“Ru is the story of Nguyễn An Tịnh’s journey from war torn Viet Nam to Québec in the 1970s. Based on the recollections of the author, Kim Thúy, it is told in sparse, poetic chapters. The novel shifts between her privileged upbringing and the subsequent political persecution of the family in Saigon, to her voyage as a boat person landing in a refugee camp and the early days of her settlement in Quebec.
A recent study showed that reading literary fiction enhances our ability to understand other people. When a reader is asked fill in the gaps of a story, this flexes the same psychological ‘muscles’ that are needed to navigate real relationships. By extension, I think that they are also the same empathetic skills that a person needs to understand political situations that may otherwise feel far removed. I don’t, however, need my reaction to Ru confirmed by science: The novel made me laugh and cry—and sometimes both at once.
It’s beautiful, funny, moving and sad. Long after reading it, I can still feel it lingering inside me. That is the beauty of Ru. It invites us into an experience through the senses. We can hear, smell, taste and feel how it might have been to be a boat person leaving Viet Nam. Through the main character, we can also cast a new eye on Canada. She shows the value of human rights and what they can mean to us on the most personal level.”
Ru Discussion questions from Claire
1. What do you think of the portrayal of immigration to Quebec in the 1970s in this book? How might the experience be similar or different in 2014?
2. The short chapters of this novel make it unique. What was your reaction to the structure? Did you find yourself making connections between the chapters?
3. This is a story of political oppression and the loss of human rights, but it is also funny. What is the purpose of humour in a tragic story? What does humour do for the main character? What does it do for you as a reader?
4. Although the narrator of Ru is a fictional character, the author has told the press that the experiences in book accurately reflect her own recollections. How does knowing more about an author’s life change your experience of reading their fiction?
5. If this book were presented as a non-fiction book that is based on fact, would your experience reading it change? Why do you think the author chose to call it a ‘novel’?
Amnesty Discussion Questions
1. The word ‘ru’ means a lullaby in Vietnamese and in French, a stream. How are these two meanings reflected in the book?
2. The narrator claims that in Vietnamese, there are different words for different ways of loving. How does the narrator’s love for her children differ from her feelings for her lovers, parents, relatives?
3. There is music in various situations throughout the book. Can you identify those circumstances? What is the role music plays in the book?
4. The American Dream plays a significant part in the narrator’s life. What does her version of it look like? Does she achieve it?
5. Movement is a constant theme in Ru. The narrator claims, “I never leave a place with more than one suitcase…nothing else can become truly mine”. What has led her to believe this? Is it true for her?