I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns.
I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.
I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life's duty was to prolong that of my mother.
My name is Nguyễn An Tịnh, my mother's name is Nguyễn An Tĩnh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, dissociates me from her. I was an extension of her, even in the meaning of my name. In Vietnamese, hers means "peaceful environment" and mine "peaceful interior." With those almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.
The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother's plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange, and strange to the French language.
In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.
Because of our exile, my children have never been extensions of me, of my history. Their names are Pascal and Henri, and they don't look like me. They have hair that's lighter in colour than mine, white skin, thick eyelashes. I did not experience the natural feelings of motherhood I'd expected when they were clamped onto my breasts at 3 a.m., in the middle of the night. The maternal instinct came to me much later, over the course of sleepless nights,
dirty diapers, unexpected smiles, sudden delights.
Only then did I understand the love of the mother sitting across from me in the hold of our boat, the head of the baby in her arms covered with foul-smelling scabies. That image was before my eyes for days and maybe nights as well. The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water's depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fear of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby's head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents, who were sitting in the darkness surrounded by two hundred people.
Before our boat had weighed anchor in the middle of the night on the shores of Rach Gia, most of the passengers had just one fear: fear of the Communists, the reason for their flight. But as soon as the vessel was surrounded, encircled by the uniform blue horizon, fear was transformed into a hundred-faced monster who sawed off our legs and kept us from feeling the stiffness in our immobilized muscles. We were frozen in fear, by fear. We no longer closed our eyes when the scabious little boy's pee sprayed us. We no longer pinched our noses against our neighbours' vomit. We were numb, imprisoned by the shoulders of some, the legs of others, the fear of everyone. We were paralyzed.
The story of the little girl who was swallowed up by the sea after she'd lost her footing while walking along the edge spread through the foul-smelling belly of the boat like an anaesthetic or laughing gas, transforming the single bulb into a polar star and the biscuits soaked in motor oil into butter cookies. The taste of oil in our throats, on our tongues, in our heads sent us to sleep to the rhythm of the lullaby sung by the woman beside me.
My father had made plans, should our family be captured by Communists or pirates, to put us to sleep forever, like Sleeping Beauty, with cyanide pills. For a long time afterwards, I wanted to ask why he hadn't thought of letting us choose, why he would have taken away our possibility of survival.
I stopped asking myself that question when I became a mother, when Dr. Vinh, a highly regarded surgeon in Saigon, told me how he had put his five children, one after the other, from the boy of twelve to the little girl of five, alone, on five different boats, at five different times, to send them off to sea, far from the charges of the Communist authorities that hung over him. He was certain he would die in prison because he'd been accused of killing some Communist comrades by operating on them, even if they'd never set foot in his hospital. He hoped to save one, maybe two of his children by launching them in this fashion onto the sea. I met Dr. Vinh on the church steps, which he cleared of snow in the winter and swept in the summer to thank the priest who had acted as father to his children, bringing up all five, one after the other, until they were grown, until the doctor got out of prison.
I didn't cry out and I didn't weep when I was told that my son Henri was a prisoner in his own world, when it was confirmed that he is one of those children who don't hear us, don't speak to us, even though they're neither deaf nor mute. He is also one of those children we must love from a distance, neither touching, nor kissing, nor smiling at them because every one of their senses would be assaulted by the odour of our skin, by the intensity of our voices, the texture of our hair, the throbbing of our hearts. Probably he'll never call me maman lovingly, even if he can pronounce the word poire with all the roundness and sensuality of the oi sound. He will never understand why I cried when he smiled for the first time. He won't know that, thanks to him, every spark of joy has become a blessing and that I will keep waging war against autism, even if I know already that it's invincible.
Already, I am defeated, stripped bare, beaten down.
When I saw my first snowbanks through the porthole of the plane at Mirabel Airport, then too I felt naked, if not stripped bare. In spite of my short-sleeved orange pullover purchased at the refugee camp in Malaysia before we left for Canada, in spite of my loose-knit brown sweater made by Vietnamese women, I was naked. Several of us on the plane made a dash for the windows, our mouths agape, our expressions stunned. After such a long time in places without light, a landscape so white, so virginal could only dazzle us, blind us, intoxicate us.
I was as surprised by all the unfamiliar sounds that greeted us as by the size of the ice sculpture watching over a table covered with canapés, hors d'oeuvre, tasty morsels, each more colourful than the last. I recognized none of the dishes, yet I knew that this was a place of delights, an idyllic land. I was like my son Henri: unable to talk or to listen, even though I was neither deaf nor mute. I now had no points of reference, no tools to allow me to dream, to project myself into the future, to be able to experience the present, in the present.
My first teacher in Canada walked with us, the seven youngest in the group of Vietnamese, across the bridge that led to the present. She watched over our transplantation with all the sensitivity of a mother for her premature baby. We were hypnotized by the slow and reassuring swaying of her shapely hips, her round and generous behind. Like a mother duck, she walked ahead of us, asking us to follow her to the haven where we would be children again, simply children, surrounded by colours, drawings, trivia. I will be forever grateful to her for giving me my first desire as an immigrant: to be able to sway my bum the way she did. Not one of the Vietnamese in our group possessed such opulence, such generosity, such nonchalance in her curves. We were all angular, bony, hard. And so when she bent down to me, placing her hands on mine to tell me, "My name is Marie-France, what's yours?" I repeated each of her syllables without blinking, without needing to understand, because I was lulled by a cloud of coolness, of lightness, of sweet perfume. I hadn't understood a word she'd said, only the melody of her voice, but it was enough. More than enough.
When I got home, I repeated the same sequence of sounds to my parents: "My name is Marie-France, what's yours?" They asked me if I'd changed my name. It was at that split second that my present reality caught up to me, when the deafness and muteness of the moment erased my dreams and thus the power to look ahead, to look far ahead.
My parents, though they already spoke French, could not look far ahead either, for they'd been expelled from the Introduction to French course, that is, struck off the list of people who would receive an allowance of forty dollars a week. They were overqualified for the course but underqualified for everything else. Unable to look ahead of themselves, they looked ahead of us, for us, their children.
For us, they didn't see the blackboards they wiped clean, the school toilets they scrubbed, the imperial rolls they delivered. They saw only what lay ahead. And so to make progress my brothers and I followed where their eyes led us. I met parents whose gaze had been extinguished, some beneath the weight of a pirate's body, others during the all too many years of Communist re-education camps -- not the war camps during the war, but the peacetime camps after the war.
Excerpted from RU by Kim Thuy, translation by Sheila Fischman. Copyright © 2009 Éditions Libre Expression, English Translation Copyright © 2012 Sheila Fischman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.