About the Author

Kim Thúy

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Le Québec en train

Le Québec en train

Cinq parcours mythiques racontés par des écrivains
tagged : rail travel
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Maman and I don’t look like one another. She is short, I am tall. Her complexion is dark, my skin is like a French doll’s. She has a hole in her calf and I have a hole in my heart.

My first mother, the one who conceived me and gave birth to me, had a hole in her head. She was a young adult or maybe still a little girl, for no Vietnamese woman would have dared carry a child unless she had a ring on her finger.

My second mother, the one who plucked me out of a vegetable garden among the okra, had a hole in her faith. She no longer believed in people, especially when they talked. And so she retired to a straw hut, far from the powerful arms of the Mekong, to recite prayers in Sanskrit.

My third mother, the one who watched me attempt my first steps, became Maman, my Maman. That morning, she wanted to open her arms again. And so she opened the shutters in her bedroom, which until that day had always been closed. In the distance, in the warm light, she saw me, and I became her daughter. She gave me a second birth by bringing me up in a big city, an anonymous elsewhere, behind a schoolyard, surrounded by children who envied me for having a mother who taught school and sold iced bananas.

Very early every morning, before classes started, we went grocery shopping. We started with the woman who sold ripe coconuts, rich in flesh and poor in juice. The lady grated the first half-coconut with the cap of a soft drink bottle nailed to the end of a flat stick. Long strips fell in a decorative frieze, like ribbons, on the banana leaf spread out on the stall. The merchant talked non-stop and kept asking Maman the same question: “What do you feed that child to give her such red lips?” To avoid that question, I got in the habit of pressing my lips together, but I was so fascinated by how quickly she grated the second half that I always watched her with my mouth partly open. She set her foot on a long black metal spatula that had part of its handle sitting on a small wooden bench. Without looking at the pointed teeth at the rounded end of the spatula, she crumbled the nut at the speed of a machine.

The fall of the crumbs through the hole in the spatula must just resemble the flight of snowflakes in Santa Claus country, Maman always said, which was actually something her own mother would say. She spoke her mother’s words to hear her voice again. And whenever she saw boys playing soccer with an empty tin can, she couldn’t help but whisper londi, in her mother’s voice.

That was my first word of French: londi. In Vietnamese, lon means “tin can” and di, “to go away.” In French, the two sounds together create lundi in the ear of a Vietnamese woman. Following her own mother’s example, she taught me the French word by asking me to point to the tin can then kick it, saying lon di for lundi. So that second day of the week is the most beautiful of all for Maman because her mother died before teaching her how to pronounce the other days. Only lundi was associated with a clear, unforgettable image. The other six days were absent from any reference, therefore all alike. That’s why my mother often confused mardi with jeudi and sometimes reversed samedi and mercredi.

Before her mother died, though, she’d had time to learn how to extract the milk from a coconut by squeezing chunks of crumbled flesh saturated with hot water. When mothers taught their daughters how to cook, they spoke in hushed tones, whispering so that neighbours couldn’t steal recipes and possibly seduce their husbands with the same dishes. Culinary traditions are passed on secretly, like magic tricks between master and apprentice, one movement at a time, following the rhythms of each day. In the natural order, then, girls learned to measure the amount of water for cooking rice with the first joint of the index finger, to cut “vicious peppers” (o´t hiê?m) with the point of the knife to transform them into harmless flowers, to peel mangoes from base to stem so they won’t go against the direction of the fibres . . .

That was how I learned from my mother that of the dozens of kinds of bananas sold at the market, only the chuô´i xie^m could be flattened without being crushed and frozen without turning black. When I first came to Montreal, I prepared it as a treat for my husband, who hadn’t eaten it for twenty years. I wanted him to taste once again the typical marriage of peanuts and coconut, two ingredients that in south Vietnam are served as much at dessert as at breakfast. I hoped to be able to serve and be a companion to my husband without disturbing anything, a little like flavours that are hardly noticed because they are ever-present.

Maman entrusted me to this man out of motherly love, just as the nun, my second mother, had given me to her, thinking about my future. Because Maman was preparing for her death, knowing that one day she would no longer be around, she sought a husband for me who would have the qualities of a father. One of her friends, acting as matchmaker, brought him to visit us one afternoon. Maman asked me to serve the tea, that was all. I did not look at the face of the man even when I set the cup in front of him. My gaze wasn’t required, it was only his that mattered.

