Miguel Antonio N. Lizada reviews Kim Thúy’s tangled, inspiring meditation on love.
Kim Thúy, Em, translated by Sheila Fischman (Random House, 2021), 160 pp.
Told through a series of lyrical vignettes, Kim Thúy’s Em is both a novel about war and a story of survival. Set during and in the aftermath of the American-Vietnam War, it is an intertwined narrative of survivors, of coolies and farmers emerging from the rice paddies where bullets mix with the seasonal harvest of grains; of abandoned children with neither name nor parents, skilfully and strategically navigating the tight urban corridors of a Saigon on the verge of socio-political collapse and reconstruction; of American soldiers who decades after evacuation awaken in the middle of the night, still inhaling the toxic gas of trauma and guilt.
It is also a story of love. Love, in this respect, is not the romantic kind. It is rather a radical one, transformative in its ability to form new possibilities and life-giving in its capacity to resuscitate hope. In some moments, such forms of love play the long game. Committed and sustained, they form into structures from which hope and new beginnings can emerge: families adopting orphans, a young boy protecting an abandoned foundling, missionaries risking life and limb to save refugee children. But love, as Thúy reminds us, may also be transitory, found in a fleeting act of kindness from a stranger or a split-second decision of an American soldier to prioritize basic humanity over hierarchical compliance. Thúy privileges neither the prolonged nor the fleeting kinds of love.
Linking these themes of survival and love is a creative meditation on connections. Near the novel’s close, a work of art by the Quebec artist Louis Boudrealt interrupts the sequence of vignettes: on the top left, the word “em” is caught in a tangle of threads webbing out from a partially opened box below. This is not the first time the reader would encounter the word “em.” An epigraph at the beginning of the novel tells the reader:
The word em refers to
the little brother or little sister in a family;
or the younger of two friends;
or the woman in a couple.
I like to think that the word em is the homonym
of the verb aimer, “to love,” in French,
in the imperative: aime.
The epigraph, with its linguistic play and assertion of “em’s” multiple meanings, not only illustrates Thúy’s dynamic identity as a Vietnamese-Canadian diasporic subject, but also introduces her creative meditation on war, trauma, and violence. Later as also implied by the threads of Boudrealt’s artwork, a central thesis of the novel emerges: things are never fixed, but ever flowing. “Enemies” from opposite sides of the rubber tree plantation can turn into lovers; a singular act of care can circle back to a lifetime of intimacy; violence wounds, wounds heal, scar over and reopen, traumas surface and recur, suffering bleeds into closure, and through it all life continues. In Em, these fluidities, though sometimes painful, are always graceful. Most importantly, they circulate through grooves worn out by radical love. Love, even if it emerges from the briefest recognition of shared humanity generates cascades of possibilities.
Boudrealt’s artwork functions as a visual representation not only of Thúy’s treatise on humanity but also of the narrative style she employs, and ultimately, the political statement articulated by her creative strategy. Just as how a singular act of kindness or cruelty can rechart the coordinates of one’s life, Thúy’s vignette style is a game of tag where a reference to one character or event plays into a whole new narrative focus. At the novel’s opening for instance, a brief,poetic historicization on the role of rubber in colonial trade and warfare leads to the story of Alexandre, a French supervisor of a rubber tree plantation who falls in love with his would-be assassin, Mai. The novel interrupts the encounter with a short explication on the formation of coolie identities and communities before returning to the burgeoning though short-lived romance between colonizer and native. Soon after the birth of their daughter, Tam, both Alexandre and Mai become casualties of war, and the narrative again shifts its focus, to the nanny who raises the orphaned Tam.
With this constant movement, Em does not identify a protagonist in the conventional sense. While some time and effort is devoted to certain characters, the novel’s true protagonist is the human spirit and its capacity to love and endure. Throughout, it is the Vietnamese people, diasporic or at home, who are offered as the avatars of this spirit. Such positioning however is not presented in a romanticized, monolithic way. An example is the story of Louis, a young boy abandoned by his American soldier father, which condemns the wartime atrocities that initiate his painful bildungsroman and celebrates his transformation from an evacuee to a successful globetrotting entrepreneur in the nail polish industry.
