“I know the sound of flies by heart. I just have to close my eyes to hear them buzzing around me again, because for months I had to crouch down above a gigantic pit filled to the brim with excrement, in the blazing sun of Malaysia. I had to look at the indescribable brown colour without blinking so that I wouldn’t slip on the two planks behind the door of one of the sixteen cabins every time I set foot there. I had to keep my balance, avoid fainting when my stools or those from the next cabin splattered. At those moments I escaped by listening to the humming of flies. Once, I lost my slipper between the planks after I’d moved my foot too quickly. It fell into the cesspit without sinking, floating there like a boat cast adrift.”
When Ru first won Canada Reads, I was a little disappointed. Note that I hadn’t read anything from the Canada Reads shortlist, but compared to some of the other books, Ru felt like the safe choice – the winner of this year’s Canada Reads was supposed to be the “book to break down barriers,” and, in my narrow mind, I thought – “How is another book about the Asian-immigrant experience going to break down barriers?” I know nothing, Jon Snow.
Turns out, the judging panel of Canada Reads knew something I didn’t. That only a few months later, the Western world would be faced with the Syrian refugee crisis, and the plight of refugees was present in my grown-up adult conscience for, admittedly, the first time. And though leaving Vietnam was obviously a different experience than those leaving Syria, the sentiment is the same – leaving their fearful world in search of a better life. That, while reading Ru, I would spend the whole time thinking about the 25,000 refugees coming to Canada over the next few months, who would carry their experiences with them as they try to adjust to this new life, wondering if they will ever return to the place they once called home.
Ru reads like a series of snapshots as the narrator remembers their experience and reflects on how different events and people have affected the way she is now, a married grown woman with children living in Montreal. How her internal scars from her experience have carried on to the next generation – her deaf-mute-ness throughout their journey to Canada was present again in her autistic son. And to that point, I think about the ancestral scarring caused by residential schools, that tragedy, abuse and trauma carries through generational consciousness.
And though the terrors of Vietnam occurred far before my time, I’ve found myself revisiting that part of history that went uncovered in my history classes in light of the controversy around the band name “Viet Cong.”
So while Ru itself is by no means groundbreaking, it is written (and translated) remarkably well and paints a picture of the struggle of refugees and those transplanted into the West by horror. Kim Thúy has some remarkably poignant and en-pointe moments in her book, of which the following may be my favourite:
“I remember some students in my high school who complained about the compulsory history classes. Young as we were, we didn’t realize that the course was a privilege only countries at peace can afford. Elsewhere, people are too preoccupied by their day-to-day survival to take the time to write their collective history.”
Books read: 3