Writer, Speaker and Entrepreneur
In Pho Viet, a small Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal, Kim Thúy has already struck up an animated conversation with the business’s owners, her childhood friends Mai and Lan, before starting our interview. Those who have heard her on various media platforms will be familiar with the author’s radiant personality and joie de vivre, which are fully in evidence here. She’s wearing clothes in shades of red and pink, reflecting the energy she puts into multiple projects that she’s pursuing at the same time. While believing in the importance of pushing your limits, she notes with unnecessary modesty, “I never believed I had the ability to become a writer.”
A creative force and highly inquisitive person, Kim was born in September 1968 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She was immersed in the French language at the age of ten, after making a new home in the small city of Granby, Quebec with her parents and two brothers.
“I fell in love with the people who welcomed us there,” she says. “I remember the food and gifts we received, but most of all, I vividly recall the feeling of human warmth.”
After a dangerous journey on a fishing boat drifting through the South China Sea, followed by an enforced stay of five months in a Malaysian refugee camp, the Thúy family, like millions of other boat people, was taken in by a new community concerned about their welfare.
“As you can imagine, after months of starvation, a one-litre ration of water per day, lice and scabies, none of us looked very attractive! The welcome we received in Granby, in Quebec, gave purpose to our existence. Canada gave me back my life, opening up a host of possibilities,” she recalls.
The long migratory journey and her life in Canada are recounted in Ru (Libres Expressions, 2009), a notable work by the author that has been translated into 28 languages. Kim draws a parallel between her extraordinary voyage of resilience and the human race’s remarkable capacity for adaptation. “For many days, both at sea and in the camp, we spent all day gathering food and finding water,” she notes.
This capacity for survival was manifested in another way when her father and mother had to feed the family following their arrival in Quebec on March 27, 1979. Her father, a former philosophy professor and member of parliament for the opposition party in Vietnam, took any job he could find. “He was a doorman, a pizza delivery man, a restaurant employee and a factory worker, while my mother worked as a cleaning lady and a seamstress,” Kim recounts. Thanks to his determination, her father eventually became an aviation technician at Pratt & Whitney Canada in Longueuil, a position he held for over 20 years.
His persistence and commitment are qualities shared by his writer daughter. Kim has authored nine books, which have been published around the world, selling over 850,000 copies. She has received numerous awards and honours, including the Governor General’s Award for French-Language Fiction in 2010, Canada’s Giller Prize in 2012 and knighthood in the National Order of Quebec in 2015.
Her sincerity and humility are apparent in the interviews given to national and international media by the author, who holds degrees in translation (1990) and law (1992) from the Université de Montréal. Passionate about her work, Kim’s career as a writer took off with the appearance of her first bestseller in 2009. “Writing, which at that time was a form of escape and revitalization, was part of my life long before I started publishing,” she remarks. Her enthusiasm for mastering the art of storytelling was initially pursued on a very small scale: “I wrote everywhere, in the car, in the kitchen, on scraps of paper.” Her positive, humorous view of everyday life and the challenges people face is combined with tremendous personal energy. “While the children were sleeping, I could write until late at night,” she notes. These are the words of someone who doesn’t sleep much—only four hours a night, according to Kim.
Her early professional experiences were shaped by her spirit of adventure, intellectual rigour and creativity. Kim was a lawyer with the firm Stikeman-Elliott in Hanoi until 1998, an agent at the Canadian Consulate in Saigon for one year and then the owner-chef of the restaurant Ru de Nam, in the Atwater area of Montreal, from 2002 to 2007. Practicing law no doubt helped her develop the judgment and subtle analysis for which she is known, as well as her ability to examine social issues.
On another note, since food occupies an important role in the lives of Vietnamese families, it’s a recurring theme in many of her works and the main subject of Le secret des vietnamiennes (Trécarré, 2017; translated as Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen). On top of this, the author and gourmet also appears on TV, where she welcomes public figures to her dining table.
Asked about the tensions and divisions observed in Canadian society with respect to political ideologies, social priorities and development priorities, she mentions her belief in progressive values and public policy and in the principle of supporting disadvantaged groups.
“The plurality of values expressed by different political parties, the plurality of viewpoints in the democratic arena and, finally, the acceptance of compromise are excellent safeguards against the division of the country,” she says.
Based on her knowledge of Canada and the influence of the leaders she has met, she does not hesitate in identifying the values that define the country: “Helping each other is part of Canada’s DNA, as are generosity and the provision of social and health services.” As examples, she mentions programs that support students in disadvantaged areas by providing them with breakfast as well as measures taken by public authorities to make it easier for people in wheelchairs to get around.
“The strength of the social safety net available to all citizens may also be seen in the sophistication of the country’s right to bankruptcy. This gives a second chance to those who try to develop a business, experience failure and want to get back out there,” she comments.
On a sombre note, the author denounces the way Canada and its institutions have treated Indigenous peoples. “Those who had occupied the country for thousands of years were subjected to the horrors of colonization—the imposition of rules by white society, the enforced use of a single language and the eradication of their cultures. Until just a few decades ago, it was terrible to hear the authorities say that Indigenous peoples had no culture and their language was primitive. These peoples are also deserving of respect and generosity, which remain at the heart of Canada’s values,” observes Kim.
As a mother of two children (a 22-year-old university student and a 20-year-old with autism), she preaches listening, empathy and tolerance as basic rules for society. She adds, “The value of hard work is taught by sharing life experiences with young people as well as making an effort to stimulate their intellectual curiosity.”
Asked about her advice for youth, she suggests the following: “Seek out experiences, take advantage of all the learning opportunities offered to you, recognize that challenges can also become opportunities to become stronger and more flexible, and love your neighbour, which means recognizing the beauty in others.”