Along with her parents, Kim Thúy fled Vietnam for Canada in the late 1970s. The lawyer, translator, food journalist and bestselling author is now an unmistakable voice in Canada’s literary scene. In mid-February, she met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
by Kathrin Grün, translation Tim Schroder
What Kim Thúy remembers about her arrival in Canada over 40 years ago is that all of Québec turned out to welcome the boat people. She was 10 years old at the time, and the welcoming committee seemed to be made up of giants. The shock the newcomers experienced was considerable as Canadians greeted them warmly and with open arms. “We arrived from a refugee camp, we had infections everywhere, and they did not for one second hesitate to pick us up and hold us. In the camp we didn’t have access to water or electricity. There were no mirrors, and the first time I saw myself again was in the eyes of these people. They looked at us as if we were treasures falling from the sky. I have never seen myself as so beautiful as in that moment”, the 51-year-old author recalls, speaking in the café at Munich’s Literaturhaus. That was the moment she became a Canadian, Thúy says. She describes this time of upheaval in her much acclaimed first novel Ru.
Canada’s welcoming thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s was made possible by a new program of private sponsorship initiated by the Canadian government, one that resulted in unprecedented engagement by civil society. It also marked a turning point in the country’s attitude towards refugees. As a result, the people of Canada were recognized with the UN’s Nansen Refugee Award. It is the only time that the entire population of a country has been collectively honoured with this award — for outstanding service to the cause of refugees.
Justin Trudeau, who was elected Canada’s prime minister in 2015, recalls the newly formed government’s plans to accept refugees from Syria. According to Trudeau, processes and procedures were considered that had been developed as the boat people were arriving in the 1980s. “It reminded us that welcoming people is a challenge, but one that ends up ideally, and historically, deeply enriching a society”, he says.
In recent years, the Munich Security Conference has included a space for literature. And as the “Literature meets politics” series clearly shows, writers and policy makers have a lot to say — including to each other. The talks explore the ways “literature can add to a society’s security and stability”, as the programme description states. Authors are invited to speak about how politics affects what they write, but also about “the contribution politics can make to their work”. Since 2018, literary voices representing the country appearing as Guest of Honour at Frankfurter Buchmesse (14–18 October 2020) have been part of the programme. Following Georgian authors Zurab Karumidze, Alexander Kartozia and Aka Morchiladze (MSC 2018), and Norwegian writer Asne Seierstad (MSC 2019), this year’s guest in Munich was Franco-Canadian writer Kim Thúy.
Talking to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Thúy explains what Canada means to her personally: that she, as a Vietnamese immigrant, is able to represent the country. Some 35 years after her arrival in Canada, she visited Malaysia again — not as a political refugee, but as an official representative of the Canadian government. It was a moment that filled her with immense pride, Thúy says.