For five years, from 2002 until 2007, Kim Thúy owned and operated a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal with a menu consisting of a single daily special. The kitchen was cramped, the heat relentless, and Thúy, a former attorney who is five feet tall, frequently suffered burns.
“I open this restaurant and I realize I didn’t know how to cook,” she says now. “So I could offer only one meal a day, one dish. You come in and you can order whatever I learned the night before from my mom.”
Nevertheless, “without the restaurant, I wouldn’t have this book,” she adds. “Because the person who took the manuscript to the publisher was one of the customers who became a friend.”
Thúy is referring to her newly released sophomore novel, Mãn, which traces the trajectory of its eponymous heroine, a Vietnamese chef in Montreal, and her affair with a married chef in Paris. Originally published in French in 2013, the slender volume considers “the different ways to express our love to another person” and uses food to broach identity, inheritance, and fulfillment by degrees.
“In Asian culture, we don’t necessarily verbalize our love or our affection for the people around us,” Thúy says to the Straight from a Toronto hotel. “And so our best way to do it is through food.”
Wanting “to interpret that quiet love”, she was also inspired by the emotion behind “this story my aunt has been telling for as long as I’ve lived”. Decades ago, in Vietnam, a young soldier fell in love with Thúy’s aunt and presented her with one of his dog tags; only 16 years old at the time, she refused the gift, aware that “the meaning was so big that she couldn’t accept it.”
“I thought that story was so great because it talked about the historical situation, the social codes, and the ways to love,” Thúy says. “Do you love more with a dog tag? Is that love more meaningful, more significant, more profound than a love which you express with a ticket to a concert?”
After the publication of Ru, her 2009 debut novel, Thúy became an international literary sensation. Based on her escape from Vietnam at age 10 and subsequent settlement in Canada, the book won numerous accolades, including the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction, France’s 2010 Grand Prix RTL-Lire, and Italy’s 2011 Mondello Prize for Multiculturalism. Translated into English three years later, the novel, with its silvery lyricism and humour, reached a wider audience and emerged a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for translation and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
“Rationally, in my head, I know that people have seen my face a lot,” she says, noting she has been recognized while buying furniture and awaiting flights. “But, emotionally, I don’t know, right? And I’m surprised every time.”
Though she speaks three languages—French, Vietnamese, and English—Thúy favours French for writing fiction. The renowned Sheila Fischman handles her English translations. “She said my books are very silent, apparently. I’m very loud,” Thúy says, laughing, “but the books are quiet.”
Material written in airports and hotel rooms around the world coalesced into the current novel over some four months Thúy spent focused at her desk. Each day she reread the text in its entirety, revising as she went along, because “if I change one paragraph, I have to change the whole thing.”
“It’s really knitted—one piece to the other—and the equilibrium is very fragile,” she says. “Every sentence is rewritten a thousand times, or tens and tens of times, before I can feel the rhythm of it.”
The adopted daughter of a spy, Mãn leaves Vietnam for a tepid arranged marriage to a Montreal restaurateur. It is an irony that her name means “perfectly fulfilled”, since her own wishes remain mute and she passes her days satisfying the needs of others at home and at the restaurant.
Thúy remarks that “because I’ve had many people who have carried me from one stepping-stone to the other” she has an affinity for Julie, a woman who befriends Mãn and helps her establish a successful culinary career. On a promotional trip to Paris for her cookbook, Mãn meets Luc, a family man and fellow chef, and finds herself gripped by their instant chemistry.
“My movements had always been dictated by the humdrum life of every day, by Maman’s missions, by impossibilities and possibilities,” Mãn reflects. “Like her, I had never chosen one particular goal. Yet somehow here I was seated once again on an airplane taking me towards a precise destination, planned, desired, and most of all towards a person who was waiting for me, who would welcome me, take me in.”
Mãn’s struggle to reconcile the happiness of this clandestine romance with the happiness of those closest to her provides the novel’s conflict. “Sometimes, if you think about others more than yourself, it takes a lot of strength,” Thúy says. “We often see sacrifices or obligations as a weakness, but I think it’s the contrary. And I wanted to show that.”
In conversation, Thúy is warm and self-deprecating, yet, like her prose, there are deep reserves beneath the mirth. These pages demonstrate superb control of style and substance and artfully convey the lasting sustenance gained from fleeting fulfillment.
“It’s a lot about restraint,” Thúy says. “It’s a lot about how to endure pain. That gives you the strength that you need to go through life.”
Kim Thúy appears twice—on October 25 and 26—at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest. See the Vancouver writers Fest website for details.