Books·How I Wrote It

How a beloved family member inspired Kim Thúy's latest novel, Vi

The Montreal author talks about how she wrote her new novel.
Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian author. (Penguin Random House/Benoit Levac)

Named after its narrator, Kim Thúy's novel Vi is the story of a young, prosperous family's escape from the Vietnam War to a new life in Quebec. Vi, the youngest of four children, paints loving portraits of those closest to her — her mother, her brothers, a family friend named Ha — and quietly grows into her own as an independent young woman. Thúy is also the author of Mãn and Ru, which won Canada Reads 2015 and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

In her own words, Thúy shares some stories from the writing of Vi, which was translated into English by Sheila Fischman.

Vi is on the longlist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Inspired by family

"Vi is inspired by the family of a cousin of mine. I had always admired my father's cousin. She was alone with four kids who arrived in Quebec City [from Vietnam]. For the longest time, I was amazed at how she could make it. Every single immigrant or refugee has their own story. When we meet them here in Canada, we know that they've made it, but what's fascinating is to know the journey — how they've made it, how the children now are established and settled. My father's cousin passed away not long ago and I regretted that I didn't ask enough questions. I knew a little bit of the story, so I embroidered it through the book."

Loving your characters

"I'm in love with all the characters. Like Ha, the mother's friend. She was supposed to be only on one page. I thought that she would appear in one story, but then she refused to leave. She came back again and again and again and she became basically as important as the mother. 

"Of course, I love the strength of the mother. I love the way she was capable of giving part of her motherhood to another woman. She entrusted part of the education to Ha so that her daughter would become more than she could be. I love that. She rose above the selfishness of motherhood."

Sense of an ending

"I would spend days and nights with the characters without ever leaving. But because life is such, you have to leave the book. You have to go cook and clean and wash dishes and clothes, take care of children and answer the phone. [Eventually], the characters ejected me. When it ended, I knew that it was the end but I continued because I wanted to stay and write more about them."

Three books, three breaths

"I know it sounds funny, but each book has its own personality and its own breath. All three books — and I didn't know this when I was writing — once printed, they're all of the same length. It's so weird. I'm surprised every time. Maybe that's the longest that I can go. When I write, I really want the books to be just one breath. If I was a painter, I would say that it's one stroke. You don't see me putting the brush into the paint a second time or third time or fourth a time. The book would start by itself and end by itself."

Kim Thúy's comments have been edited and condensed.