Em by Kim Thuy

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Kim Thúy’s latest book, Em, masterfully jam-packs 66 chapters into nearly 150 pages. Each chapter reads like an exquisite prose piece full of philosophical insight, historical intricacies, and fractured narratives. Em, like Thúy’s other works, notably Ru (2009) and Mãn (2013), is hauntingly beautiful and intimately engages with the reader through clever wordplay and seamless allusions, cinematic explosions, and the mishmash of French, American, and Vietnamese histories, languages, and encounters. Readers expecting a simple narrative will find instead multifarious threads of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American histories woven together across generations and geographic boundaries. More than a set of narratives, Em provides a collection of French loan words, in the chapter, “France,” (cà phê, ga-tô, cà rem), as well as a glossary and historical overview of words with multiple meanings and histories (con gai, con lai, coolie).

Thúy’s talent for tissage, or weaving, is evident through her ability to narrate the history of Operation Babylift while capturing the double meaning of the Vietnamese word for “mixed-race”: bụi đời (“dust of life”). While those familiar with the history of the Vietnam War may have already heard of Operation Babylift – the U.S. government’s evacuation of thousands of abandoned Vietnamese children and orphans (many who were abandoned by their American GI fathers and Vietnamese mothers) in April 1975, before the fall of Saigon – Thúy recounts the events in a way that seamlessly weaves together traditional Vietnamese mythology (referring to Ong Troi, known as Mr. Sky in English) and 20th and 21st century Vietnamese history. Em commemorates the forgotten and untold narratives of orphans and widows, through the interplay of life and obliteration. While remembering the explosion of the first flight of Operation Babylift on April 4, 1975 – and the 78 children and 46 soldiers who died on board – Thúy notes the misfortune of the fallen: “Their lives came to an end in an unknown foreign country, mirroring the phrase that identified them when they were alive: bụi đời (‘dust of life’).”

Em is the perfect read for Tết or Lunar New Year. Prepare to be enveloped in Thúy’s graceful and delicate prose, as you commemorate Vietnamese history and bear witness to the diverse and overlapping experiences of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Em by Kim Thúy, translated from French by Sheila Fischman, Seven Stories Press, (ISBN 9781644211151), Published in France by Liana Levi, (ISBN 9791934903801).

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Angelica So is a California native who earned her Ph.D. in French literature at Emory University. She was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor at Emory and a Mellon Teaching Fellow at the University of New Mexico. Her articles on Southeast Asian Francophone literature have been published in journals such as The French Review, Genocide Studies and Prevention, and Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. A Francophone literary scholar, and a member of the Asie du Sud Est Research Network (ASERN), Angelica So is the English language book buyer at Albertine.
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