What a fantastic weekend at the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity) Festival. Attending sessions on Friday and Sunday, it is great to know that the remaining events will be available on audible soon. The volunteers led by Jael Richardson did a fabulous job of coordinating a wonderful event full of enriching speakers and engaging panels, bringing together an audience that loves diverse literature. It was terrific to listen, learn and embrace the experiences of the authors, to attend with members of the CanadianContent Group on Goodreads (Kim, Srividya and Loretta) and a meet others who share a love of reading!
On Friday, we were awed by the Lunch n’ Lit with Kim Thuy, who was being interviewed by Catherine Hernandez (author of Scarborough). I had been hoping to meet Kim since reading Ru in 2009 and enjoyed her subsequent books, Man and Vi. Kim was a powerhouse of storytelling, sharing her experiences with enthusiasm and laughter. The audience was silent as she shared her experience travelling as one of the “boat people” from Vietnam at the age of 10. Prior to the trip she shared that she had been “born weak”, allergic to everything and scared of many things.
She did not offer details of the trip on the boat but somehow, this journey cured her of her allergies and built her strength. Her family collaborated with another family to make walls of used rice bags, forming a tent which 13 people shared, sleeping, pieced together like the shapes in the video game tetris. She spoke of her first meal in Malaysia – sardines and later the encouragement of her father to see the positive side of finding worms in their fish – that the family would be eating extra protein! It is hard to imagine living in a refugee camp yet she shares her story voicing the experience of many refugees today.
Her family was stateless when they were accepted by Canada. Since they spoke French, they were sent to Quebec. Before leaving, doctors checked each traveler in a public line up, pulling at her pants and assessing her gender. She still thinks of that indignity of this examination and has plans to speak to a group of doctors at an upcoming event. She takes her responsibility seriously and accepts opportunities to speak to her experience, speaking up for other refuges who may not have a voice.
She commented on the different perspectives on refugees, how some may think that her family had moved to Canada and took 13 jobs instead of seeing that her family had enriched Canada with 13 professionals contributing to this country. She noted that some may be unsure or afraid of refugees but how that they just need to get to know them, to have a conversation and to learn about their experiences. She described refugees as “super-heroes”, who had walked many kilometres and endured the “ultimate cross-fit” to survive. She described them as “stronger than strong” and I am thankful that she had shared her own story and that of others through her beautiful fiction. These stores help readers to understand the hardships and danger refugees experience and reflect on the hope, resilience and strength refugees bring to Canada.
It is hard to imagine Kim’s mother leaving her parents. She had begged her mother to allow her youngest brother to join her family, saving him from certain death in the minefields of Cambodia. Her grandfather had decide between certain death in the minefields versus sending him afloat, knowing he was likely to die either way, but hopeful that he would have a better life.
After struggling through a degree in linguistics, she continued her education, becoming a lawyer before writing Ru at the age of 40. Her latest book, Vi, was inspired by the strength of her cousin. She had fled Vietnam with her four children leaving her husband, who lacked the courage to escape, behind. She worked multiple jobs to rebuild a life for her family in Canada. In the days before the internet, Kim’s family had been reunited with this cousin after pouring over phone books at the library, searching for Vietnamese names which could be family.
Kim described the inspiration she gains from meeting people and hearing their stories. She has met many friends, by taking taxis, and she treasures the stories taxis drivers have shared. She met a driver from Cambodia on a trip to Paris, France. His father and brother had been killed right in front of their family. The brother’s only crime was that he wore glasses and looked like an intellectual. Each of his remaining siblings were sent off to different groups. At 16 years old, he was sent to work in a sweet potato field, being denied the ability to cooking surviving death for stealing potatoes by falling “dead” and covering himself in dirt. He lived in the jungle for 2 years with only his boxer shorts after his clothes were stolen. Years later, he was reunited with his mother in France. She remained in the same apartment until each of her remaining 7 children were reunited. These stories touch Kim and she is inspired to share them with others to understand the plight of refugees.
“Every person you meet will teach you something”
If you have not read Ru, Man or Vi, it is time! These stories are emotional tales of survivors who have fled terrible situations and started over in Canada. They are stories that should spark an interest in learning more about the history of refugees and make us think about how we can make a difference.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Kim as she signed my books. She clearly has many more stories to share! She mentioned that she enjoys joining book clubs in person or via Skype and since she often travels to Toronto, I am hopeful to arrange a book club dinner with her. It would be amazing to learn more about her life experiences and about her writing process!