The Next Chapter

Kim Thúy reflects on how her family and culture inspired her to write the novel Vi

As part of the One eRead Canada program, Shelagh Rogers spoke with Thúy about the Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted book.
Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian author. (Penguin Random House/Benoit Levac)

Kim Thúy is a celebrated Vietnamese-born Canadian author. Her acclaimed first novel, Ru, won the Governor General's Literary Award for French-language fiction and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2002. It also won Canada Reads 2015, when it was championed by Cameron Bailey.

Named after its narrator, 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. 

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

Earlier this winter, Shelagh Rogers spoke with Thúy as part of a virtual bilingual ebook club called One eRead Canada. The initiative involved 600 Canadian libraries — and Vi was the featured e-book.

Short but sweet

"I wanted to write a long, big, huge book, but I never [knew] how to! Maybe because I don't own enough vocabulary, even in French." 

"My sentences are quite short. Every time I read and revise the text, over and over again, I always take away more than adding on.  

I wanted to write a long, big, huge book, but I never [knew] how to!

"I simmer everything down, almost like a soup. All the flavours are concentrated. You don't have to eat a lot, but all the flavours would open up your mouth anyway, from a spoon of sauce. I try to give the reader nothing unnecessary."

Cultural awareness

"At the beginning of Vi, I just wanted to talk about the two main characters, the young couple. But then somehow — maybe because it's culture — you can never talk just about one person without explaining where they came from. 

In Vietnamese culture, we are in a chain. We are the result of who our ancestors had been.

"In Vietnamese culture, we are in a chain. We are the result of who our ancestors had been. If they were good people, we would have a good destiny. If they're bad people, we would have a bad destiny.

"Even today, my parents' friends would come to me and say, 'Oh, of course you're having a good life, because your parents were good people,' —  but they would never congratulate you for what you do. It's always because of the parents and the grandparents." 

The power of being invisible

"In the Western world, the strength of a person is someone who has a position and has an opinion — someone who would speak up. But in Asian culture, I would say there's a culture of how to be not only invisible, but unreadable as well. 

In Asian culture, I would say there's a culture of how to be not only invisible, but unreadable as well.

"If you go back into Japanese or Chinese paintings and look at the mouths of the women, they are shown with a small red dot, because that expresses the strength of the person to hold back her feelings or her reaction. 

"So it's a very different culture. I wanted to express that — we think that invisibility or being small is a weakness, but not always."

Kim Thúy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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