Kim Thuy, An Author Who “Sings” A Lullaby Of Vietnamese Culture Through Her Books.

Meet the Vietnamese-Canadian writer nominated for the The New Prize in Literature. Featured image by Vu Quang and Anh Photography

Kim Thuy is a familiar name with Vietnamese, especially Vietnamese in Canada and worldwide. She was born in Saigon in 1968 and immigrated to Quebec in 1979 with her family when she was 10 years old. A deep, genial and humble person, Kim says that writing comes to her naturally, luckily and strangely. She started to write to avoid feeling sleepy when waiting for the traffic. When she was finished writing, her friends brought her book to a publisher. Besides luck, her success comes from her deep love of the Vietnamese language, an inborn talent and an eagerness to study new things.

Culture Magazin caught up with Kim Thuy recently to chat about her life and writing career.

What was your immigration experience like?

In 1978, after the war in Vietnam, my family decided to migrate to Canada. At that time, I was only 10 years old. Before reaching Canada, I lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia. In 1979, my family arrived in Quebec and lives there now.

What was your most unforgettable moment when you landed in Canada?

What impressed me first was the snow. White snow was everywhere. During my time in Malaysia, I had to sleep in slums and dusty places. So when I came here and saw the white snow everywhere, I felt like I was lost in a fairytale world, full of freshness. That moment I will never forget.

In some other interviews, you have talked about your fondness for Vietnamese language. Can you tell us about that?

I love all kinds of languages, but Vietnamese is my mother tongue. I was attached to it for 10 years in Vietnam. Even now, I still use Vietnamese. Each language has its own beauty and is the most authentic reflection of the life and culture of people in that country. Vietnamese has words that cannot be translated to English or any other language. For example, in Vietnamese, we have the term “trời ơi.” Trời means anything bigger than us, like the sky, and it is used for exclamative purposes. In English, we have the term “oh my god.” which is equivalent to our term but the word “god” somehow still has some religious meaning.  Another example is that Southern Vietnamese always call their wives or husbands “mình ơi” or “nhà ơi.” This is a very cute term and is not in any other language. There are many words that show different levels of the same feeling, such as “yêu,” “thương,” “like,” or “mến” but in English, we just have “love” or “like.” And there are more interesting things about the Vietnamese language.

When you were writing Ru, did you think you would write other books after?

Everything that has happened in my writing career is a stream of life, very coincidental. When I wrote it, I did not know whether it would be published or not. I just kept writing and whether my books are published or not is a different story.

What part of Ru do you like most? How would you describe Ru in just a few words?

I did not expect that anyone would read it. I simply wrote it for myself.  Ru is a lullaby that the mother sings her child to sleep with. It is difficult to say which part is important and what I like the most. If it did not have the first page, it would not have page 10 or page 50. Just like a song, people praise this part or that melody, but the silence in music is also very important since it helps us to listen to the musical notes clearly. Every page in the book, for me, has its own role.

We all can feel how hurtful the war was, yet there is no anger in your book. Your words are soft and artistic. Why is that?

I really love to write and always believe that each word has its own kind of beauty. Besides that, this book is about strength and beauty inside us as humans. It is not about myself, it is about people that I have met in my life. Just as simple as that, the words are naturally formed.

Kim Thuy as the spoke person for the dictionary LE PETIT ROBERT

Your books are written in French but the names of the books are always Vietnamese. Why?

I am very proud to introduce one Vietnamese word to international friends. As you can see in Mãn, each page I used a French or English word and accompanied it with a Vietnamese word. We usually think that people are afraid to see new and strange things, but I don’t think so. In fact, I feel interested in new things because I know I can learn from them. For example, if I used the word “river” no one may care. But when I used “ru” many people asked me what that was.

You worked in Vietnam. Were any of your books inspired by that experience and how?

I was born and raised in Saigon, but when I returned to Vietnam, I stayed in Hanoi. At that time, I did not know anything about this place. Everything was so new, and I had to learn everything from the beginning. I learned about culture, and the way to use words correctly. There was one time that I translated the word “môi trường” into “school of lips” (“môi” means lips and “trường” means school in English), which is totally wrong. Now when I think about this again, I see it is so funny. I had to learn from those tiny things, let alone bigger things.

Where were you when you first learned you were a finalist for The New Prize in Literature?

