Arrival in Quebec
At the age of ten, Kim Thúy left Vietnam with her parents and two brothers, fleeing the country’s repressive communist regime. Like more than a million Vietnamese, the Thúys took to the ocean aboard a makeshift boat. After a stay in Malaysia in a camp run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the family was resettled in Canada (see Canadian Response to the “Boat People” Refugee Crisis).
The family settled in Granby, Quebec. In this small town in the Eastern Townships, the parents and children learned new cultural codes. Tenderly and humorously, Thúy’s books describe the culture shock and the newcomer’s education about her new cultural milieu: winter and all the pieces of clothing, each more colourful than the last, that have to be worn one on top of the other, the warm welcome from the Québécois (including the affectionate hugs that are in sharp contrast to the Vietnamese-style restraint), the curiosity of new friends, the beauty, but also the difficulties of learning the French language.
Education and Early Career
Thúy studied at the Université de Montréal where she completed a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and translation, and later earned a law degree (1993). She worked not only as a lawyer, but also as a seamstress, cashier, cook and interpreter. She owned a restaurant in Montreal for five years and introduced the city to the cuisine of her native country. Then, fulfilling her childhood ambition, Thúy began writing her first novel.
Thúy’s first novel, Ru (published by Libre Expression in 2009), tells the story of her family’s long journey from Vietnam to Québec and the discovery of their new cultural milieu. In French, ru means small stream and in Vietnamese it means cradle and to rock. The novel consists of short, moving vignettes about members of her family, among other characters, and recounts all the small ways in which they adapted to their new daily reality. The book also deals with life with an autistic child. Thúy’s first book garnered immediate critical acclaim and earned several prestigious awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award. A bestseller, Ru has been translated into 15 languages. Sheila Fischman’s English translation of the book was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 2002 (see also Literary Prizes in English).
À toi and Mãn
In 2011, Thúy and Pascal Janovjak published a series of letters they had exchanged. À toi (“To You”) was the fruit of a literary love affair between the Vietnamese-Canadian writer and French-Slovakian-Swiss author. Thúy then published the fictional Mãn (Libre Expression, 2013) about a Vietnamese woman who arrived in Quebec as an adult, her mother having married her off to a Vietnamese restaurateur who had already settled there. In November 2013, Thúy was the guest of honour at the Montreal Salon du livre and in February 2014, she became the honorary chairperson of the Outaouais Salon du livre.
Vi and Le secret des Vietnamiennes
In 2016, Thúy completed a new novel inspired by her family history. Vi (Libre Expression) tells the story of a mother’s flight from Saigon with her four children. The novel touches upon the migratory experience, culture shock, and the loss of the country left behind. In August 2016, Thúy took over from storyteller Fred Pellerin as the Quebec representative for Le Robert dictionaries (Le Petit Robert, among others). In 2017, writing as the parent of an autistic child, she was a contributor to the book L’Autisme expliqué aux non-autistes (“Autism Explained to Non-Autistic Persons”) (Trécarré) by Brigitte Harrisson and Lise St-Charles.
In October 2017, Thúy wrote Le secret des Vietnamiennes (“Vietnamese Women’s Secret”) (Éditions du Trécarré), a cookbook containing recipes from Vietnam that have been handed down from mother to daughter.
Awards and Honours
- Grand Prix RTL-Lire (Ru), Paris Salon du livre (2010)
- Grand Prix La Presse, Essay/Practical Books category (Ru), Montreal Salon du livre (2010)
- The Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction (Ru) (2010)
- Grand prix littéraire Archambault (Ru) (2011)
- Mondello Prize for multiculturalism (Premio Modello per la Multiculturalità, Italy) (Ru) (2011)
- Paul-Gérin-Lajoie Award for tolerance, Fondation Ensemble (2013)
- Canada Reads winner (Ru), Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) (2015)
- Knight of the National Order of Quebec (Ordre national du Québec) (2015)
- 2017 NordSud International Prize (for Il mio Vietnam, the Italian translation of her novel Vi), Pescarabruzzo Foundation (2017)
- Honorary Doctorate, Concordia University (2017)