Lullaby: Revisiting Ru by Kim Thúy

As part of my pandemic retrospective look at contemporary classics*, I’ve fallen back in awe of the lyricism of the novel Ru by Kim Thúy, a collection of non-linear vignettes that read like prose poetry, like we’re one with the narrator sailing on a 1975 refugee boat from South Vietnam into uncertainty with the gracious world view of a child, carried by her cadence of flowing sentences and imagery. It was first published with Libre Expression in 2009, won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction in 2010 and was translated exquisitely to English by Sheila Fischman in 2012, where it went on to be nominated for further prestigious Canadian literary awards.

“The lullaby mood of the book is felt throughout as juxtaposition is woven seamlessly in euphonic sentences vivid with consonance and colour, sprinkled with onomatopoeia, the repetition of hard “k” drumming heights of acoustic texture folded into an overall nuance of being cradled and rocked in a rhythmic memoir.”

Thúy opens with an explanation of the title, “In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.” With this in mind, Thúy’s words lull the reader through the heartache of displacement and loss with unique detail that creates a presence of place, often a place of between, a song of humanity. Her firsthand experience living with her family as a Vietnamese refugee in a Malaysian camp designed for 200 but housing 2000 and then starting a new life in Montreal resonates through the narrator’s nurturing notes, comforting even in grief.

The lullaby mood of the book is felt throughout as juxtaposition is woven seamlessly in euphonic sentences vivid with consonance and colour, sprinkled with onomatopoeia, the repetition of hard “k” drumming heights of acoustic texture folded into an overall nuance of being cradled and rocked in a rhythmic memoir. “I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns. I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two,” Thúy writes, her landscape of sound and colour holding the tension and grief of human experience amid natural and cultural beauty still clinging to existence, diction like “fragmented” setting the inner and outer experience tempered by a lullaby tempo. It’s fluid how her similes for red embody both cherry petals and the sacrificial blood of so many lost lives as we feel for fallen humans on both sides, for those who volunteered to fight and die for what they believed was best for humanity and those who had no choice. Thúy brilliantly doesn’t mention the nationalities of the soldiers, only that their blood permeates the soil in her vision “coloured the ground red,” so that each reader can bring their own empathy to the story. Her choice to use just the noun “soldiers” and a collective number in with the colour red, both cherry petals and blood, connects emotionally with each reader in an individual way as we grieve being a species that allows wars to happen. Much like poetry, each phrase connects individually with readers to bring them into her overall unifying theme, a lullaby for the universal heartache of war.

“I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles,” she continues, contrast in each part of the sentence flowing in the overall lyricism that well-crafted long sentences create. The construction of her sentences with poetic devices such as alliteration make the book a lullaby through the stream of loss, sorrow and hope she articulates. Even translated from French to English, melodic poetic devices carry the prose, the translation a work of art.
The vignettes through Ru cover humorous moments in Montreal, scenes that evoke pathos as the narrator’s father proudly wears a woman’s hand-me-down sweater, the kindness of Canadians treating the narrator’s family to trips to the zoo and other outings twice in one weekend, the hard work of picking crops in fields and doing menial labour with a positive attitude to rebuild a life in Canada, the narrator’s parents taking any low paying job they could with a sense of service to their children’s futures, all told in a lyrical lullaby, a soothing song of life. From the gentleness in the telling of people falling off the sides of the boats from Vietnam and disappearing in the ocean to first impressions of snowy Quebec, “After such a long time in places without light, a landscape so white, so virginal could only dazzle us, blind us, intoxicate us,” the lullaby tone of Ru offers hope of restoration of life, peace and the loss of language and therefore intergenerational cultural connection through colonialism, what struggles to be communicated from Vietnamese into French separating generations, with a musicality that reaches across those aching chasms.
As someone who loves long sentences where phrases and dependent clauses flow in poetic harmony, I especially love the style Thúy uses to construct her lullaby, an understated acceptance of sorrow in luring, safe rhythms, an affirmation that we are allowed to speak softly regardless of subject matter.

*See Cynthia’s revisiting of Rob Taylor’s The News here.

Born in Saigon in 1968, Kim Thúy left Vietnam with the boat people at the age of ten and settled with her family in Quebec. A graduate in translation and law, she has worked as a seamstress, interpreter, lawyer, restaurant owner, media personality and television host. She lives in Montreal and devotes herself to writing. Kim Thúy has received many awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2010, and was one of the top 4 finalists of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018. Her books have sold more than 850,000 copies around the world and have been translated into 29 languages and distributed across 40 countries and territories.

Sheila Fischman is the award-winning translator of some 150 contemporary novels from Quebec. In 2008 she was awarded the Molson Prize in the Arts. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a chevalier de l’Ordre national du Québec. She lives in Montreal.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Vintage Canada (March 25 2015)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 160 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0345816145
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0345816146

Cynthia Sharp holds an MFA in creative writing and an Honours BA in English literature and is a full member of the League of Canadian Poets, as well as The Writers’ Union of Canada. She was the WIN Vancouver 2022 Poet Laureate, one of the judges for the 2020 Pandora's Collective International Poetry Contest and the City of Richmond, British Columbia’s, 2019 Writer in Residence. Her poetry, reviews and creative nonfiction have been published and broadcast internationally in journals such as CV2, Prism, Haiku Journal, The Pitkin Review and untethered, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. Her work is featured regularly in classrooms in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Cynthia is the author of Ordinary LightRainforest in Russet and The Light Bearers in the Sand Dollar Graviton, as well as the editor of Poetic Portions, a collection of Canadian poems and recipes honouring Earth Day, all available in bookstores and libraries throughout the world. She resides on Coast Salish land, inspired by the beauty of west coast nature.