This year the theme of Canada Reads is “What is the one book to break barriers?” Some of our writers decided to join in and defend some of the short listed titles.
Random House Canada
“When I left this country 18 years ago, I didn’t know how strangely departure would obliterate return: how could I have done? It’s one of time’s lessons, and can only be learned temporally.”
“On Not Going Home” by James Wood
Kim Thuy wants to tell you a story. It’s not an easy one to hear. The chronology seems unpredictable at first, vignettes of memories, introspection where one might look for names and dates. They are short passages, hazy at times and painfully specific at others. Thuy draws readers in with her lyrical prose, but she doesn’t hold their hands as they follow her from the streets of Vietnam to the icy roads of Montreal in Ru, her first novel/memoir. But oh, is the walk worth it.
Like Thuy and many other Canadians, I am an immigrant. Thuy’s story is not my story, but it is still a familiar one to me: the fear and uncertainty ring true in ways that I’m still unraveling in myself today. The mother’s sacrifices she relates parallel some of my own mother’s struggles. It’s a song that immigrants hear in themselves, in the broken English that marks some of us as different, but not any less dignified.
Thuy looks back on the move from Vietnam to Canada with a hazy, inquisitive eye, writing it almost like an impartial observer trying to understand the layers of what was happening. Vietnamese words are sprinkled throughout the novel, coming out in moments where Thuy considers some of the ways she and her family have changed since their move. She shares proverbs with the reader that hint at her developing perspective. She revisits specific turning points and she picks at them carefully, asking along with the reader what they meant and what they mean to her now.
Ru breaks barriers, because it addresses the connection of identity to language for immigrants and the fragmented path we take as we piece together our sense of self. There are so many of us making lives here in Canada who still miss our other homes terribly, who are still working through the events that brought us here.
51% of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada. In early 2014, Vancouver was declared the “most Asian city” not located in Asia, and the 2013 National Household Survey reported that just under 60% of immigrants between 2006 and 2011 came from Asia and the Middle East. The reality is this: Canada is a growing country; its population varied and rich in opportunities to learn and develop.
It’s easy to forget that for some immigrants, Canada isn’t always the best place to live. There are those who, like Thuy, were children and were brought here by their parents. Many families had better lives in their home countries, were more secure economically, and more comfortable overall, but still came here for various reasons, not the least of which was seeking refuge.
What does Canada do for these people? How can we Canadians continue to make this country a welcoming and safe place to exist? How do we respect the traditions and identities of the people that come here, some broken, some terrified, and all hoping to make a life for themselves? Thuy may not have written Ru with those questions in mind, but they are the result of careful reflection on her experiences, and the ways her life in Vietnam and her life in Canada intersect.
Immigrant minds and hearts are patched by those intersections. They draw from the moments where we feel the distance between the identity we were born into and the identity we’re building day by day. Kim Thuy builds a bridge of sorts in Ru, but it’s certainly not her final destination. There is still more to discover about herself, still more to see and uncover in her personal history, and in the histories of the people around her. Thuy reminds readers, immigrants especially, just how much our identities are shaped by the interactions we seek out and what we choose to draw into ourselves from those interactions.
“As for me, it is true all the way to the possibility of this book, to the moment when my sheets of white paper that put up with my trail, or rather the trail of those who have walked before me, for me. I moved forward in the trace of their footsteps as in a waking dream where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume but a blossoming: where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.”
Kim Thuy has told us a story. Let us hear yours, Canada.