In the previous blog, Away, I looked at the journeys of poet Andrea MacPherson who ferreted out people and places of ancestors who had emigrated from Ireland and Scotland a generation or two earlier. In this post — Ru, a poetic fictionalized memoir by Kim Thúy — we experience the harrowing journey of refugees fleeing Vietnam for Canada, escaping Saigon for Montreal. From war to an escape by boat, from a refugee camp in Malaysia to snowy Montreal, Thúy shares both the intimate and the universal realities of escape and renewal.
When NPR interviewed Thúy (“A Refugee’s Multilayered Experience in Ru”), they said that the “novel unfolds in the way a flower casts off its petals: one small scene after another.” On the page, the novel looks like a prose poem or perhaps the concise pages of a journal. Yet the narrative flows smoothly and coherently.
It begins with a ten-year-old girl, but like memory that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself chronologically, the story called Ru flows back and forth in time as one experience triggers another. It does so as the name suggests, as gently as a lullaby. This is extraordinary given the intense and often devastating experiences of the refugees. At the books core, Ru is a story of survival against all odds (Thúy has said the family expected to die) but it is also a beautiful story of a girl who becomes a woman almost in awe of the way lives unfold and people grow and blossom.
Near the middle of the book, Thúy introduces Monsieur Minh who gave me the urge to write. And we can see how writing flings windows wide open, creating space for seeing:
He was saved not by the sky but by writing. He had written a number of books during his time in the re-education camp—always on the one piece of paper he possessed, page by page, chapter by chapter, an unending story. Without writing, he wouldn’t have heard the snow melting or leaves growing or clouds sailing through the sky. Nor would he have seen the dead end of a thought, the remains of a star or the texture of a comma (88).
Later, we meet the grandmother who chose withdrawal into prayer as a way to cope:
Today, my grandmother is a very old woman, but still beautiful, lavishly so, like a queen. When she was in her forties, sitting in her parlour in Saigon, she epitomized a whole era of an extreme kind of beauty, of opulence.…
After the markets had been cleaned out of merchandise and merchants, after her Communist tenants had taken the contents of her safe and her lace scarves, she learned to dress in the long grey kimono worn by the faithful.…
She’d let her two youngest, a boy and a girl, leave with my mother despite the uncertainty. My mother asked my grandmother to choose between the risk of losing her son at sea and that of finding him torn to shreds in a minefield during his military service in Cambodia. She had to choose secretly, without hesitating, without trembling, without perspiring. Perhaps it was to control her fear that she started to pray. Perhaps it was to become intoxicated with the incense smoke that she no longer left the altar (116-117).
Imagine! Yet the story is so sensitively written that the horror fails to leap out and grab us with a scream. Instead, it silently builds and haunts long after we’ve read the last page.
Ru has won a string of prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Grand prix littéraire Archambault, the Prix du Grand Public Salon du Livre/La Presse, the Grand prix littéraire RTL-Lire (France), and the Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism (Italy). In addition, it was the 2015 winner of “Canada Reads” (CBC Books/Canada Broadcasting Corporation).
Structure: the lesson here is to not fear innovation. Choose the format that best suits the telling of your story. Think about how different the reading experience would be if the novel had been written in the usual chapter format, all those transitions and unnecessary details.
Consider the power being concise. In an interview or talk (I can’t be sure where), I heard Thúy say that whatever country that she has traveled people have related their unique journey through war and escape. I believe, in large part, that the brevity of her narration opened space wherein readers filled in their reality. You may want to take a longer piece you’ve written and streamline it down to essential; then consider the impact of each style.
Available through your local bookstore or online: Ru