by Terry Hong
Kim Thúy is one tough writer to get to, although she declares in our first email exchange when I finally track her down, “I am not at all the kind who plays hard to get :-).” Attempts to contact her included pleas to both her Canadian and U.S. publishers and publicists (multiple times, ahem!), as well as to her Canadian literary agent’s office. Two months had already passed since my feature piece on Kim Thúy had been filed, edited, and readied for publication.
So, I got personal. I sent random emails to friends who happened to be Canadian writers. How hard could six degrees of separation be, right? I asked an Israeli Canadian buddy and an American ex-pat-now-Canadian professor. Nothing. And then I remembered a Nepali Canadian journalist author friend, who quickly replied she didn’t know Kim Thúy personally, but she thought of two friends who might. The connection that finally came through was a missive from Shanghai from a novelist on her way to a Vancouver residency! Talk about searching the ends of the world!
Kim Thúy insisted on a Skype chat: “… my English is weak [it’s so not!]. Live Skype allows me to use my hands to speak to you.” And she requested an 8:33 call on a Thursday morning, warning “a later time will be interrupted by all kinds of daily stuff: phone calls, people at the door, wild cats … and bears in the garden …” I will add that, regardless, her phone(s!) rang as if on cue every few minutes.
Still, we managed a two-hour session of gesticulating and laughing and outright guffawing.
Terry Hong: Okay, so you’ll hear me typing while we talk, and I’m also recording our conversation …
Kim Thúy: Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve said so many stupid things during interviews, I don’t worry at all anymore! So you can do anything you want with this!
TH: Then I might as well ask you the most selfish question right up front: when’s the next book coming out?
KT: I’ve written two more since Ru! They are already out in French. My second book is with another author, Pascal Janojvak. We met in Monaco because we were both there for a book prize [the Prix Littéraires Prince Pierre de Monaco]. I had not read his book [L’Invisible] and he had not read mine. Pascal is half-French, his father is Slovak, and his parents met in Switzerland where he was born. But now he is living in Ramallah, in Palestine. And I wondered why a Swiss would be living in Ramallah! He had been there for five years, he had his kids there. And I thought, there must be a love story! He met his Italian wife in Beirut at the Institut Français. They lived in Bangladesh, then worked in Jordan, then got jobs in Ramallah. Their children have many passports! We first met for only one-and-a-half hours, but something just clicked. We exchanged our first email, and the story was right there. So we started writing this book, going back and forth. It’s called À toi.
TH: Since it’s not translated into English yet, can you tell us about it?
KT: When we met, first I talked about French colonization, about the Vietnamese people’s love/hate relationship with the dominant culture. For the Vietnamese, we want the French to leave our country, but then we also wish we had French features. We still wish to be French, even though we despise them, because we wish to be like those who have the power.
Then Pascal came back with a great story about Palestine, about what the kids are playing in the streets. He noticed that when they had a choice, the Palestinian children chose to be an Israeli soldier, because that’s the closest they had to a hero! When they played with planes, they wanted the supersonic models from Israel, not the Palestinian versions. Israeli products are always thought of as better than the Palestinian. That was very interesting to me. I knew so little about Palestine–beyond explosions, smoke, guns. But Pascal told me about how when a pot of soup is made by someone’s mother, she shares it with her friends. I don’t have that sort of image–of mothers, fathers, their children living their daily lives. But of course, they have the same daily lives as everyone else!
Pascal told me about all the stress in Gaza that has led to a big controversy with black market sleeping pills and Viagra. The men can’t sleep. They’re too tense and not relaxed enough for that. When he told me this story, I finally realized how they must always live under such pressure all the time. The body is always reacting, the body has to keep changing and adapting. But by being under stress always, we are just muting ourselves.
I wanted to continue this conversation with him, so we did that through writing the book.
And also, he was very handsome, by the way. And now you know I’m just superficial! I just wanted to talk to him. Anyway, that’s how we started. The book is about the same length as Ru. It’s not yet translated into English but I think soon.
TH: And your third book?
