Fall 2016 – Kim Thúy: Ru

Kim Thúy: Ru

With the current spotlight on refugee anguish in troubled regions of the world, it’s almost inhumane for me to remark upon the stunning poetry of Kim Thúy’s Ru. The novel underscores the similar crisis and resettlement of the ‘Vietnamese boat people’ of the 1980s. In the case of Ru, the resettlement takes place in Quebec.

But what makes this novel poetic? Is it the point of view of the innocent child victim now turned adult, who relates the indelible trauma that visits and revisits old or young, regardless of whether or not they have found ‘safe haven’? Is it the condensed imagery of the language?

That language is cultural is underscored from the very epigraph of the novel. The juxtaposition of the French and Vietnamese meanings of the two-letter title of the novel ‘ru’, lie stretched along a continuum of meanings, thus drawing attention to how synonymous are slippage and culture with language. 

As the novel progresses, the part that culture plays not only in verbal, but also non-verbal language, is revealed. Moreover, language codes often defy transliteration. When adapted from one culture to another, some codes may carry unknowing and unintentional ethnocentrism, as for instance, a simple question such as:  Describe your breakfast?  (p. 129). A misinterpretation of cultural codes can even trigger incomprehensible violence, as happens when a Quebecois schoolmate tousles the hair of his eight-year old Vietnamese friend in a congratulatory gesture (p. 117).

In Ru, stark but simple description of events also harbours its own weighty poetic force. For instance, just knowing the location and the history of Airport Mirabel gives the narrator’s recall of the landing of her group of refugees in Quebec a surreal poignancy.  The refugees walk out into a landscape of isolation and nakedness and forlornness (p. 16) that is simultaneously a sanctuary of peace and gratitude and salvation. The culture shock of adjustment has begun.

Ultimately, it is the layering, the double-edged subtlety of the language of Kim Thúy’s Ru that does it for me. Yet it almost feels like guilt to sing such high praises for a novel written so graphically in the ink of a silent pain that never goes away.

© Cynthia James – September 2016

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