I went to my first book club meeting, and sat down with nine ladies to talk about Ru by Kim Thuy. It was a beautiful book, from the lacy-like cover to the contents inside. We all felt that it was a very feminine book. It also was the winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French language fiction. (Nobody mentioned chick lit here.)
The theme of the book was the memoir of the author, who left Vietnam at a young age during the Vietnamese War and settled down in Montreal to start a new life. It evoked some shared experience among many of us, because there were at least six persons in our group who were either immigrants to Canada or had close family ties overseas. Personally, I had poignant moments reading the book when the author wrote about an altered sense of the past, present and future when she landed in a foreign land. I also related to her need to share with her children the culture and the history of her home that she left behind. As she switched between past and present her vignettes, the emotional journey moved between that of an innocent young 10-year girl to that of a loving mother with two sons to raise. How true is the realization that not until one becomes a mother can one appreciate what maternal love means.
I knew that what she wrote about the hardship leaving Vietnam in a boat, how fellow travellers hid their money, gold and in her case diamonds, and the life in the refugee camp was real. I had professional contacts with Vietnamese immigrants in the camps in Hong Kong and in my work in Canada and they had similar stories to tell. What surprised me though was given this terrible war and the atrocities that had happened to many refugees that she was aware of, the author was able to treat it in the same dream-like and lyrical style as she did with her other material. Were the details too painful to recall? Or was it that the memory had become distant–like a dream now?
Again, our discussion revolved around personal immigrant experience and sense of identity among our children. Our sentiments ranged from dismay, frustration to resignation. This made me think of Banana Boys, written by Terry Woo. Actually the book was brought to my attention by my children. I was glad to have read the book, and talked about it with them. For lack of a better description, we had a cathartic moment.
In the end, our book club members all agreed on one thing. The best way to be introduce a culture to someone is the food–what could be better than a dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant for all of us down the road.