LONGLISTED FOR THE 2021 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
Kim Thúy's Em is a virtuosic novel of profound power and sensitivity, and an enduring affirmation of the greatest act of resistance: love.
In the midst of war, an ordinary miracle: an abandoned baby tenderly cared for by a young boy living on the streets of Saigon. The boy is Louis, the child of a long-gone American soldier. Louis calls the baby em H?ng, em meaning "little sister," or "beloved." Even though her cradle is nothing more than a cardboard box, em H?ng's life holds every possibility.
Through the linked destinies of a family of characters, the novel takes its inspiration from historical events, including Operation Babylift, which evacuated thousands of biracial orphans from Saigon in April 1975, and the remarkable growth of the nail salon industry, dominated by Vietnamese expatriates all over the world. From the rubber plantations of Indochina to the massacre at My Lai, Kim Thúy sifts through the layers of pain and trauma in stories we thought we knew, revealing transcendent moments of grace, and the invincibility of the human spirit.
About the authors
- Long-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
- Nominated, Grand Prix du livre de Montreal
Born in Saigon in 1968, KIM THÚY left Vietnam with the boat people at the age of ten and settled with her family in Quebec. A graduate in translation and law, she has worked as a seamstress, interpreter, lawyer, restaurant owner, media personality and television host. She lives in Montreal and devotes herself to writing.
Kim Thúy has received many awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2010, and was one of the top 4 finalists of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018. Her books have sold more than 850,000 copies around the world and have been translated into 29 languages and distributed across 40 countries and territories.
SHEILA FISCHMAN is the award-winning translator of some 200 contemporary novels from Quebec. In 2008 she was awarded the Molson Prize in the Arts. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a chevalier of the Ordre national du Québec. She lives in Montreal.
Excerpt: Em (by (author) Kim Thúy; translated by Sheila Fischman)
Another little boy born with no name. The manioc seller, with her orange, blue, and white sweet potatoes, gave him a sheet of transparent plastic to protect him from the rain. She called him m? den, or “Black American.” The barber who hung his mirror on the rusted nail on a tree every morning for decades preferred to call him con lai, “half-breed child,” and sometimes simply den. The woman who every night had to add twigs to her broom to clean the sidewalk breastfed Louis at the same time as her own baby, whose complexion was almost the same. This nursing mother did not give him a name, because she was born mute; or perhaps she became so after having played dead in order to survive a routine visit to her village; or perhaps she lost her power of speech when her son was born, the colour of his body the same as the charred bodies of her mother and cousins. No one knew, because no one asked. That’s how it was in this corner of the world, at this corner of the sidewalk.
One afternoon, on this same sidewalk, a young woman coming out of a bar left the door ajar long enough for a lingering goodbye kiss with her American soldier, who could have been, at nineteen or twenty, with his first lover. The music from inside flooded the space all the way into the street, where the local rickshaw driver was parked. The driver didn’t know all the soldiers who spent time in this bar, but he could predict the consequences of every languorous embrace. He had many times ferried these young girls to those older women who knew how to do away with the traces of those short-lived romances. Sometimes it was the young girls themselves who had to abandon the dance floor and the bar long enough to bring a child into the world.
Louis was not the first baby to turn up at the foot of the tamarinds, like a ripe fruit fallen from the tree or a seedling pushing up from the earth. No one was surprised, then. Some took care of him, giving him a cardboard box, rice water, clothing. In the street, the older children adopted the younger ones as the days passed, creating fleeting families.
You had to wait until the child’s personality asserted itself before choosing a name. Sometimes the children were identified by a nickname: con què (“crippled leg girl”) or th?ng th?o (“scar boy”). In the case of Louis, it was thanks to Louis Armstrong’s voice that often escaped from the half-open bar door after the noon siesta.
