Ru, first published in French and translated into English, is an autobiographical novel by Kim Thúy. In Vietnamese ru means lullaby; in French it is a stream, often a metaphorical flow of money, tears or blood. This is the story of a girl and her family who were among the many refugees who boarded boats to flee postwar Vietnam in the 1970s. They left in hopes of finding safer shores on the other side of very dangerous seas.
Kim Thúy tells her story in a series of vignettes that jump forward and back through the life of her protagonist, Nguyễn An Tịhn. An adult Nguyễn remembers how her family made landfall in Malaysia where they lived in a refugee camp until they were able to continue their journey to Canada. She remembers their plane landing in Montreal, where they were met by alien vistas of snow, and she remembers her younger self in nearby Granby navigating the ins and outs of lunch hours at the neighbours’, membership in an anglophone cadets corp, and after-school jobs. She remembers, too, the life in Saigon she and her family left behind and how it has informed the way she’s raised her own sons.
Much like memories breaking the surface of one’s mind only to bob down again, replaced with a memory from another time and place, Ru’s chapters, though short and out of sequence, organically assemble themselves into a life remembered. Kim Thúy’s writing is spare and objective, compelling readers to tap their own feelings when confronted with the dangers and kindness Nguyễn encounters rather than borrowing hers.
For readers who are learning French, this is a great read. I’d characterize myself as an intermediate-level reader, and this book’s short length, spare language, and short chapters combined with its beautiful writing and serious themes make it an accessible and engaging read for adult FSL readers.
Montreal (and environs) landmarks in Ru: chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges, Mirabel International Airport, Granby, Granby Zoo
Kim Thúy Ly Thanh arrived in Canada as a Vietnamese refugee in 1979 at the age of 10. Since then she’s worked as a vegetable picker, seamstress, cashier, food commentator, and restaurant owner. With her degrees in law and in linguistics and translation from the Université de Montréal, she has also worked as a lawyer, translator, and interpreter. Ru was her debut novel; she has since written À toi (with co-author Pascal Janovjak) and Mãn.
Kim Thúy’s first impressions of Montreal: “It was a new birth really and that purity, you know, when you come from a country at war…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 [pit latrines] and when we got here it was all white from the plane and that purity really gave us a second birth.”¹
Next up: No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield
Photo credit: Asclepias