age of 10, Kim Thúy left Vietnam, crammed into a fishing boat with her parents, her two younger brothers, and eight other relatives. They landed on a beach in Malaysia, just as their tiny boat fell apart.

Thirty-three years later, almost to the day, Thúy returned to Malaysia for the first time since she and her family left a refugee camp for Canada. Thúy was part of an education and trade-promotion delegation accompanying Governor General David Johnston to Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. When the group returned to Ottawa, Thúy remained behind, to allow herself time to reflect on the trip and her cultural heritage.

“We Vietnamese run so much just trying to keep our heads above the water. We rarely have time to look back,” says Thúy, on the phone from Singapore. “Most Vietnamese don’t look back, because we don’t believe we are determined by our past. We believe it’s the future that defines us … but, for the first time, I think this visit has forced me to stop and [look back].”

Thúy’s debut novel is called Ru – the word means lullaby in Vietnamese; in French it can mean a small stream, or a flow of blood, tears, or money – and is modelled after her personal history. In 140 pages of poetic prose fragments, it tells the story of An Tinh Nguyen, who, like Thúy, journeys by boat from Vietnam to Canada, struggles to integrate into Quebec society, returns to Vietnam as a lawyer, and experiences motherhood. First published in 2009 by Quebec’s Libre Expression, the book won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction. Random House Canada is publishing the English translation as part of its New Face of Fiction program.

Now based in Montreal, Thúy says that, while she has always loved words, writing was not her first vocation. As a teenager she worked as a seamstress and in the family ­restaurant, helping her formerly wealthy parents make ends meet as new immigrants in Quebec. After graduating from law school at Université de Montréal, Thúy worked at the Montreal corporate-law powerhouse Stikeman Elliott, before becoming a legal adviser for the Canadian International Development Agency.

Of all the difficulties that have shaped her, Thúy says it was her youngest son’s ­autism that ultimately turned her into a writer. “If I didn’t have him, I don’t think I would have been able to write Ru the way I’ve written it,” she says. “Because I’m not someone who has a muse or a great talent. I don’t feel so much. But because he’s so sensitive about everything, I have to pay attention to all the senses.”

Thúy never expected Ru would be read by anyone other than her friends and family, much less become a literary phenomenon in Quebec. Since 2009, Ru has sold over 100,000 copies, and along with the GG, won the Salon du livre de Montréal’s prix du grand public and France’s Grand Prix RTL-Lire. Foreign rights have been sold in 20 countries, including to Bloomsbury U.S. In May, Ru will be published as one of the lead titles for editor Geoffrey Mulligan’s new U.K. imprint, Clerkenwell Press.

Random House Canada editor Pamela Murray has equally high expectations for the English-language version of Ru. “[Thúy] just has this absolute talent for crystallizing these little moments and extracting the most beautiful and vivid details,” says Murray. “I think a huge part of the success of the book is the essence of her warmth and her graciousness translated onto the page.”

Sheila Fischman, who translated Ru into English, similarly observes that Thúy’s writing style is characterized by “a kind of musical pause sometimes between words and phrases. They’re instinctive…. It’s not the kind of musicality you achieve by piling on the adjectives.”

Some readers, Murray concedes, may find the brief passages and poetic structure “discombobulating at first, because it does move back and forward through time.” She describes it “almost like the art of being still while everything around you is in motion.”

While Thúy continues to look forward, she savours the experience of retracing her past and what her trip has taught her about the concept of home.

“Many journalists have asked me, who am I? Vietnamese? Canadian? Vietnamese-Canadian? And where is my home? I could never tell, because I’ve always felt I could live anywhere,” she says. “But after this trip, this is the first time that I’ve realized that … Canada is really my home. It’s only in Canada that I could be whatever I am today.”