He had come from far away and didn’t have much time. Several families were waiting to introduce him to their daughters. He was from Saigon but had left Vietnam at twenty, as one of the boat people. He had spent several years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Montreal, where he’d found work but not exactly a home. He was one of those who had lived too long in Vietnam to become Canadian. And conversely, who have lived too long in Canada to be Vietnamese again.

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by Kim Thúy
translated by Sheila Fischman
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I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns.
I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.
I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

My name is Nguyen An T?nh, my mother’s name is Nguyen An Tinh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, dissociates me from her. I was an extension of her, even in the meaning of my name. In Vietnamese, hers means “peaceful environment” and mine “peaceful interior.” With those almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.
The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother’s plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange, and strange to the French language. In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.

Because of our exile, my children have never been extensions of me, of my history. Their names are Pascal and Henri, and they don’t look like me. They have hair that’s lighter in colour than mine, white skin, thick eyelashes. I did not experience the natural feelings of motherhood I’d expected when they were clamped onto my breasts at 3 a.m., in the middle of the night. The maternal instinct came to me much later, over the course of sleepless nights, dirty diapers, unexpected smiles, sudden delights.
Only then did I understand the love of the mother sitting across from me in the hold of our boat, the head of the baby in her arms covered with foul-smelling scabies. That image was before my eyes for days and maybe nights as well. The small bulb hanging from a wire attached to a rusty nail spread a feeble, unchanging light. Deep inside the boat there was no distinction between day and night. The constant illumination protected us from the vastness of the sea and the sky all around us. The people sitting on deck told us there was no boundary between the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea. No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging into the water’s depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the belly of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fear of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby’s head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents, who were sitting in the darkness surrounded by two hundred people.

Before our boat had weighed anchor in the middle of the night on the shores of Rach Gia, most of the passengers had just one fear: fear of the Communists, the reason for their flight. But as soon as the vessel was surrounded, encircled by the uniform blue horizon, fear was transformed into a hundred-faced monster who sawed off our legs and kept us from feeling the stiffness in our immobilized muscles. We were frozen in fear, by fear. We no longer closed our eyes when the scabious little boy’s pee sprayed us. We no longer pinched our noses against our neighbours’ vomit. We were numb, imprisoned by the shoulders of some, the legs of others, the fear of everyone. We were paralyzed.
The story of the little girl who was swallowed up by the sea after she’d lost her footing while walking along the edge spread through the foul-smelling belly of the boat like an anaesthetic or laughing gas, transforming the single bulb into a polar star and the biscuits soaked in motor oil into butter cookies. The taste of oil in our throats, on our tongues, in our heads sent us to sleep to the rhythm of the lullaby sung by the woman beside me.
My father had made plans, should our family be captured by Communists or pirates, to put us to sleep forever, like Sleeping Beauty, with cyanide pills. For a long time afterwards, I wanted to ask why he hadn’t thought of letting us choose, why he would have taken away our possibility of survival. I stopped asking myself that question when I became a mother, when Dr. Vinh, a highly regarded surgeon in Saigon, told me how he had put his five children, one after the other, from the boy of twelve to the little girl of five, alone, on five different boats, at five different times, to send them off to sea, far from the charges of the Communist authorities that hung over him. He was certain he would die in prison because he’d been accused of killing some Communist comrades by operating on them, even if they’d never set foot in his hospital. He hoped to save one, maybe two of his children by launching them in this fashion onto the sea. I met Dr. Vinh on the church steps, which he cleared of snow in the winter and swept in the summer to thank the priest who had acted as father to his children, bringing up all five, one after the other, until they were grown, until the doctor got out of prison.
I didn’t cry out and I didn’t weep when I was told that my son Henri was a prisoner in his own world, when it was confirmed that he is one of those children who don’t hear us, don’t speak to us, even though they’re neither deaf nor mute. He is also one of those children we must love from a distance, neither touching, nor kissing, nor smiling at them because every one of their senses would be assaulted by the odour of our skin, by the intensity of our voices, the texture of our hair, the throbbing of our hearts. Probably he’ll never call me maman lovingly, even if he can pronounce the word poire with all the roundness and sensuality of the oi sound. He will never understand why I cried when he smiled for the first time. He won’t know that, thanks to him, every spark of joy has become a blessing and that I will keep waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible. Already, I am defeated, stripped bare, beaten down.

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Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen

Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen

Simple Recipes from My Many Mothers
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From the Introduction

The moment you step inside a Vietnamese house, you are bombarded with variations on a single greeting: “Have you eaten?” “What would you like to eat?” “Come and eat.” “Just one little bite.” “The chicken I cooked is still hot.” “Here, try my cream puffs.”

