Kim Thuy

KIM THUY reading and discussing her novel Man, October 30, 7:30 pm and reading November 1, 5 pm, both at.

KIM THUY reading and discussing her novel Man, October 30, 7:30 pm and reading November 1, 5 pm, both at the Studio Theatre.

You wouldn’t think a book about food would be so laden with emotion, but Montreal-based author Kim Thuy, whose novel Man, about a restaurateur conflicted by love, says that in her culture, feelings and food are always connected.

“Food is the first gesture we give to a child,” explains the engaging Montreal-based author during an interview in the NOW Lounge. “It’s the first act of love.”

Because food is so emotionally charged, it’s impossible simply to list the ingredients of a Vietnamese dish in a recipe and leave it at that.

“Every ingredient has a role. You can’t just use lotus seeds because you like the taste you use them because they help with insomnia. If you’re sick you eat congee. There’s always a meaning behind every ingredient. It sounds poetic, but for the Vietnamese, it is just daily life.”

Every ingredient has a meaning and a story. That’s why her protagonist Man wants to rely on narratives, not images, for the cookbook she’s preparing.

“A picture of beef stew doesn’t look good,” Thuy insists. “It’s not sexy. You can’t make it sexy because it’s all brown. But if you taste it or describe how it’s cooked or the story behind it, it becomes tasty. It explains so much more.”

Thuy’s first book, Ru, shortlisted for the 2012 Giller prize, and Man are similar in structure. They are both slim novels written in short, usually page-length vignettes. But the author doesn’t see them as fragmentary.

“If I were a painter I’d tell you it was one stroke,” she says, miming a brush stroke in the air. “Everyone talks about vignettes, but to me it’s one piece, one breath. Every time I sat down to write I read from the beginning so I could feel the continuity. My editor and I couldn’t change the position of a paragraph because everything would fall apart.”

She speaks three languages – “none of them well, so one and a half” – but writes in French (Ru won the 2010 French-language Governor General’s Award) because, as she puts it, it’s the only language “where I know enough to know when I don’t know. In English I don’t have that antenna.

“I learned to identify emotions in French. The Vietnamese don’t verbalize emotions. There’s no body language. The whole body is restrained.”

Thuy is a late bloomer. She didn’t start writing until she was well into her 30s. She took degrees in law, linguistics and translation, then ditched it all to start a restaurant.

Working in an eatery is exhausting.

“I was always tired,” she says. “The hardest job is running a restaurant, the second is being a mother, and I had both jobs at the same time,” so much so that she was falling asleep at red lights while driving. To stay awake, she began jotting notes that became the basis for Ru.

But she doesn’t regret starting to write after having her children and trying out so many other careers.

“I wouldn’t have been able to write without that journey. I wasn’t born with raw talent. I have great stories to share, but I wasn’t born to be a writer. It’s just life that’s using me as a messenger.” | @susangcole

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