KT: Yes, the third book came out here in Canada last April. It’s also in French. It went out in France in May. It should be out in English next year. And it’s been a bestseller since April. In Quebec, bookstore owners are writing to me, saying, “We are so happy, now that you’ve pushed 50 Shades of Gray out from the top spot! We are so proud that people are not reading only that series!” So the book is doing really well.
The title is Mãn–the word means someone who doesn’t have any more desires, who is fulfilled, who has serenity because she doesn’t want anything else. The book is about a Vietnamese orphan–and Mãn is the name she got from her adoptive mother.
There’s an expression in French–something like ‘you get all the flowers, but soon you’ll have the pot on your head!’ I’m still waiting for that pot to fall on me. For now, everything is still okay, and only the flowers are coming down.
TH: So let’s talk about some of those showering flowers that have to do with Ru, since we English-readers only have that single title of yours to enjoy thus far.
KT: Ru has been doing so well, although I really don’t understand why or how. It’s been published in twenty-something countries already! I’ve been especially surprised at the responses from ex-Communist bloc countries; the readers there were so into Ru! I went to Romania and Serbia twice for Ru, although they loved À toi more, I think.
In Romania, I think the people understand what happened in Vietnam. Right now, the Vietnamese can see the light at the end of the Communist tunnel. Romania can’t see the light yet, so the people are still waiting. My Romanian publisher says the light is there, and she wants to share that light through the books she publishes. Her main objective is not to just sell books–she is already a very rich businesswoman, and she’s decided that her main project in life is to give back to her country through literature. So she travels all over the world to read and buy the works of international authors. And whatever book she chooses to publish at home, she invites the author to come and speak to the people. Sales are not so important to her, but introducing the author is. You can imagine the high cost to fly in authors from all over the world, but she does this anyway. I have been twice to Romania. And [À toi co-author Janojvak] has been once.
TH: Tell us more about the diverse reactions from your readers based on geography.
KT: In Sweden, the readers wanted to know more about immigration, because recently their country has seen a lot more immigration than ever before. No one went to Sweden before, but since the fall of Communism in some countries, changing governments in others, more immigrants from the Eastern bloc and from North Africa are arriving in Sweden. The Swedish want to learn more about immigration in other countries, so the Swedish Embassy organized a luncheon with their Ministry of Immigration, and I was like their lab rat: I think they just wanted to show what an immigrant might look like after thirty-eight years in a different country. They seemed to be saying, “See? If you take care of your immigrants, this is what you can expect them to be like!” I tried to tell them I’m not the successful version of an immigrant in Canada–the most successful become doctors and pharmacists, but I strayed, I went to the dark zone. There are better immigrants than me out there!
In Italy, I got an award in Sicily from a bank [the 2011 Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism]. Again, the question of immigration came up. I think the award was just an excuse to talk about immigration!
In Spain, the readers covered everything. I did fourteen interviews between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. one day! I came right after Joyce Carol Oates, so my publishers were sure that the journalists would not come out to meet me, but they all came! Many newspapers wanted to talk about women’s issues in Vietnam and Canada.
I had a big surprise in Germany. Ru had just come out there. A woman from Quebec living in Germany had read about Ru and wanted to meet with me while I was there–a private meeting, and not for a newspaper or anything. It was so nice to meet someone who knew about Quebec. She asked me to read some of Ru onto a tape, because she thought maybe someday she could use the book to teach in her French classes. And a year later, the school system bought the book to use to teach French!
TH: So you really do have Ru scattered all over the world!
KT: This book, I don’t understand why it’s so successful. It’s back on the bestselling list again in Quebec–after four years since it came out! I think that’s because it’s being taught in [Canadian] schools, and the children are just back to school. A single school might buy a hundred copies!
Because more schools know about the book, I was recently invited by the Department of Social Works at the University of Montreal to talk. I don’t even know what that [department name] means properly. They wanted to use Ru as a window on immigration; their clientele will mostly be immigrants over the next few decades.
TH: Sounds like the media has turned you into an immigration expert!
KT: Yes, but this book has been used for everything. It just refuses to die. This book is unkillable! In Quebec, the life of a book is about three months, maybe six if the author is very lucky. This has been going for four years!