The rickshaw driver was happy to have had this bright idea, to have made the connection between Armstrong’s dark skin and Louis’s. Perhaps in that way he wanted to encourage Louis to imagine the softness of the clouds of white despite the heat of the concrete under his behind, to smell the perfume of red roses and not the odour of his own urine, to see the colours of the rainbow when the mosquitoes sang too loudly around his head, when he was chased away by the broom along with the trash, when he salivated in front of people noisily slurping their boiling hot noodles to cool them off just a little, just enough. All to the rhythm of the music of this wonderful world.
By the age of six or seven, Louis had already mastered the art of thrusting a long hook through the wrought iron grilles on windows to pull out a fried fish, a ring, a wallet. When his hands brushed the pockets of passersby, bills flew out as fast as a wingbeat. From the beginning, he could identify in the blink of an eye someone’s tim den, the seat of desire and weakness.
The mother who had nursed him had wanted to keep him alive to rent him out to professional beggars. A soft-limbed baby conferred a nobly maternal air on the outstretched hand of a woman in rags. As well, the wild eyes, blank face, and dusty cheeks of a malnourished infant incited people to act as the righters of wrongs.
Louis could differentiate the perfumes of his mothers-for-a-day. The one who rummaged in the corner garbage heaps smelled of life brought to the boil and the sum of the neighbourhood residents’ secrets. The lottery ticket seller gave off a smell of damp earth, while the water carrier exuded coolness. When Louis was old enough to walk, he accompanied a blind singer who, with the aid of a portable tape recorder, played dramatic excerpts from traditional musical comedies. Louis soon learned that the more the speaker crackled, the sooner the people dropped their money into his plastic bucket.
His mothers taught Louis how to roam the street’s kiosks to gather up what was left in the bowls before their owners could chase him away. Some clients left, on purpose or absent-mindedly, a slice of meat at the bottom of their soup. Others, out of embarrassment, preferred to toss a bone and its marrow on the ground for a stray dog to pick up, rather than offer it to Louis. Some would drop a paper napkin into what was left of their soup, under the famished eyes of the beggars. Often, those clients found that their dishes did not arrive quickly enough or that their ph? lacked cinnamon or smelled too strongly of star anise.
In the course of stalking and seeking out leftovers, Louis learned to read the customers’ personalities. He guessed who warmed their taste buds with powerful chili pepper so that their tongues could spit words of fire at their unfaithful spouses. He could distinguish which drops of sweat on the side of a face were caused by hot broth, and which were incited by nervousness. Louis knew that drumming fingers were sending messages. In that case, it was better to distance oneself from those coded conversations, because in a conflict zone, innocence was no excuse once one had attained the age of reason. At the age of seven, you start to be able to tell good from evil, justice from a dream, deeds from intentions. At seven, you can show up at a terrace full of soldiers to clean their boots still spattered with blood, or to set off a grenade, depending on what the adults have commanded. At seven, you’re supposed to have emerged from your Oedipal phase, a stage utterly removed from Louis’s development. In any case, Louis’s age varied depending on the patchy memories of the neighbourhood beggars.
“Expertly handled by her long-time translator, Sheila Fischman, the text juxtaposes horror and beauty to lasting effect. The prose is poised and elegant even when describing atrocity. . . . This is Thúy’s most ambitious and affecting book yet. Both sprawling and intimate, Em amplifies her storytelling and is a moving memorial to survivors and those who perished alike.” —Quill & Quire, starred review
“A work of visual and literary art at once. . . . A brief, moving meditation on the nature of truth, memory, humanity, and violence: a powerful work of art.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Em may be [Kim Thúy’s] finest yet. More assured in her writing and less concerned about blurring the boundary between factual and fictional truth, Thúy is mesmerizing in this tale." —Maclean’s
“Just like tender, strong and graceful Vietnamese silk threads, Kim Thúy masterfully weaves us through Vietnam’s twentieth-century history while binding us to the lives of its people so that their experiences expand our worldview. Em is an original, innovative, poetic and haunting novel that deserves to be read, shared, studied and discussed.” —Nguy?n Phan Qu? Mai, author of The Mountains Sing