As conflict pushes millions of people around the world, from Afghanistan to Syria, to flee their homes, award-winning author Kim Thuy says ‘refugee literature’ has the power to restore lost identities and reveal the potential of these “superhumans”.
Thuy – who escaped Saigon at the age of 10 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War – predicted that world attention would soon drift away from crises such as Afghanistan, leaving those who fled the Taliban without voice and struggling to prove themselves in their new lives.
The novelist – who was one of Vietnam’s thousands of “boat people” and spent months in a refugee camp in Malaysia in the 1970s – has spent her writing career collecting stories of Vietnamese forced to flee, trying to enlighten the lives of communities she says are neglected.
“When you are outside you might not see why we should save these people,” she told AFP, saying she saw parallels between the desperate families thronging the city. Kabul airport after the withdrawal of American troops and those who fled his native country. over 40 years earlier.
“But if they survived the sea, if they walked hundreds of kilometers or if they climbed walls and they still survive, it is because they have become superhumans.
“So when you plant them anywhere they will grow back, maybe harder than average,” said Thuy, who has just published a new book, “Em,” in English translation.
– Losing your past and your future –
The UN has warned that up to half a million people could flee Afghanistan by the end of the year, in addition to the 2.5 million Afghans already registered as refugees across the world.
Neighboring countries have been urged to keep their borders open and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged the EU to take in more than 40,000 over five years.
But we don’t know what their future holds for them.
The arrival of more than a million migrants on European shores in 2015, many of them Syrian asylum seekers fleeing a brutal civil war, sparked political chaos as nations wrangled over who should take responsibility for it. responsibility.
Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has strongly criticized European and British responses, is among a growing body of writers telling the refugee story.
Earlier this month, Gurnah won the most prestigious award in literature for his decades-long work rooted in colonialism and immigration.
Thuy, who holds an honorary doctorate from Concordia University in Montreal for giving a voice to the refugee experience, passionately believes that newcomers have the ability to enrich a country – but she concedes that welcoming them is a ” total bet “.
“When you are in a refugee camp, you have lost your past, you no longer have an identity,” said the 53-year-old.
“And you don’t have a future because you don’t even know when you’re going to eat next, let alone where you’ll be next.”
Its own story is testament to how this bet can pay off.
Thuy and his family arrived in Malaysia penniless, aboard a wooden boat that crumbled moments after landing on shore, and lived in a makeshift hut so small that they were forced to to sleep “as if we were in a game of Tetris”.
Three decades later, she returned to this Southeast Asian country as part of a delegation from Canada – the country that hosted her – after winning a prestigious national literary award for her first novel “Ru” .
In the meantime, she obtained a degree in translation – financing her studies by working as a seamstress – and qualified as a lawyer.
In 2018, Thuy was among four shortlisted authors for the Nobel Prize for Alternative Literature, a prize created after a scandal at the Swedish Academy that normally awards the prestigious prize.
– Restore their humanity –
Thuy, who is married to a Quebec-born lawyer and has two sons, now writes to shed light on the pasts of others who have been forgotten.
His latest book “Em”, originally written in French, the language of his Quebec, his adopted country, weaves scraps of Vietnamese lives before and after the war and gently exposes their link with the identity of the diaspora.
Based on real stories but using fictional characters, the novel winds between the rubber plantations of French colonial times, Saigon at the end of the war when thousands of children were evacuated during “Operation Babylift. “and the new homelands of those who escaped.
The ingenuity of the Vietnamese diaspora is also in the spotlight.
Story reveals how they came to dominate the nail industry following a manicure class hosted by Tippi Hedren – the actress in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” – during a visit to a camp in 1975.
These 20 class refugees settled in California, passed their skills on to a few dozen others, and in just a few short years the community has opened lounges around the world.
For Thuy, delving into the complex stories of refugees is an essential part of restoring their humanity.
“I don’t need the readers to understand, I just need them to feel something,” she says.
aph / dhc / lto