Recently, someone wrote a letter to a grandmother who has an autistic child living with her. This person wants the grandmother to move from that neighborhood because they said the autistic child was scaring other kids. The letter said move or the child will be put to death–it was a terrible hate letter! The grandmother notified the police, but I’m not sure they found the author of this letter. In any case, even for that issue–they invited me to talk on the radio about what happened, just because I have an autistic son, who I write about in Ru.
TH: So being a lawyer was just one of the many things you did before you turned to writing . . . as an adult, you were an interpreter, a lawyer, a restaurant owner, and chef. What made you finally turn to writing?
KT: Really, writing was all accidental. My whole life in general is accidental, starting with I don’t think I was meant to live–I was born very, very weak and small. I’m still small–I’m five feet tall only. As a baby I was just five pounds, with all sorts of allergies to eggs, fish, milk. The wind blew, and I would swell up. When the weather got cold–32°C [89.6°F!] is considered cold in Vietnam–I got a cold. I cried a lot.
Our first meal after our boat landed in Malaysia [when the family escaped Vietnam] was sardines. That was our first food after four days of hunger. That was it, so I ate it. Somehow, I lost all my allergies on that boat; I have not reacted to any fish in thirty-five years. I really was granted a second life. My whole body reprogrammed itself before I could react. That happened not only to me, but to the sister-in-law of an aunt of mine who traveled with us. She had had severe asthma, had no medication left, and we all thought she was going to die. She didn’t have a single crisis–and she hasn’t had an attack for the last thirty-five years. So I was not the only miraculous thing; I know something about our whole boat was miraculous.
Our family got to Canada by accident. Many countries came through the refugee camp to select their refugees. The first delegation that came through ours was Canadian. My parents could speak French–so we were chosen very quickly. We would never have chosen Canada ourselves; my mother thought the country only had igloos here, with winter twelve months out of the year! She was convinced we were going to live in igloos, too. But Canada was our chance to leave the camp, so my parents thought we could get to Canada first, and then flee the igloos and go to the U.S. afterwards. The camp was so bad; we just needed to leave. Now my parents are total Canadians.
TH: So how did you initially choose a career in translation?
KT: Perhaps translation was the only part of my life that I chose. I loved literature and writing, and I wanted to study French literature, but my mother said, “What can you do with a degree like that? There’s no profession after that!” I didn’t know then that I could be professor, or a journalist, or a writer. So I chose to become a translator because I could still work with the language. What I didn’t realize was that you have to master at least two languages, and I had mastered none!
My first class [at university] was creative writing, which made me so excited. Before the midterm, the professor called me to his office. He strongly suggested that I change my academic direction. His class, he explained, was built on three blocks for passing: the first was a knowledge of French, the second class participation, the third creativity. For the first block, he was giving me a zero, which I knew I deserved. I had studied science before university and knew sufficient French for science, but when compared to language experts, my linguistic knowledge was zero. My participation grade was zero. We were required to make comments on other people’s translations, and my only comment ever was, “Wow, that was so good!” Because I didn’t have the language, I couldn’t analyze the text on a logical, grammatical level–that was just way beyond me.
I hung on to that class, only because I didn’t want to be humiliated by my mother who had “told me so.” I preferred being humiliated by my peers and teachers instead of my mother. I don’t know how I got through, but I did get my diploma, even though I knew I would probably never become a translator because I was not good enough for the job. My marks were not good enough to go back to science, to go to medical school. My brother told me to try law. So that’s what I did.
By total luck, I got recruited by one of the biggest law firms in Canada. I thought I was interviewing for a summer job, and the only reason I chose this firm was because the interviewer was so handsome! I told you, I’m so superficial. If he had been ugly, my life could be totally different!
I started at Stikeman Elliott–the office had a hundred lawyers just in Montreal, and I wondered what they were all doing. I was recruited for this project in Vietnam by a hotshot lawyer, probably because I was the only Vietnamese. So I went back to Vietnam for three, four years, had my first child there. I had met my husband at the same firm, and he got a job in Vietnam, too. His firm moved him to Thailand, to Bangkok, where we had our second child. When our first child began to speak Thai better than English and French, we thought maybe he should know a language that I can speak with him, so we came back to Montreal.
