em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud