[Seven Stories Press; 2021]
Tr. from the French by Sheila Fischman
In Em, desire and violence are held taut on the ends of a carefully constructed linguistic string. It’s a testament to the skill of both the author, Kim Thúy, and her long-time translator, Sheila Fischman, that from the first word to the last the string never snags. Like Thúy’s (pronounced Twee) other novels, the book is titled by a single-syllable Vietnamese word: Ru, Mãn, Vi, and Em. These words, with their simplicity and lyricism become chant-like and, when repeated under the reader’s breath, an invitation of familiarity. Yet, to a non Vietnamese speaking reader, these words are foreign and are, therefore, an invitation to seek out their meaning instead. An invitation to open the book.
Em, Thúy tells us, refers to the younger sibling in a family, the younger of two friends, or the woman in a heterosexual couple; Thúy also thinks of em as a homonym of the word aimer in French, meaning “to love.” In an interview, when speaking about using Vietnamese words to title her books, which are written in French, she discusses how she was “proud to introduce one Vietnamese word to international friends” through her titles, mentioning how a foreign-sounding word arrests people’s attention in a way that the same word in English might not have. Thúy makes readers stop and pay attention before they have even entered into the story.
Em, which is of only 150 pages, encompasses vast landscapes of time, space and feelings on every page. Some of these pages and chapters are barely a few sentences long, yet each of them is written through the passing of enormous amounts of time and are heavy with the history of each character and what they represent in the story. As the story begins, the reader enters Vietnam, a country that is hurt and angry: its anger targeted first towards the French and then the United States. Despite this anger and hurt, Thúy shows the reader how Vietnam unwittingly absorbs and remakes the cultural sediments from these (post-) colonial forces. For instance, in the chapter titled “France,” she explains how Vietnam still integrates at least a hundred French words into its language every day: càphê from café (coffee), sơ mi from chemise (shirt), ghi ta from guitare (guitar).
Thúy provides the reader with an intimate portrait of the history of Vietnam and its diaspora. She writes of Vietnam splintering in the middle, and then details the awkward attempts to suture this divide. The reader follows as the citizens are thrown against one another, as they scale ladders and walls to escape their country, becoming the Vietnamese diaspora. The reader hears fragments of conversation — like a chauffeur’s employer teaching his son how to whistle “White Christmas” — and observes the movement and agitation — like the hurrying feet of police and ambassadors, commercial airlines filling up and the streets of Saigon emptying of Americans – before the official retreat of America from Vietnam. And later, when some of the diaspora return, the reader is still there, listening to their questions and longings. Through these fragments and movements, the story of Vietnam comes alive in the pages of Em. The geopolitical events never take the center stage and instead the book places the people at the center and, through them, the reader gets an insider glimpse of the Vietnam war and its aftermath.
Thúy deftly uses her characters as narrative tools not only to share their individual story but to tell the story of a collective. When Thúy writes that “Alexandre came to Mai in anger. Mai came to Alexandre in hate” the reader intuits that Alexandre represents the French colonial rule, and Mai the Vietnamese rebels. Their anger and hate are not just expressive of Alexandre and Mai, but of the national forces they represent. It is these two small sentences that, in the book, sum up the complicated relationship of the two groups. And, in a similar way, through only a handful of characters Thúy unravels the complex story of a country, and its citizens, remaking itself. Perhaps this is the reason that many of the characters are not given a traditional name, instead they are known by the group they represent: the nanny, the Soldier, the Pilot, the bunnies at the Playboy club, the Sisters, and so on. These characters, within the span of a few pages, take the reader into small alleyways, under tarp roofs, onto wooden benches, beside coffee kiosks, and through airport queues, helping to illustrate a deeply subjective experience and allowing the reader to feel the pulse of a country and its diaspora as they scatter across the world.
This experiential reading of the book is, in parts, created by what the blurb notes as Thúy’s “trademark style” which is “close to prose poetry.” And, like poetry, the book is economical and careful with words. Every sentence is a sensory jolt to the reader — heavy with meaning that must be unpacked and savored. For instance, take this sentence: “In four long hours, her long, girlish braids were undone, as she faced the spectre of scalped heads.” It is not possible to hurry through a sentence like this. It not only speaks of a specific event in the story, but also foretells the end of childhood for one of its characters — every word in this sentence can be dug into deeply for its meaning. This is similar to how one may approach poetry, where words are not always used in a literal manner, but instead as symbols and signposts that the reader must use to decipher the meaning, or story, of a poem. I wonder, also, if this style of writing has to do with Thúy’s grounding in the Vietnamese language. In Vietnamese, the inflections of a single syllable or word changes its meaning. Therefore, one has to not just hear what is being said, but also how it is said to ascertain what it means. In a similar way, Em also demands a certain slowness and attention of its readers. By demanding close attention to the text, Thúy makes the reader experience a Vietnamese mode of communication, even when reading the book in English, which is integral to bearing witness to the story of Vietnam that Em tries to offer its readers.
There is another potential reason, however, for Thúy’s commitment and integration of various modes or methods of communication in the text. A 2012 article notes how her youngest son’s autism forced her into exploring deeper, non-verbal, communication channels. “He basically taught me to be very aware of my senses,” and she has attributed her writing to this. This sensorial awareness is certainly evident in the book. If Em were non-fiction, it would, perhaps, be a sensory history of the Vietnam war (or the American war — Thúy reminds the reader how the perspective of the speaker can determine how the war is named) and its aftermath; Thúy imagines her characters as the vehicles to channel these senses into, or through, and traverse the temporal landscape, allowing her to write a sensorial retelling of the war.