We are not in the habit of verbalizing our joys, or even less, our affection. We use food as a tool for expressing our emotions. My parents don’t say, “We’ve missed you,” but rather, “We’ve made some spring rolls,” knowing that I love to eat them anytime, anywhere. Similarly, when I’m traveling abroad on a book tour, they will report that my sons had three helpings of everything, as a way to reassure me. On our visits to my grandmother in New York, my mother would stuff the trunk with her own mother’s favorite dishes. My father would laugh at her, but he still flies to Washington, D.C., and loads Vietnamese dishes into the trunk of the car that will take him to my uncle’s house in a remote part of Pennsylvania. That ninety-two-year-old uncle is my father’s older brother, who fed and housed him during my father’s time at university. My father considers him a father figure, and he tries to express his gratitude through the best sausage, the best lemongrass beef stew, the best steamed pancakes, the best sticky rice cake, and the best dried shrimp to be found in the Vietnamese markets.

In the refugee camps, my mother and Aunts 6 and 8 would do their best to transform the fish rations we’d receive six days out of seven in an effort to bring a semblance of normality to mealtimes. One day my mother was able to make a thin dough for dumplings. I remember very clearly how she was sitting on the ground with the cover of the barrel that we used as a water tank. She rolled out her dough on that rusty metal plate, which here and there still bore spots of its original yellow paint. The meal that followed was almost beside the point—we were just thrilled to see her cooking something other than rice and fish. It was a moment of togetherness, of celebration.

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CATINAT   WE LEFT VIETNAM with a close friend of my mother, Hà, and her parents.

Hà is much younger than my mother. At the beginning of the 1970s in Saigon, she was the perfect modern woman in the American style, with her very short dresses that showed off the slanted, heart-shaped birthmark high up on her left thigh. I remember her irresistible platform shoes in the hallway of our house, which struck me as decadent, or at least gave me a new perspective on the world when I slipped them on. Her false eyelashes thick with mascara transformed her eyes into two spiky-haired rambutans. She was our Twiggy, with her apple-green and turquoise eyeshadow, two colours that clashed with her coppery skin. She was unlike most of the young girls, who avoided the sun in order to set themselves apart from the peasants in the rice fields, who had to roll their pants up to their knees and endure the violent bright light. Hà bared her skin at the swimming pool of the very exclusive Cercle Sportif, where she gave me swimming lessons. She preferred American freedom to the elegance of French culture, which gave her the courage to participate in the first Miss Vietnam competition, even though she was an English teacher.

My mother did not approve of her choices, which went contrary to her status as a well-educated young woman from a good family. But she supported her by buying her the long dress and bathing suit that Hà would wear on stage. She had her practise walking in a straight line along the tiled floor, balancing a dictionaryon her head, as she’d seen women do in films. My mother treated her as if she were her big sister,and shielded her from gossip. She allowed Hà to takeme with her to the chic boutiques on rue Catinat, andto drink a lime soda with her foreign friends. Hàmarched along this street with its grand hotels like aproud conqueror. The city belonged to her. I wonderedwhether my mother envied her this ease thatcame from the compliments raining down on herfrom her teachers and her American colleagues. Thelatter celebrated her beauty with gifts of chocolate bars,hair curlers, and Louis Armstrong records, whereasthe Vietnamese looked on her dark complexion as“savage.” More than once, my grandparents asked mymother to halt my swimming lessons with Hà. I suspectthat my mother disobeyed them and kept Hàclose to us because she hoped I’d learn to be beautiful. Unfortunately, that time with Hà in Vietnam was tooshort—or my apprenticeship, too slow.

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New Ways of Understanding Autism

Chapter 1: Toward a Unifying Explanation of Autism

The picture that science paints of autism has changed radically over the past few years. But to fully understand these new discoveries, we need to be able to combine them with the lived experience of autistic people — an aim that science is gradually working toward.

We owe the description of classic autism to the Austrian psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who, in 1943, described autistic people as having two characteristics: aloneness (extreme solitude) and sameness (immutability, a desire to maintain permanence). The word “autism” had first been used in 1911, by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler: it comes from the Greek word autos, meaning “self.” According to Kanner, autism was an “innate” disorder.

In the 1980s, the British psychiatrist Lorna Wing proposed a definition of autism based on a trio of areas affected in autistic people: communication, interaction and stereotyped behaviour, and restricted interests.

