This book sings history like a poem.
It was a quick read at only 141 pages, with lots of short chapters and a flowing narrative that had me halfway done when I intended to just sit down and read for a few minutes.
As it says, the word Ru means ‘lullaby’ in Vietnamese and ‘a small stream’ in french. It signifies flow and the book certainly flows along. Thúy does a skillful job of moving between her pasts in Saigon, a Malaysian refugee camp, her first years in Québecas a child, to her present as an established woman and mother in Montréal. Sometimes, she moves between them in the same sentence, but it’s never jarring and she always cradles you with the words as you’re rushed along in the flow.
Ru is Thúy’s autobiographical first novel, originally published in french in 2009 and translated to English in 2012. Thúy left Saigon with her family in 1978, three years after the Americans left and the communists took over the city. She came to Canada as a part of the Vietnamese Boat People emigration. Ru is a beautiful poem of a complex family in a complex part of history, told simply and beautifully. You can hear her talk about the immigrant experience in this Random House video.
As a side note, when she first emigrated to Québec her family lived in Granby for a time. I went to school at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville and we’d often drive into Granby – or through it – on our way to Montréal. I love reading Canlit because unlike American novels, I actually have a sense of place in them.[/white_box]
I also learned that in the Vietnamese tradition love comes from the head, not the heart. It is also very disrespectful to touch another person’s head in Vietnam, or to pass something over their head.
There was also this lovely quote about tea, which I have to share with you:
“After the old lady died, I would go every Sunday to a lotus pond in a suburb of Hanoi where there were always two or three women with bent backs and trembling hands, sitting in a small round boat, using a stick to move across the water and drop tea leaves into open lotus blossoms. They would come back the next day to collect them one by one before the petals faded, after the captive tea leaves had absorbed the scent of the pistils during the night. They told me that every one of those tea leaves preserved the soul of the short-lived flowers.” – Ru, Kim Thúy, p. 40 (2015)
The book is full of gathered wisdom. In one chapter she describes an old phrase her grandmother used to write in Vietnamese, which translates to:
“Life is a struggle in which sorrow leads to defeat.”
Since emigrating her story has been one of success. She’s worked as a translator, seamstress, lawyer and restaurant owner. Now, she writes full time.
She describes a gift she received one year for Christmas:
“When I turned fifteen, my aunt Six, who at the time was working in a chicken processing plant, gave me a square aluminum tin of tea that had images of Chinese spirits, cherry trees and clouds in red, gold and black. Aunt Six had written on each of ten pieces of paper, folded in two and placed in the tea, the name of a profession, an occupation, a dream that she had for me: journalist, cabinetmaker, diplomat, lawyer, fashion designer, flight attendant, writer, humanitarian worker, director, politician. It was thanks to that gift that I learned there were other professions than medicine, that I was allowed to dream my own dreams.” – Ru, Kim Thúy, p. 76 (2015)
I’m imagining one of the recent Syrian families who arrived in Canada. I hope there’s a little girl who maybe reads this book, or gets a Christmas gift like this and feels hopeful and inspired in her new country. Like Thúy, I hope she realizes she can be anything.
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I’ve got a few more books to post about to finish up my reading for this year and I’m so excited to share with you the 2016 Reading List that I’m working on now!
Books and Christmas just go together. Did you know in Iceland there’s a Christmas tradition where you gift a book on Christmas Eve and then you get to go to bed with your new book and a bit of chocolate? Wonderful.
The influx of book-giving and book publishing in Iceland during the Christmas season is called jólabókaflóð, the ‘Christmas Book Flood’.
Happy Christmas Eve to all!