TH: And you re-invented yourself again.
KT: In my stupid mind, I thought that no one would hire me back in Montreal, so I would make my own job. I opened a boutique and restaurant. My husband asked me, “Do you know how to cook?” I told him, “No, but I will learn.” The place was supposed to be an art boutique mostly–I sold modern Asian art from designers I had met while living in Southeast Asia. I thought I might introduce a little bit of contemporary Vietnamese food to Montrealites. Until ten or fifteen years ago, we didn’t have the right ingredients to make good Vietnamese food in Canada. I thought since I had had the chance to eat real Vietnamese food while living in Vietnam, I could introduce it here. I was just going to do a couple of things–I imagined people would come by, sit and have a snack with a drink while enjoying the art. But then the restaurant became bigger than I could have ever imagined. I didn’t know a restaurant could be so time-consuming! Cooking at home was nothing like that. And when we were living in Asia, we had had all the help–babysitters, cleaning people; I had never even fully been a mother until we got back here. Suddenly, it was just me, with two young children, and a restaurant to run, and I thought I was going to die! I had miscalculated the whole thing!
I made basically one dish a day–I gave no choices. You eat whatever I cooked that day. You got one appetizer, one entrée, one dessert. You could not ask for substitutions! You get what you get–you can’t tell me you’re allergic to this or that. The customers thought this was a new ‘concept’ when, really, I just couldn’t do anything more. Somehow they loved it.
I did that for five years, until the end of the lease. When I started the restaurant, I hadn’t known that our second child was autistic–he was diagnosed after the opening. I had to learn about the autism, how to help him with it, how to deal with it myself.
TH: How did you do it all?
KT: Life was so demanding in terms of time. I fell asleep a lot at the wheel–not when I was driving, but at the red lights. I learned to sleep very quickly, recoup quickly, and come back for more. But that red light sleeping . . . well, I hit a couple of cars like that, because my foot got lighter and the car just moved! It was one or two in the morning, and the driver was never happy to come out of the car and see me there. I learned a lot of swearing words that way. So then I used watermelon seeds–you have to really concentrate when you eat them because they are so tiny. I started cracking those seeds to keep me awake. But they damage your teeth over time, so my brother the dentist told me I had to stop.
So then I started making notes for the restaurant–like what to order, what to buy. One day, I turned the notebook over and started to write. A month later, I closed the restaurant. I closed it just like that–I woke up one morning and said, “That’s the end of this craziness.” I went to the hospital twice–I didn’t crash the car, but my body just crashed. It wouldn’t follow my orders anymore, it just gave up.
I had closed the restaurant on a Monday, and was thinking that I would start an office job the next day; I already had some offers on the table. But my husband told me, “No, you’re on the penalty bench for a month; think about what you really want to do.”
TH: With all that new unstructured time, what did you do?
KT: I didn’t know what to look for, wish for, during that month. So I cheated by putting some notes into the computer. I really liked it–I just had fun putting notes together. When my month ended, it was mid-June. It was already summertime, so my husband said, “Don’t start working right away. Let’s go on vacation. You can’t start a job and leave, so just wait until the fall.” By then I was happy to wait, because I had started getting addicted to this writing thing. Then he started a new position in the fall with lots of travel, and he asked that I stay home for a month or two until his new job settled. By then, my behind had taken on the shape of this chair, because I really like this writing.
By winter, I decided I’d give the writing a full year, from May to May. I had a friend from my restaurant days who I thought was a librarian who had no friends. He was always alone in a corner with something to read. I had told the waitresses to tell me whenever he got to the tea part, so I could come out of the kitchen and sit with him and give him a friend. He turned out to be a hotshot producer who came in to my restaurant to hide! He called me after I closed the restaurant, to see what I was doing, so I told him I was in a penalty period, killing time, putting notes together. He asked me to show him–I had about twenty pages by then–and twenty-four hours later he said he wanted to send my notes to a friend, who today is my publisher. I didn’t even think I could get to twenty-five pages, but the publisher friend was ready to take it! I was the one who wasn’t ready!