When speaking about her first book, Ru, Thúy says that it “is basically a book with keywords . . . I just say Apple, and then each reader would see a different apple . . . it’s really the reader who has given the third dimension to the book.” The same can be said about Em too, which invites the reader to read between the lines and give meaning to what is unsaid. Sometimes the “key words” are words inherited, words forced upon the Vietnamese. For example: Operation Frequent Wind, White Christmas, Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange, Operation Babylift, rainbow herbicides, Tiger is Out — these terms and phrases have become loaded with meaning over the years, retrospectively, as more information has emerged since the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. Thúy sprinkles these words throughout the book, and then relies on the acquired knowledge of her readers to recognize them and fill in the blanks.
In Em, every character is treated with care and attention, but there is no “protagonist” in the strict sense of the term. Each character appears in the book as fully formed and distinct, even if making a cursory appearance — say, for instance, Emma-Jade’s adopted mother Annabelle, who appears in only three small chapters in the story, and yet we see her with a past, a distinct personality and style, with faults and with desires thwarted and met. This is true for even the characters with no traditional names: like Louis’s mute nursing mother. In just a few lines Thúy makes the reader pang for the loss of this nameless mother of the street. In Em, the reader roots for every character they meet, no matter how briefly.
Although the character Emma-Jade’s reference as em (little sister) makes her appear to be a central figure in the novel (titled Em), it is the French understanding of “em” (or aimer), as “to love”, that instead pervades throughout the book, charging the precarity that every character lives under. It is love that keeps Alexandre and Mai together, it is the love of the nanny that keeps Tâm, their daughter, alive, love that pulls Tâm from the pile of dead bodies towards the sky, and love again that makes Louis and Emma-Jade find each other repeatedly throughout the book. In Em, love sometimes resides in unusual places (like on the sidewalks of Saigon), and often across political and cultural boundaries (like the love of the American soldiers for Tâm when she worked in the nightclub). It is love and the longing for love that charges the life and identity of each character as they face the risk of erasure at every step.
Thúy dedicates Em to the “forgotten and the unnamed.” And later on in the book, when giving the numbers of American soldiers, Vietnamese military and civilians (in the north and south) who died during the war, she asks why the numbers on one side are exact figures (58,177 American soldiers) and those on the other (like the “2 million civilians” in North Vietnam) are rounded figures, and those like the orphans and widows remain uncounted. In many ways, Em is a story of the lives that are not counted and those that get rounded off. But Thúy refuses to give a hierarchy of attention and importance to these lives. The American pilot is not given more importance than the orphan, they are both contained within the pages of the book with their complexity of historical place and their inner worlds are allowed space to breathe.
The book is brutal without being hateful. Every sentence cuts through the page as if it were not written but chiseled with a knife. These short sentences spill the blood of senseless violence, loss, grief and rage of the Vietnamese. But when we come out of these pages, we don’t feel anger towards any person, group or country. By making the reader comprehend the complexity of her characters (and therefore the collectives that they represent), Thúy makes the reader feel compassion, instead of aversion, for all involved. For instance, when the reader learns of the Soldier who killed “everything that moved,” they are unable to be angry at him because they also learn of him faltering before, his weeping, his peeing himself, his later grief and detachment, and then his slow poisoning of himself. The reader aches for the “Soldier (or the War Machine),” as one chapter is titled, as well as the lives killed by this war machine. Similarly, the book refuses pity for the Vietnamese, instead illuminating the resilience of the Vietnamese spirit — whether it’s in the way that the street dwellers pull each other towards survival or the sprouting and thriving of Vietnamese businesses, like nail salons, in the adopted countries. Thúy manages to both highlight the minute details lost in the bigger picture of international politics, and offer a bigger-picture compassion through a lens that refuses to prescribe the label of victim or antagonist, heroism or martyrdom, to any person or group.
While Kim Thúy’s own life doesn’t directly drive the Em, her story is also shaped by the same geopolitical forces as that of her characters: she was one of the thousands of “boat people” that left Vietnam, she lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia before reaching Quebec and finally settling in Montreal. Thúy knows the precariousness of life and the often impossible task of anchoring one’s story in the midst of socio-political forces that do not take notice of the wreckage they create in individual and collective lives. She teeters on the edge of the fourth wall throughout the book, but breaks it completely at the very beginning (in the first chapter titled “A genesis of truth”) and then again in the last fifth of the book (starting with the chapter titled “Truths without end”). This breaking of the wall, and her playing with the “I” flows seamlessly within the narrative she’s created — there is nothing jarring about the author lifting her head from the pages. In her first-person, Thúy emerges as a keeper of the stories and the silences of her characters, only some of which make it into the book. For instance, when sharing the story of a woman who carried her children into the jungle, Thúy regrets that “despite our six hour conversation, there are still a thousand details I lack.” Later Thúy tells the reader of all the things she did not share in the book: “I avoided saddening you with the soundtrack that reveals President Nixon’s order to proceed with the bombardment . . . ”. Thúy’s “I” never claims to know more about the story than her characters, instead she lets them loose on her pages and seems almost powerless to control their lives and aspirations, allowing them to take the lead.
Through Em, Thúy invites the reader into a space of unmooring and refuses to offer any easy scaffolding of plot, structure or labels to fit the story into. It is a ride that makes the reader repeatedly stop to catch their breath, and I am (breathlessly) glad to have taken it.
Saheli Khastagir is a painter, writer, and development professional from India, based in New Orleans. Her recent work has appeared in Current Affairs, Prairie Fire, The Globe Post, Guftugu, Economic and Political Weekly, The Alipore Post, Nether Quarterly and other publications and anthologies. You can find her creative experiments on her website: www.sahelikhastagir.com.