I was at home. When I received the email, my son wanted fried bananas. He is autistic so he cannot talk. I told him to wait but he did not want to wait. So, I could not read it at that time. When I had a chance to read the email, I felt very proud. I knew that many people in Quebec voted for me so that I was able to be on the final list. I think my readers love me and they are close to me so they voted for me. To me, it was like a tsunami of love. The love from readers is bigger and more valuable than anything else. The prizes may elapse but the love will stay.

Your books are used in some schools in Canada and the United States. What are the books?

Mãn and Ru are the two that schools are using to teach. Ru is used in many schools in Quebec. These books are taught in many programs and for different age groups. They are often taught in French literature classes for immigrants or for students who want to study about their identities. Some places use the book to talk about strong women since I wrote much about this subject.

In an interview, you mentioned you were very grateful to a professor who gave you two zeroes in a creative writing class. Can you explain?

I was 18 years old, and a freshman. I am very grateful to my teacher, because after that whenever I wrote I tried harder to be careful. Without that experience, I would never realize that I did not have enough ability.

You have said that Marguerite Duras’ The Lover caused you to fall in love with literature. What was so powerful about this book?

This was the first book that my uncle bought for me. At that time, I had no money to buy books, so when I was given one, I read it and learned it with all my heart. Gradually, I was swept along by the story. It was the first book I read about Vietnam. There was a bit of turmoil in the first years after the war. I was in Canada, and happened to read a book about a romantic love taking place in Vietnam. It was so sweet and adorable and changed my views, so it’s crucial to me. The way that the author used the words and sentences was very special. It had a great influence on me.

You have worked in many different jobs – lawyer, seamstress, interpreter, restaurant owner. Do you recall any of these positions with fondness?

I closed the restaurant in 2007. Now I just focus on writing. All these jobs were work that I loved. Writing, to me, is not just a job but it is my life, my privilege. There are plenty of writers a million times better than me. However, they haven’t been in the appropriate situation that allows them to write.

You have published a cookbook called Le Secret des Vietnamiennes. Is cooking, especially Vietnamese cuisine, important to you?

From my perspective, Vietnamese people rarely use verbal expressions for their feelings of love. Meals are a way that they use to show their love for others. When paying a visit to someone’s house, you’d be asked whether you’re hungry or full, rather than “How are you?” Even if you said you were full, your parents would place the food on the table for you. I don’t mention phở or spring rolls in that book. There are around 50 recipes and the rest is about our moms and aunties. Through the dish, people show their concerns and cares. With me, food is a way to express my feelings to loved ones.

What are your future plans?

I will continue writing. I want to write more about a subject that I have long cherished and would like to share with readers.

An author usually wants to send messages, feelings or hopes to their readers. What are yours?

The drive to explore so as to see the beauty even in the toughest, darkest moments. Because it creates motivation for us to stand still and continue fighting. Life is not always easy. Therefore, aiming at the good is what it takes to lead a meaningful life. I want anyone who has read my book to see the beauty and the hope in life, even if it is in the hardest time. We must strive to live by ourselves. Since life is a battle and life is difficult, in order to continue living, we have to look at the beauty manifested in this life.

Do you have a message for the young generation?

Be optimistic and positive in every single moment. Sometimes we feel a little bit unfortunate, and may fail at some point. Indeed, life is always full of difficulties and challenges. But it’s the hard tasks that earn you experience and motivate you to gain future success. Keep it in mind that after rain comes fair weather. So be brave and overcome the obstacles. Like people say “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Live each day to the fullest, as if it is your last day.

How can we keep our Vietnamese culture in Canada?

The number one priority is to return at least once to Vietnam. It is a must-do thing if you haven’t done so. We sometimes have doubts that we can’t explain. Things only become clear when we make our way back to the country. On my first trip, my husband told me to hold his hand tight. We could have easily lost each other if I let go because everyone looked like me, from the face to the appearance. We are a visible minority here, but in Saigon, there are millions of people like me. I really found out where I came from when I was there.

When I first took a seat to eat a mango or a delight salad, they had a different taste. They obviously can be found in Canada, but clearly, the taste is unique. To keep the culture, the simple thing to do is take a flight back. Then, you will be swept along by the culture. You will feel what’s deep down in you – your origin. Like we see flowers when they blossom but hardly see the tree root. Only when we get to our origin do we know why we are the Eastern bougainvillea, not the Western rose.

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