I didn’t give him the manuscript until it was done. I didn’t have a printer at home, so a friend came through our garden with hers, we hooked it up, I printed two copies, and sent one to the publisher. I mailed it and everything came together very quickly–the rest is history.
By the way, my name is not “Kim Thúy”–my full name is Kim Thúy Ly Thanh. But the book title was so short, and my name was too long next to it, so they just decide to use only “Kim Thúy”! This is crazy, no? When do you choose a name to match a book cover? But that is why everyone now thinks Kim Thúy is my whole name. But Kim Thúy is like Marie-Claire–it’s like a first name, but now people think Thúy is my last name. So I have quite a few problems especially at airports. Usually, my publishers book my tickets with what they think is my name, but it’s not my full name, and since I never travel with a book, I can’t show that’s me.
TH: Okay, not-just-Kim-Thúy . . . you never dreamed of being a lawyer, or a restaurateur, and certainly never a writer . . . so what happened when you found out your “notes” won the coveted Governor’s General Literary Award for Fiction?
KT: When the [Governor General’s] office called me, they said something like “we have the pleasure to announce that you are the laureate for this year’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction.” I had just come back from a conference. I remember that I had on a totally old skirt that was way too small for me–I wear this to remind me not to get bigger than that skirt–and a too-small shirt, too. The first thing I did when I opened the door of my house was open the skirt zipper and get half naked. Then the phone rings and the caller told me about this award. I’m really far from a dictionary, and I don’t know what this word ‘laureate’ means. “What do you mean you don’t know what ‘laureate’ means?” the woman asks. I think she thought that I was joking–I wasn’t. But I thought this was a prank call from a local radio station. That station had just before pranked Sarah Palin. So I laughed, and said, “Hey, radio people, I’m no Sarah Palin! I know who you are!” And she said, “I’m calling from Ottawa.”
“Come on, you can’t get me! Stop trying,” I said. She had to swear on the head of her living mother, and then I got scared, because you don’t play with mothers! And so I said to her, “Well, can we do this all over again? Can you please call me again? I’m half naked, which is not proper for this sort of news. I have one breast hanging out. I’m just not proper.” Besides, I also wanted to give her the opportunity to talk to her team again to make sure they wanted to give me that award after all this. How could they give a literature award to someone who didn’t even know what ‘laureate’ meant? She wasn’t going for that. “I’m busy. I have ten more people to call. Just be available on November 28 to go to Ottawa.”
TH: You have at least three languages–Vietnamese, French, English–floating around in your head. Does being so regularly multilingual affect your writing?
KT: No, not at all because I can only write in French. I didn’t master Vietnamese very well–what I know is very basic, the language I spoke at home as a child. So when I speak now, I still speak like a child. I left Vietnam when I was ten. Even though I had the chance to go back as a lawyer for three years, the Vietnamese I spoke there is something different. I worked with the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s Advisor Group on reform policies. The language for that was very sophisticated and precise. The Vietnamese civil code was being drafted–so the language was very technical. I had to learn to speak from scratch.
Asians don’t speak much about emotions–we write about them, but we don’t verbalize emotions to each other. I think people begin to be able to qualify emotions only after about age ten–so all those emotions, sensations, feelings, I can only identify in French. I’ve never been to school in English; you can hear that when I speak, I think. When the first word in English you learn is ’asshole,’ you’re stuck, you’re done with learning it right. That’s how I first learned English. English also came to me through working as a lawyer. When I’m speaking in English, I become more of a businessperson. I’m more to the point. In French, I can’t be on point; I always get lost along the way. In English, I can be more structured. But I can’t write in English–I never mastered it well enough. I think only in French.
For sure, there are so many words that exist only in Vietnamese, only in English, and only in French. I’m in permanent frustration. I feel like I don’t have a language tool–I don’t have the ability to ever express everything I want to express. I will die frustrated. I will be never own a language that I can call–not exactly my mother tongue–but a language that I feel I am a master of. I have mastered none among the three.
TH: Having worked as a translator, what was your reaction when you first saw Ru in English? How different is the translated Ru in English for you? Does it still feel like your work?
