What a fine author with whom to launch Women in Translation month (hosted by Biblibio) one of the few contemporary authors whose work I have followed from the beginning in Sheila Fischman’s translations: Ru (2009; 2012) and Mãn (2013; 2014).
Themes from both of her previous novels resurface in Vi, and yet the work feels distinct because readers accompany Vi through a number of changing circumstances, from Saigon to Montreal, from Suzhou to Boston, and through the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Her emotional attachments change dramatically as well, as she and her mother and siblings (three brothers, she is the youngest and only girl) escape Vietnam during the war while her father remains behind. In the years to come, as she grows and explores her own needs and desires (which frequently conflict with the choices her ancestors would need/desire her to make), readers observe her heart expanding and contracting through devotion and loss.
Expectations of women are core to the story from the beginning, first in the character of Hà.
“As much as Hà had proudly displayed her painted eyelids before her marriage to the general, so, from the start of her new relationship, she hid her black eyes under the wide brim of a hat. I had the impression that she was becoming smaller and smaller, not only because of her flat plastic slippers that scraped the ground, but also because of the absence of her boisterous laughter. She climbed the steps like a shadow, to blend in properly with the silence that prevailed all across the country.”
And, in every respect, ideas about limitation and freedom are explored. There is no distinction between the personal and the political, no distinction between lingering and recurring losses.
“How to suddenly lose the permanent presence of my father? How to find one’s way before an endless horizon, with no barbed wire, no overseers?”
Throughout, there is a continued focus on language, which readers will recognize from her earlier works. It is impossible to separate the language from the story, the truths from the act of questioning.
“To my great surprise, the character for the number one, a single horizontal stroke, was considered the most important , because it illustrated the primordial unity, the fusion between sky and earth, the horizon, the beginning of the beginning. Each character told its own story, and when it was combined with one, two, or three others, new stories formed, transforming the initial meaning.”
All of this talk of characters is, in that moment, very clearly about language and capturing meaning in symbols. But of course, readers take a step back and see the commentary about the characters in Vi as well, and the different aspects of Vi’s self within, too.
“He often told me that it was not my buttons done up to the neck and at the wrists that would protect me, but the strength I would draw on to disengage myself.”
That may be true, but it is also true that Kim Thúy draws upon her strength to engage herself and readers in narratives which pose difficult questions about belonging and home, delicately and deliberately, so that this simple act of engagement creates a space for each of us to inhabit on the page.