Kim Thúy is the poetic author of two incredible books: the award winning book Ru: A Novel and her latest release Mãn. [You can read DoPW’s review here.]
What makes Kim’s works so breathtaking is how she has mastered the craft of telling a story using very few, yet precise words, to illustrate a moment in the most poetic way.
Kim has graciously agreed to do an interview with DoPW. If you have yet to read her works, you’ll understand what makes her books so special as you read through her interview. I sighed throughout the interview from the beauty and truth to her words.
1. Please tell us a little about yourself.
I am 47 years old, female, a bit shy of 5 feet, vacillating between 110 to 115 pounds but I still often think that I am invisible–or could be invisible. I love being on the bench observing others as much as being the one who points out to others the beautiful things existing around us. I spend a lot of time sharing the words I like with friends. Once, I began typing a page I wanted my best friend to read. By the end of the month, she had the whole book emailed to her one bit at a time. However, some photographs would say that I move constantly, making their work impossible sometimes. My publishers worry I might fall off the plane after travelling to 22 cities of 13 countries in 6 months, crossing 18 time zones more than once. Personally, I think I am very still, almost motionless. The numbers contradict with my state of mind due to the fact that I am very slow–slow thinker, slow writer, slow at understanding jokes! So, my mind never gets to follow my body. It remains at the same spot at all time, which helps me not feeling the pace I guess…
2. You’ve worn a lot of hats so far in this lifetime. You’ve been a seamstress, interpreter, lawyer, restaurant owner, as well as an Award-winning author. In Ru, you mention that this has a lot to do with realizing that you can do everything you’ve ever wanted to do after your aunt Six gave you a tin filled with professions she dreamed for you. This allowed you to realize that you could dream your own dreams. What other dreams have you had for yourself? Of the jobs you’ve had already, which was your favorite?
I never thought I could be any of things I’ve done. I simply followed the waves as they came to me. Everything was way beyond my ability, professionally and mentally and physically. But, as an immigrant, every job opportunity is considered to be a gift. And my responsibility is to be worthy of the gift. I have not had any dreams since the refugees camp where I did dreamed for constipation. The open pit was hopelessly horrible… After the camp, everything has been bigger than my imagination could imagine. My dreams have all come to me before I knew how to dream them.
I have loved all my jobs. Without them, I would not have been able to write the things I have written. Without them, I would not have seen all the complexity of life. Without them, I would not have known how to see the essence of things amidst chaos.
3. In your books, you share the stories of the immigrants that have left Vietnam and have settled in Quebec. Each person has their own unique story. Which stories have had their biggest impact on you?
All of them since together, they tell our collective story. Each one is interesting and mostly, important.
4. You have a very unique writing style. You use very few words to tell a story. Each choice of words weaves together a beautiful tale that strikes a person deep within their soul and leaves the reader gasping at the beauty of the words. There is an art in using very few words to tell an entire story. Were there any writers that inspired you to write this way?
The Lover by Marguerite Duras was my first book in French, or more precisely, the book which exposed me to literature. My uncle read it with me sentence by sentence to help me understand why Duras is exceptional and revolutionary. My mom used the book for my dictées from the first to the last page. And finally, I learned it by heart to absorb the musicality of the French language
5. Be truthful, how long does it take you to write each paragraph?
Each paragraph had 3-4 pages at the beginning. Everyday, I read from the first sentence down. Everyday, I would delete, rewrite, delete and delete some more to take away all excess. And to make everything feels as light as a feather in the wind.
6. In Ru, you wrote about living the American Dream. What does the American Dream mean to you?
It means possibility and freedom and hope.
7. Mãn is a beautiful tale about the different forms of love, including how love is shown through food. Can you tell us what kind of memories different types of food brings back to you?
It is mostly the food from street vendors in Saigon I did not have the right to eat due to the lack of hygiene. Even though I have eaten from the street and on the street once I could decide for myself, these types of food still attract me the most because they carry a lot of forbidden desires.
8. One of the saddest stories in Mãn was the explanation of the dog tags. “Before he left, he’d gone to see her in uniform and given her the plate to offer her “the life he hadn’t lived” and his dream of her that would be eternally a dream if he didn’t come back to retrieve it” (p. 135). Then we discover that he did not choose her in the end. He didn’t come back. What Maman does ‘out of love’ shows great strength even in the greatest of heartbreaks. In the stories you have collected throughout your lifetime, how have these individuals coped after letting go of their dream to be with the person they loved?
I simply LOVE your questions, especially this one. The broken heart people I know have a thing in their gaze–nothing identifiable or tangible but there is a certain void and depth at the same time. As well, I find them ‘man’, not serene as such but there is a calm in them, the calm of sadness maybe…or the calm of someone who no longer struggle, who has given up a part of themselves. Like Mia Couto has written, it feels like their organ to dream had been amputated from them…
[This reference is from Mia Couto’s The Tuner of Silences
9. There are two things your books did for me: 1) They made me very hungry; and 2) I now have a very strong desire to travel around Vietnam. If readers wanted to take a literary journey through Vietnam using your books, what are the places/experiences you would want them to see/try above all?
The markets and more markets. Just sit in the middle of any of them, have a fresh sugar cane juice or a coffee and watch the flow of people in their daily lives.
10. The tale of the Vietnamese immigrant is very humbling. Many came from being well off to all of a sudden being refugees with nothing, scrounging for food, shelter and warmth. I know a lot of immigrants come to North America with a dream. Most times it isn’t for themselves. It’s for their children. They dream of their children having a better life than the ones they had. Growing up, did your parents have dreams of the person they wanted you or your siblings to become?
They wish us choosing medicine or dentistry or pharmacology so that we have a stable salary from a stable profession. They wished a steady life for us. My brothers became a dentist and an actuary. I was a lawyer in one of the top 3 law firms in Canada but got lost somewhere on the way to the office at one point 🙂
11. You’re a mother, too. Do you find yourself in their shoes? Do you also have dreams of your children having a better life than you have? Or do you feel you are the one setting the example of how there are endless possibilities of the person they can become?
I have no specific dreams for my children. I only ask and help them to always make the most out of everything they do and be the most of what they can be. My second son is autistic. So, I often remind my older one to not waste his privilege to be born with no handicaps.
12. What dreams for yourself do you still have on your list of things to be in this lifetime?
I have received too much from this life already. I do not need more. Actually, I feel very guilty for all my privileges–great family, good health, kind friends, generous readers and critics, unexpected love and affection…. I do not deserve this much.
13. What’s upcoming for you? Are there any new projects coming up?
I am writing my next one. Enjoying every single minute, every single word… Writing is bliss.