KT: My translator [award-winning Sheila Fischman] lives only fifteen minutes away! You know how translation is–it’s not just the language, it’s about knowing a different culture, a different way of seeing things. In Vietnamese, for example, there is only one word for blue and green, but you agree with me that blue and green are two totally different colors. So that’s an example of a cultural difference. Blue eyes and green eyes are very different, but you can’t express that in Vietnamese.
I didn’t expect the English version to stir my insides in the same way. To me, it’s a different sound, a different song. The choice of words, the musicality, it’s all different. We’re very lucky to be exposed to both French and English in Montreal. But with the different languages, we don’t act the same way–the same gestures in one language can be very different in another. So for me, I read Ru as a different book. That was very easy for me to do. And Sheila has the perfect English voice.
Writers get excited when get they get that first box with their books. For me, that’s the moment when I feel a book is no longer mine. That’s exactly the moment of detachment: the book is done, and I can cut the umbilical cord. The English version came out a year after the French, so by then, Ru was even less mine–by then, it was a child on its own, autonomous, with its own voice, own destiny, its own life. I’m only the spokesperson for the book now.
Once a book is printed, it’s been handled by so many people, from creating the cover to choosing the font to making all the corrections, then someone else writing reviews. So many people have worked to turn it into this book–it’s a team effort. So many invisible hands have handled it, glued it, put it in a box, sent it to bookstores, put it on shelves! I can’t really call it mine! When you make a baby, you have two people–a man and a woman, most of the time, anyway–but once that child is out, he or she is being cared for by so many other people, from sitters to teachers to friends and friends’ parents, then employers and colleagues. I can no longer claim my child to be only mine–maybe only five percent is from me and five percent from his dad, and maybe five percent from other family inside the house, but everything else–the majority–is from outside. My son is doing karate now, and I don’t know anything about that, except they wear white kimono with a different color belt. I didn’t teach him; instead he teaches me about it. I think that’s the same relationship with a book. Once it’s out there, the reader gives it a third dimension that I never could.
Here’s a recent example: a reader gave me an exact page number from Ru, maybe page fifty. On that page is a Vietnamese proverb: if you don’t have hair, you aren’t scared of your hair being pulled. This reader was having chemo at the time, and she took the book into the treatment room. Other people were also getting chemo in there–and no one was laughing or talking; it was a sad environment. She was initially nervous because she knew she would soon lose all her hair. While she was having her treatment, she read this proverb, and it stopped her from being scared. She broke the silence of the group, read the page to everyone, and they ended up becoming a support group for each other. By the time I met her, her hair had grown back. She told me, “This book helped me through this difficult period.” I was so scared because her imagination was so sophisticated and broad. I was just thinking about traveling light when I wrote that–I never thought about cancer! This is when realize what you say in your book is nothing compared to what happens to it in the reader’s imagination!
TH: Is it true that Ru will be made into a movie?
KT: Yes, Ru is being scripted for a movie! It’s happening here in Quebec. I’m meeting with the scriptwriter next week. That producer who I thought was librarian without any friends–he bought the film rights! When I asked him why he wanted to buy it, he said, “That’s not your problem, that’s mine now.” He asked if I wanted be involved with the scriptwriting, and I told him, “Oh, no! Just do whatever you want to do.”
“Do you want to be any part of the process? Do you want control of the text?” I told him, “No, it’s a re-interpretation! It’s like a piece of music: one person would sing it differently than another might play it on the piano. I don’t want the movie to be the same as the book, so don’t let me meddle!”
The scriptwriter wanted to ask me a few questions, so I said okay. You should see how he’s making the script! He bought two books and tore out all the pages, and he’s literally rearranging them on the floor. I would never have thought of doing something like that! He calls them his four movements, like in classical music. Those rearrangements on the floor–I think they will be more beautiful than the book!
Click here to read Terry Hong’s essay on Kim Thúy
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Image credit: Diacritics.org
What a brilliant interview and a wonderful story. Now I just have to decide whether to read it in English or French! I’m really tempted to slow read it in French for that musicality of voice.
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