Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2021

Ru (2009), by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman

With #WITmonth 2021 drawing to a close, I’m going to allow myself a little bragging: this post is the 100th review of a Woman Writer in Translation on this blog.

Female writers in translation, year by year

Male writers in translation, year by year

It’s true that I’ve written nearly three times as many reviews of male writers in translation (281, as of August 2021), skewed somewhat by my project to read and review all 20 novels in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and by my fondness for classic Russian Lit and the choices of the Indonesian Book Club.  It’s also influenced by my project to read all the Nobel Prize winning novelists, to plod on with 1001 Books using what’s already on my TBR, and by contributing to Shadow Juries.  But mostly it’s a case of what comes my way and looks interesting.  Most of the translations on my shelves are there because I read an enticing review by Stu at Winston’s Dad: like me, he doesn’t read to an agenda, he reads what comes his way and looks interesting. Still, I’m pleased with the upward trend for #WITmonth over time, and I’ve certainly read some interesting books amongst those 100.

Ru, the debut novel of prolific Canadian author Kim Thúy was a bestseller and won a swag of prizes both in its initial French release in 2009 and in an English translation by Sheila Fischman in 2012. It won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards, and was a Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2012), which is when I became aware of it through a review by the late Kevin from Canada.,  It was a Man Asian Literary Prize Nominee in the same year.

At only 153 pages, many of which are only half-page fragments, it’s more of a novella than a novel.  It’s a work of autofiction and these fragments frame aspects of Thúy’s life and relationships. As a child, she fled Vietnam by boat with her parents and spent a few months in a Malaysian refugee camp before settling in Canada in 1979 aged 10.  She worked as a seamstress, interpreter, lawyer and restaurant owner before turning to full-time writing.  This is the blurb for Ru:

Ru: In Vietnamese it means lullaby; in French it is a small stream, but also signifies a flow – of tears, blood, money.

Ru follows the flow of a life on the tides of unrest and on to more peaceful waters. In vignettes of exquisite clarity, sharp observation and sly wit, we are carried along on an unforgettable journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a crowded and muddy Malaysian refugee camp, and onward to a new life in Quebec. There, the young girl, feels the embrace of a new community.

As an adult, the waters become rough again: now a mother of two, she must learn to shape her love around the younger boy’s autism. Moving seamlessly from past to present, from history to memory and back again, Ru is a novel that celebrated life in all its wonder: its moments of beauty and sensuality, brutality and sorrow, comfort and comedy.

I found myself wondering how younger readers will experience the world that Ru depicts.  The Fall of Saigon in 1975 is now nearly half a century ago.  Readers my age saw the war on the nightly TV news, we saw the evacuation of civilians and military personnel, and we witnessed the arrival of thousands of refugees who spread to the four corners of the earth.  We heard their stories, and we saw them settle among us and rebuild their lives.  Teachers like me saw their children overcome the language hurdles and achieve remarkable academic results, and the expectation that these children would enter the professions became a bit of a problem in some cases when children wanted to go their own way in different directions.

Younger readers for whom all this is ancient history and who see the thriving Vietnamese communities in our cities, will probably find Ru to be revelatory.

Australia’s attitude to refugees are a mystery to me, but as I realised from reading Where the Water Ends by Zole Holman Fortress Europe is heading in the same direction.  Would reading Ru change any hearts and minds?  I don’t know.

Author: Kim Thúy
Title: Ru
Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Publisher: The Clerkenwell Press, an imprint of Profile Books, 2012, first published 2009.
ISBN: 9781846685484, pbk., 153 pages
Source: Opshop Find from the Puffing Billy Railway shop in Gembrook in 2018.


  1. So much information in all of those books you’ve read.🤠🐧❤


    • Yes, I’ve been round the world!


  2. Congratulations on your WIT achievement. Makes me intrigued to see what my stats are like.

    As to Ru, I read this one years ago. I remember thinking it was a beautiful book, almost like a poem, but yet I felt strangely unmoved by it.


    • I thought the writing, the structure, the way the book was framed was beautiful, but it was a bit sentimental for me.
      PS I bet if you tag or categorise yours, you’ll have more than me!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow… 100… that’s fantastic!


  4. I like that phrase about reading to an agenda – I can’t and don’t do that, but I really do try to read more by women and more in translation. I always love to hear about your choices – you do read widely. If I kept better records I would try to do some stats myself!!


    • I like to “keep up”, basically because it enriches me, and so I’m grateful to those who do “have an agenda” because they can steer towards interesting choices, but I want my reading to be varied and above all interesting. For me, a steady diet of anything is boring!
      Re the records, If you scroll through my categories list, you’ll see that it gives the number of posts in that category and it’s really there to help me. I doubt that anyone else uses it much at all (though there was once an author who was looking for novels in a particular setting…)
      All I did in the way of record keeping for this was to tag anything I read for #WITmonth and to tick the box in my Women in Translation category (because the two are different, since I read WIT during the year as well.) WordPress does the rest, though I did go through old posts to tag/categorise those early ones. I just did a few every day until they were all done.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thuy has such a gift with spare and powerful prose. Ru was my first of hers too. Her most recent makes a lovely bookend for this one (not to minimize it) but I do love Man.
    There’s been a lot of talk/media about how the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in recent weeks is, for Americans, “this generation’s Vietnam”. Doesn’t say much for how much was learned over the decades.


    • Twenty years ago we were on a plane to Paris which was rerouted away from its flight path over Afghanistan because the US had started their attack, and I said to The Spouse that they would never win. I had been teaching Afghan refugees who told me more about their country than anything I read elsewhere, and I knew then that it would be another Vietnam.
      I don’t know who advises the US on its foreign policy but they’d have done better to listen to the kids…


  6. Hi Lisa, I read Ru yesterday, and I did find it quite moving and effective. I am catching up with your translated novels that you have blogged.


    • That’s great:) Do you have any trouble sourcing them from the library?


  7. Hi Lisa, my library is very good, and is able to obtain books that they do not have from other libraries in Victoria. I have been able to borrow most of the books that I have requested.


    • That’s great, I love that our libraries are all connected like this.


  8. […] (375) and how over time I’ve improved the ratio of male to female writers in translation (see here) but then I remembered that the real heroes of TF are Stu at Winston’s Dad and Meytal […]


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