In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM ), published by the American Psychiatric Association, established the following criteria to create a consistent international standard:

  • “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction”
  • “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”
  • symptoms that show up early in life;
  • symptoms that cause significant difficulties for daily life;

None of these traditional descriptions of seemingly antisocial or bizarre behaviours takes into account the point of view of an autistic person. We therefore needed a new perspective: an overview of the theoretical descriptions that also incorporates both the lived experience of the autistic individual and a broad range of professional expertise with the aim of adopting an entirely new vision of autism.

The predictions we made from this approach were borne out in practice. They allowed us to make sense of theories that had stood up for more than thirty years. But the classic definition and the proposed reframing rely on totally opposite aspects of physical reality. According to the French sociologist Brigitte Chamak, when autistic people talk about autism, they aren’t talking about the same things as neurotypical people. Most people discuss the specifics of perception, how information and emotions are dealt with. The most intuitive description given is, without a doubt, Temple Grandin’s. Grandin is an autistic American, a well-known professor of animal science. According to her, autistic people are visual thinkers.

Until the emergence of neuroscience and a more precise understanding of development (for example in babies), it was generally believed that we could acquire a comprehensive understanding of internal human function by observation — that observers would understand autistic people by watching their behaviour. However, the discoveries of recent years and the actual experiences of autistic people, including Temple Grandin and Brigitte Harrisson, indicate that this is not the case. The naive, popular concept of autism is incompatible with research in neuroscience and child development, as well as with the lived experience of autistic individuals.

In order to move beyond simplistic and compartmentalized ideas of autism, we consider the fact that several very different theories can explain a single phenomenon and all be equally valid. And if two theories interpret the same phenomenon, the observer will choose the one that suits him or her best. So people’s understandings of autism will differ based on their vision, role, and knowledge.

Throughout the history of autism, we have seen the emergence of models or theories of increasing quality, from Kanner to current neuroscience, via Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory of mind, Uta Frith’s concept of weak central coherence, and Sally Ozonoff’s notion of executive (dys)function. Because each of these models contains an important piece of the puzzle, it’s possible that we might one day come up with a broad theory of autism, one that will take into account all the developmental stages of the autistic brain and have predictive capacity. Even if we aren’t there yet, we do already have a coherent theory: the hypothesis of the internal function of autistic thought structure (Harrisson and St-Charles). We believe this is the only hypothesis that draws together all the necessary explanations in order to offer an overall description of autism; it therefore forms the basis of our reflections here. This is not, strictly speaking, a scientific theory, but rather a theory whose principles and observed phenomena are confirmed in current scientific research. Our theory of autism takes into account scientific literature, recent discoveries, treatment methods, and lived autistic experience. Our clinical approach has been effective for over ten years, regardless of the age of the autistic person, the extent to which he or she is affected, and whether or not other problems are also present. It also has a certain amount of predictive power.

More and more people know of the existence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which incorporates what were previously known as Asperger’s syndrome and classic autism. But knowing it exists doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what it actually is. We believe that the images currently associated with autism tend toward catastrophic scenarios.

People often describe autism in three main ways. They tell us that autism is a plague, an epidemic. They talk about bizarre behaviour and autistic meltdowns in a way that evokes outdated beliefs: autistic people are children off in their own worlds, banging their heads against a wall, never having relationships with others, but possibly gifted with exceptional talents. Finally, society condemns people to their autism before they have a chance to develop: they are thought to be unable to achieve independence, so people jump in to plan their lives and organize their future security.

Another phenomenon clouds the picture further. The media often emphasizes autistic meltdowns, as well as the Rain Man–like behaviour and abilities of some autistic people (who actually represent around 1 percent of those on the autism spectrum). Any autistic people who don’t have these traits then become non-autistic, or merely uninteresting, in the popular imagination. Worse still, if people can’t “see” autism, they don’t take it seriously.

Certain persistent autism taboos, along with the effects of stigmatization, might be the origin of two survival phenomena among friends and family of an autistic person, the “collateral carriers” of autism: either they rush to hide autistic behaviour to make the person’s condition invisible or, paralyzed with fear, they do nothing at all, which wastes precious time for the autistic person.

Such beliefs, of course, perpetuate a perception of autism as something to fear, and lead to unhealthy behaviour: instead of interacting with the autistic person, we talk to the people around them. This means others speak for the autistic person. We talk a lot about autism itself, about the suffering of parents and families, the challenges facing professionals, but we don’t talk enough about autistic people themselves. We don’t hear autistic voices.

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