If the multiple threads that weave the novel’s primary conceit form an embroidery of brief or prolonged connections between different characters’ stories, they also illustrate the intimate and dynamic relationship between “history” and fiction. As in other Asian diasporic novels, Em interfaces actual historical figures with its fictional characters. Louis sleeps on the pews of a cathedral that will later on be visited by Madame Nhu. Later, alongside the activist Naomi Bronstein, Louis, Em, and other children successfully evacuate Saigon in Operation Babylift.
Rather than presenting a smooth and structured narration, Thúy preserves the rough textures and knots (as metaphorized in Boudrealt’s work) of her material, highlighting the complexities if not impossibilities of coming to terms with the entanglements of memory, history, and imagination. It is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s assertion in Imaginary Homelands : “The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed.” Yet whereas Rushdie’s broken mirror suggests that we see the world in fragments rather than as a coherent whole, for Thúy the warp and weft of memory and meaning-making illustrates how the process of memorializing is an entangled communal endeavor. This communal effort brought about by diasporic conditions is not a steady exodus towards a promised land with utopian notions of unity and univocal memory. It is a series of sustained efforts marked by strife, reconciliation, interrogations, compromise, metaphysical skirmishes, and truces.
What end does such memorialization serve? At the novel’s close, Thúy recalls the 1954 Geneva Accords which led to the crumbling of the French Empire in Southeast Asia and resulted in the carving up of the territory and the people of Vietnam for the political benefit of the world’s super powers. This final vignette, from which the novel’s key characters (fictional or otherwise) are notably absent, articulates the stakes if not the urgency of such postcolonial creative endeavors. History, as the cliché goes, is written by the victors. If the last act in the theatre of war is always a treaty, it can never establish a clean and clear border between victors and losers, and Em highlights that who has won and who lost is also a matter of debate. Military victors might experience a loss greater than the value of the war chest, whilst those whose lands and homes are now occupied may yet emerge scathed but renewed. The novel’s final vignette reminds us to remember voices that have been lost or silenced. In a Janus-faced way, it speaks back to the earlier vignettes and in doing so, highlights the novel’s close, the reason beneath their chaotic strands of fiction and memory.
This profound meditation is clothed in elegant, sensual, blending of prose with poetry. In this translation, Sheila Fischman has endeavored to bring Thúy’s poetic worldview to English language readers. With a palette of poetic devices, Thúy harnesses the poets’ ability to energize the power of the image to generate new visions of the world. Fischman’s translation preserves Thúy’s defamiliarizing style, a style that is simultaneously pleasurable, unsettling, and visceral. A fine example of this creative strategy is the vivid and heartbreaking description of the generational effects of Operation Orange:
Today, forty-five years later, those children’s children’s countless grave congenital deformities confirm the power of humans to mutate genes, to alter nature, to hoist themselves to the rank of gods. We have the power to generate a face that is halfway melted; to grow a second skull larger than the first; to coax eyes out of their sockets; to empty the soul of its breath of life by pouring down tanks of liquid pink as flowers, white as nonchalance, purple as purple hearts, green as leaves under the monsoon rains, and blue as the boundless sky. (136-137)
With its lyrical storytelling, Em is a fitting novel for our times. Its poetic vision on the radicalizing potential of love and human connection in the reclamation of memory and metaphysical space will resonate with the readers in a world where so many have experienced isolation and enforced absences. The restrictions brought about by quarantines and travel bans have increased this number, but here I speak also of victims of violent displacement and of the political and military battles that occur and recur in the world. To see the world not in islands or continents, but in threads that spool out in unpredictable directions is a reminder of both our place and complicity in the scheme of things. What is left is not a conclusion but an invitation to carry out the radicalizing act invoked by Thúy’s translinguistic play on the word em: love.
Miguel Antonio Lizada is a Lecturer in the Department of English at The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. His research areas are Asian literatures in English, Asian popular culture, and queer politics in postcolonial contexts. He is also a creative writer. His creative works have been anthologized in various literary volumes, including Mindanao Harvest 4: A 21st Century Literary Anthology.