Review of Ru by Kim Thuy

Translated by Sheila Fischman
Random House

This review has been cross-posted at Rover: Montreal Arts Uncovered.

Recipient of several literary prizes, including the Governor General’s Award for Literature, Ru is the autobiography of Kim Thuy. Under the name of Nguyen An Tinh, the author recounts her story: from her childhood in a palatial Saigon home, which her family is later forced to share with the invading Communist forces, to the squalor of the Malaysian refugee camp where she and her family fled before coming to Canada by boat. Starting out in Granby, Quebec, in the late 1970s, her parents work in menial jobs so that their children may one day live their “American” dream. As an adult, the protagonist returns to her native Vietnam where she is told that she is too fat to be Vietnamese and is mistaken for an escort and a Japanese tourist.

In Vietnamese, Ru means lullaby, while in French, it signifies a flow of money, blood or tears, three recurring themes in this book. The narrative is a series of vignettes, usually no longer than a page, taking the reader back and forth in time and space. One vignette segues into the next with a single thematic thread. In one instance, the author describes her silence growing up in the shadow of her cousin Sao Mai, who is the same age and gender. In the next, she is attending a Canadian military cadet school so that she can learn English for free. She spends her summer receiving incomprehensible orders from over-exuberant teens who know nothing of the horrors of war. At the end of the summer in her first English words to her superior officer, our protagonist bids him adieu: “Bye. Asshole.” 

As all writers know, appealing to the five senses is key to bringing the reader into the story. In Ru, Thuy not only relies on vibrant colours and rich sensual detail to layer her narrative, but she also introduces the refreshingly original, such as the texture of a comma, the sharp smell of sun-baked hair or the sound of crumpled dollar bills as they hit the feet of naked young women. And it is perhaps the rich detail of Ru that will make it so compelling for the North American reader, as it fills in the many cultural blanks we have of a country and a people about whom we have heard so much but know so little. 

For many of us, our ideas of Vietnam stem from the black and white war footage of the nightly US news in the early 1970s, only to be followed by a series of Hollywood movies taken from the perspective of US soldiers. There were North and South Vietnamese: the enemies and the victims, some of whom later became boatpeople. But for those of us who had Vietnamese classmates, we were never to ask them any questions about their past for fear we would unearth some horrific memory. 

Although the story is at times harrowing, it also takes humorous turns. In addition to shedding some light on the presence of the “hairy hands,” as the US GIs were known, the book also gives further details on the invading North Vietnamese soldiers who were often illiterate country bumpkins. The young operatives occupying the family’s Saigon home once rifled through the mother’s undergarment drawer only to discover her bras. Convinced they had found coffee filters, they immediately wanted to know why there were always two together. They deduced that one never drinks coffee alone. In another instance, the Communist soldiers occupying their home demanded that the family return their fish to them. The soldiers had apparently stored their dinner in the large white bowl in the shared washroom, unaware of the porcelain fixture’s purpose. The family had unwittingly flushed the fish away.


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