Embrace Beauty and See the World Differently

Award-winning novelist Kim Thúy discusses the theme of her latest book Em and reveals her writing process.

The word em refers to the little brother or little sister in a family; or the younger of two friends;
 or the woman in a couple.
I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, “to love” in French, in the imperative: aime

Kim Thúy begins Em, her latest novel with prose that spotlights the borderless beauty of language. The book was inspired by Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of biracial children from Saigon in 1975 as well as the nail salon industry, dominated by Vietnamese diaspora around the world. Against these backdrops, the characters’ journeys unfold, their lives taking unexpected turns before converging at the end.

Em is poetic and concise. Each word is carefully chosen and each sentence is deliberate. The brief passages and chapters resemble the mosaics of memory and keep readers turning the pages. Like her previous books, Em is filled with Thúy’s fascination with the nuances of Vietnamese. All Vietnamese names, idioms, and words are written in full diacritics. This allows readers to learn about the country’s language and traditions and offers another way to see the world.

“When you understand something, then you fall in love,” explained Thúy during a video call with Culture from her Montreal home in January. 

During the conversation, Thúy also discussed Em’s themes, her writing process, and upcoming plans.

How would you describe Em to somebody who has never read the book?

A short book? You won’t need more than an hour and a half, two hours maximum. I hope that Em will bring the readers questions about what is right and what is wrong. There are many angles to a story, and everybody’s right most of the time. If we just listen to each other, then maybe we can understand reality better. I hope that after reading it, that’s the feeling readers would have because I don’t think they would remember the details of all the characters and events.

Perspective is one of the themes in the book. As you put it, some people refer to the war as the Vietnam War, and some call it the American War.

Both are right because of their reality. Depending on where you stand, you’ll see it differently. There’s a piece of art where you see an apple in the mirror, which is perfect. But on the other side, it is rotten. Both images are correct. They reflect the same apple, but the mirror can’t see the other side. I hope that the reader will finish the book with the intention to find beauty everywhere. To seek beauty.

The cover for the French release of Em is a painting by Quebecois artist Louis Boudreault. It’s a box with a lot of tangled threads, could you share a little bit about that?

Louis works with a lot of embroidery and unfinished or untied threads. It’s his style. This works really well with the way I tell stories, because I don’t need a beginning or an end. When we tell the story of somebody, we don’t tell when they were born or where they lived, we just talk about that person in that specific moment. You don’t know what happens afterwards, right? You don’t know what the person will be doing three years later, or 10 years later. I allow myself to tell stories that way, meaning I focus only on the part that is important for the message that I’m trying to convey. Louis said that I could play with the threads. Usually you don’t touch his artwork. But as soon as you put it in a car and take it home, these threads move. That’s what life is about. It’s never static. Those threads are about living and being influenced by the wind and uncertainty.

There’s a resilience to your characters, despite the effects of Agent Orange and toxic fumes in the nail salons. Why did you decide to talk about the nail salon industry? Where does that connection come from?

I have friends who are in the industry. I go to nail salons and talk to the technicians. I love to go there just to chat with these women and learn about what they do. For anything in this world, if we start looking, giving it time and paying attention, there’s always a story to be found. I asked myself, how come we want our nails to be colored to begin with? Where did this come from? What is the tradition? That’s when I learned about the cancer and all of the toxic chemicals. I have a friend who got cancer and the doctors had to open her skin. The image of her face being taken off to clean the tumor stayed with me. I linked that to the chemicals that she breathes in every day. Then I started looking in the New York Times, which had articles about it. And you realize that everything is linked together, the nail salon industry is really the result of the evacuation of Vietnam of the end of the war.

As a writer, you must have met a lot of people and listened to a lot of stories. Do you have a system or a way to remember all those stories?

I should. I’m starting to forget a lot, so I think I should take notes. But no, I don’t, and that’s the luxury of being a writer. When you sit down to write, you have time to go back into your memory. You connect to those parts that you don’t think are there, but they are in your head.

Scientists have proven that when you are passive, just walking, pushing a stroller, taking a shower or washing dishes, then your brain connects to the parts that we don’t have access to when it is active. I think the luxury of being an artist or a writer is that you can sit and just let the brain cells connect to those parts. You think that the brain is not working, but it is. So my system is taking showers. It’s not very environmentally friendly, I only do it from time to time. In the shower ideas come to me. There are some passages in Em that came to me in the shower. I can tell you which minute in the shower that I got that idea connected.

Could you share which passages?

The one with the pilot pulling up the little girl to rescue her from the massacre. I remember trying to describe the blouse, because I don’t know how he could pull this child up. Did he grab the waist? Lift from the belly? Or by her hands? When you write, you need to know. And I thought that because he couldn’t stay long, maybe he pulled the girl up by the shirt. But what was on that shirt? I didn’t want to waste the reader’s time. The easy answer is that there was blood, because she was among the dead. But that the reader knew already.

