In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively,
a flow, a discharge—of tears, of blood, of money.
In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.
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 Tịnh, my mother's
name is Nguyen An Tınh. 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.
From Ru by Kim Thuy. English translation copyright 2012 by Sheila Fischman. Excerpted by permission of Random House of Canada Limited.