Kim Thúy emigrated to Montreal from Saigon by way of Malaysia with her parents when she was a child. Before becoming a writer in her forties, she was a translator, a lawyer, and a restaurateur. Thúy’s first novel, Ru, won the French-language Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2010. Sheila Fischman’s English translation was nominated for the 2012 Giller Prize and 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
Thúy will be launching the English edition of Mãn, her second novel, on Sept. 12 at McNally Robinson Booksellers. She recently spoke with Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon.
Q: What do you want people to know about Mãn?
KT: I started with a question: could love expressed with a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers have the same weight as a set of dog tags that symbolized the life or death of a soldier? Writing this book gave me the answer. I like to think that Mãn is a book that talks about not just the what of love, but the how of love.
Q: Your first book was published in fifteen countries and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. What was that like?
KT: I’ve found it both surprising and moving to meet, say, a Romanian reader who told me that we shared a common life story, or a doctoral student in Stockholm who was writing her thesis on Ru. On my bookshelf I can see the book in twenty-odd versions, each with a different cover, since each country, each publishing house has its own style and its own take on the text. But still, the content is the same and is usually appreciated for the same reasons. And so I like to think we are more or less the same underneath, or at least, we’re affected by things in similar ways, despite our superficial differences.
Q: Sheila Fischman has translated both of your books from French to English. Do you think of her as your first reader, in some ways? What kind of relationship do you have with her: is it collaborative or do you just hand the book over and wait to see what she comes up with?
KT: Since my books are published in French well before they’re translated, they have already had a great many "first" readers, among them the editorial director and editor at Libre Expression, my editor in France… and even before Sheila, there’s my editor at Random House Canada, who reads the book in French. So while Sheila is not my first reader, it’s up to her to transpose the books from Francophone to Anglophone culture. She does much more than simply translate. Because when I read Ru and Mãn in English, Sheila makes it possible for me to rediscover the rhythm, the musicality and the colours in these contained literary worlds without a consciousness of language. In short, I forget I’m reading in English.
Sheila is a master translator and so for me the best plan is to leave her to her work and get out of the way. Having said that, Sheila lives just 15 minutes away from me. So we’ve been able to get together over a bowl of soup now and again and talk about all sorts of things — but never directly about translation, really.
Q: Ru was partly a memoir and partly a fiction and was eventually labeled "a novel" by your publisher. What territory does Mãn occupy, given your background as a restaurateur and resident of Montreal?
KT: My mother would tell you I’m living in a novel, or that I’m making a novel out of my life. Mãn is obviously inspired by my adventures in the restaurant world, but the craft of writing enables us to go well beyond the bounds of reality. I suppress certain details, steal others from elsewhere, leave out others that don’t fit with the story I want to tell. The novel form allows me to blur the lines, to modify the facts to suit my story. One man’s moustache will appear on the face of someone else; the scar that appears on the arm of one person will transform into a gaping sore on another’s leg. In short, I give myself the freedom to completely erase the line between fact and fiction. All of it is combined, blended, shaken up — like a cocktail.
Q: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
KT: I have just bought the latest book by Heather O’Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. I am a huge fan of her first book, Lullabies for Little Criminals. I must have bought twenty copies to give to friends over the past few years.
I am writing something at the moment — if it is good enough perhaps it will become a book. For the time being, I’m enjoying the words appearing on my screen, revealing a world I’m discovering line by line.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Stowaways, her second collection of poetry, was published earlier this year.