That’s when I had to take a shower, because it had been 24 or 48 hours already just for that sentence. I said that the blouse was stained, but stained with what? I couldn’t find it. I was in a hotel, and it was in the afternoon when the sun was low at the window. And I said, “No, I have to find it or I have to give up.” I went into the shower, and there you go! It would be stained with souvenirs, with memories – It was stained with memories. It sounds very simple, but that word alone took me 48 hours.

It’s the same for the other scene where I described her being a child and waking up to the My Lai massacre. How do you describe that scene in just a couple of sentences? I said, “No, I’m not trying to describe the corpse.” Everybody can imagine that. I wanted to describe this sudden change overnight, from a happy moment like the birthday of a child to a massacre. How could that happen? She went to bed with a family but she woke up an orphan. She went to bed as a child with braids in her hair and she woke up with people with scalped heads. And so you see right away the change. That also took me 48 hours in a hotel, so it costs a lot of money. Ha ha. The luxury of being a writer is that you give yourself time to look for one word.

Do you have a specific writing process or rituals?

Nowadays with the laptop, you can write anywhere, anytime. You can be in a bus, at an airport, at home at the kitchen counter. I don’t have an office, I write at my kitchen counter. Then I can cook at the same time. When it’s time to eat, I move the computer. Writing for me is not a physical space, it’s your mind space. You block other activities so that you will have that space.

Often I write between 11 pm and 3 am, because then everything is dark around you. The objects in your house don’t talk to you anymore. The painting you see, it speaks to you. It tells you where you bought it. Even the teacup, you remember, which tea you had, what you had tried in that cup the first time. In a hotel, it’s comfortable, but the objects don’t talk to you. You have no souvenirs whatsoever. It can be a nice teapot, but it’s just a teapot.

And when you feel that you hit a roadblock, you take a shower?

I don’t know if it’s a block or not. Often I like those blocks. There’s a block when you hit something. It’s worth it because there’s a door to be opened. If writing flowed all the time, I would be suspicious. If I wrote 10 sentences without rethinking any of them, then it must be very bad. You’re not trying to be better than you are. You chose the easy road. I like those moments when I have to stop, think, and search.

You’re right, taking the easy road doesn’t drive us to be better.

I think disruption is a gift. My friend who’s a CEO in a company says you need disruption to move forward. To him, I’m such a disruption. All businesses, all boards should have me as a member because I would disrupt. The first feeling when there’s a disruption is that we are disturbed and we don’t like it, but I think disruption always make us move differently. If we just took the easy road, that would turn us into machines.

I grew up in Vietnam and speak Vietnamese fluently. But I never stop to think about words such as bụi đời (orphan – literally translated as dust of life) or chị vú (nanny – big sister breast)*. Reading your book was like an aha moment for me. The Vietnamese meaning and the translation from French into English capture the essence of the words. How did you achieve such a seamless connection between the languages, especially when you know that it will be translated?

I don’t think about it actually. I just write whatever comes to my mind. The transition is easy, because my mind is in both languages, more French than Vietnamese. My mentality is Vietnamese – the way the world is, is the Vietnamese way. But the language I use to see the world that way is French. That’s why it’s very fluid. I think in Vietnamese, but I use French to identify that thought. In my mind, it’s totally married together or intertwined. I can no longer separate them, because they exist together as one.

I would say that Vietnamese is in my blood, and French is under my skin. I look at the Vietnamese language from the eye of a French speaker, so I analyze it, because the there are many words in Vietnamese that I have to learn. When did you say chị vú here in Canada? Never. When you start asking ‘How can we call them chị vú? Why is a nanny a breast?’ You go back and look for the origin of it, and sometimes the origin of it is invented by me. That’s the freedom of writing. Maybe chị vú is not about lending a breast. In this case, it could be because of the sound of it, and even if it didn’t mean breast, I would allow myself to say that it means breast.

It gives me the freedom to play. For instance, the word vú. At first, my entire family were surprised. They said, “Why would you say vú? It’s a banal word that everybody uses every day.” But because we use it every day, we never pay attention to it. We don’t realize how beautiful it is. That’s why I think the Vietnamese language is so beautiful. Because I look at it one word at a time. I don’t live with it. I see it from afar.

*In the novel, Thúy explains the Vietnamese word for a nanny derives from the practice of rich women hiring a young mother to breastfeed their child, so as not to deform their own breasts.

What are your upcoming plans?

I always have plans, little things that I do. Ru is being made into a film, so I’ll be a little bit busy with that. It’s quite a big thing for Quebec, because Ru is in a lot of people’s imagination and it has been read by so many people. It’s important for the production to get it right. Ru has also gone over borders, beyond Quebec and Canada. It’s in more than 40 countries now. We have to be mindful for all the other countries that know Vietnam very well. We have to go beyond the imagination of everybody to create something new, but at the same time stay loyal to the book.

Em is available in the United States now, so I also hope that I will get to tour a little bit in the U.S..The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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