I didn’t quite understand what it meant to embody the title “Canadian novel” before I read Ru, a poetic and poignant account of the refugee experience.
The novel taught me what it meant for a book to reflect the values of Canada, in which tribulations aren’t trivialized or tokenized, but instead add to the nuance of the journey to a safer home.
Vietnamese-Canadian author Kim Thúy has received accolades for Ru, which was published in 2012. The book won the 2015 “Canada Reads” competition, which pits Canadian novels against each other to find a winner that embodies Canadian values and literature.
In just one sitting, through poetic and visceral prose, Kim Thúy had me wiping away tears with every turn of phrase. In a book barely long enough to qualify as a novel, Ru transported me from an extravagant residence in Saigon, to a refugee camp where mud flowed in rivers, and to a new and painful life in Quebec.
In Vietnamese, Ru means “lullaby”. In French, it signifies a flow — in this case, of tears, blood and money. Thúy’s prose reads as both; it’s soft in its tone and yet flows with a strength and poignancy that left me breathless. American literature was individualism, capitalism, small town struggles and middle class families. These themes were either explicit or underlying in all of what are considered “the Great American Novels”.
Yet I didn’t see the same unifying thread in the novels branded “Canadian literature”, other than being set on Canadian soil.
Until I read Ru. In it, I found a representation of diversity that didn’t seem forced or facetious, but natural.
The novel presented the experience of a refugee and immigrant, the same experience that defines a majority of the current Canadian population, in a way that was just as painful as it was optimistic. The hopeful promise of a new land didn’t trivialize the difficulty that comes with it.
Told in vignettes, the book follows young Nguyen as she’s placed in a Malaysian refugee camp after living in a lavish home in Saigon.
It describes the conditions in the camp with tear-jerking clarity and balance. The stream-of-consciousness prose made it conversational, but still graceful.
From there, she embraces a new beginning in Quebec, where she dreams of becoming a permanent part of the
American Dream. As an adult and mother, she begins a new battle: raising two sons.
Both have grown into this new community, and one has autism. Her son’s condition is a stepping-stone to memories of the past, as the novel jumps between her experiences as a refugee and her experience as a mother to a child with a disability she is grappling to understand.
Travelling between the past and present — just as Nguyen travelled from home to camp to a new home — Thúy paints an image of the migrant experience, and one that embodies Canadian values.
Ru is about more than just a young girl finding refuge in Quebec and dealing with the hardships and heartbreak that accompany leaving her home. It’s also a book about new opportunity in a new land. It’s about communities that welcome difference and strength through adversity, while realizing the everlasting effects of the migration experience.
The narrative of raising a family in Quebec is rooted in the Canadian landscape, and yet Nguyen’s life is occupied by all she has left behind, even years later. Not once did the novel imply that this needed to be abandoned for a complete acceptance of a new home.
This was normal. It was vulnerable and traumatic but beautiful. This was her experience and it was valid in all its complexities.
After reading it, I realized that’s what Canadian literature is all about.
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