RU

KIM THUYru

Ru, in French, denotes a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or anything else; in Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby. Ru is a story of a life turned from magic into horror, followed by a new beginning in Canada. When the Communists eventually conquer Saigon, diamonds and gold are sewn into cuffs and collars, and all the children are put into different boats to escape to ensure that at least some will survive. The refugee camp build for 200 hold 2000 in unimaginable conditions. When they arrive in Canada the mother must take work cleaning houses even though she has never touched a broom in her life. They live their lives by the Vietnamese motto,  “Life is a struggle in which sorrow leads to defeat.” 

Beautifully written Ru is a must read. This concise novel is in the running for Canada Reads.

“I moved forward in the trace of their footsteps as in a waking dream where the scent of a newly blown poppy is no longer a perfume but a blossoming: where the deep red of a maple leaf in autumn is no longer a colour but a grace; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby.” 

“That American dream had given me confidence to my voice, determination to my actions, precision to my desires, speed to my gait and strength to my gaze. That American dream made me believe I could have everything, that I could go around in a chauffeur-driven car while estimating the weight of the squash being carried on a rusty bicycle by a woman with eyes blurred by sweat; that I could dance to the same rhythm as the girls who swayed their hips at the bar to dazzle men whose thick billfolds were swollen with American dollars; that I could live in the grand villa of an expatriate and accompany barefoot children to their school that sat right on the sidewalk where two streets intersected.” 

FOR TODAY I AM A BOY

fortodayiamaboyKIM FU

Peter is a Chinese-Canadian boy with a secret: he is truly a girl. He calls his penis the thing. He tells his sisters, “I want to be pretty like you.” All three girls sense their brother’s secret, but it is the eldest Helen who brings reality to it. “You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee.” The father is overjoyed to finally have a son and does all he can to make him into a  true male. He complains that Peter cries more than his sisters.  Mother is not much of a presence in the household, so dominated by her husband she is. When Peter offers to help with supper clean up father stops him, “It’s women’s work.”

When he moves to Montreal as a young adult he is more able to explore who he is. When he meets some young friends he surmises,  “What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?”

Fu has written an excellent and challenging first novel. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN: A Curious Account of Native People In North America

THOMAS KING

The story of Canada is the story of her relationship with native people. Despite the clamouring of history to pull us into the full sweep of accepted history – the one that starts with “discovery” segues into brave “explorers” and into the notion of “two founding nations” – the real history of Canada begins with native people. Similarly, the story of North America. In 1492, native people discovered Columbus. That’s the plain truth of it. Ever since that moment, the history of the continent has been interpreted and articulated through settler eyes. That there are gross inaccuracies and outright omissions is all too evident in the relative mainstream ignorance of all things indigenous circa 2012.

The truth, as it were, lies somewhere between what is taught and what is endured by indigenous people themselves. So it is that Cherokee/Greek author Thomas King offers us The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People In North America. Though it is built on a foundation of historical fact, King insists that the book is an “account,” resting more on storytelling technique than a true historian’s acumen.

We’re glad that it is. Because this accounting dredges up little-known facts that illuminate the lack of comprehension about the role of indigenous people on the national consciousness of both Canada and the United States. Then it lays them out in frequently hilarious, sagacious, down-to-earth language that anyone can understand. Reading it, you can hear minds being blown everywhere.

“Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. It’s the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.

“Which, of course, it isn’t.”

From there, King leads us through accounts of the massacres of settlers that never happened to massacres of Indians that did, the true nature and intent of treaties and government apologies, the whole issue of land and a rollicking, gut-busting portrayal of Dead Indians, Live Indians and Legal Indians that perfectly outlines the whole issue of misperception.

It’s all couched in a plainspoken forthrightness that shocks as often as it demystifies. In an examination of treaties, and the perception of Canada and U.S. governments as benevolent and generous, King declares, “The idea that either country gave first nations something for free” is malarkey.

Later, in an examination of what Indians want, when King refocuses the question on what white people want, he lays it out without question: “Whites want land.

“The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was theraison d’être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, is the issue of land. The issue has always been land.”

With that understanding firmly stated, the whole nature and mechanics of history as inflicted on Indians in North America can be understood. It’s not an easy acceptance. It takes some grit and desire.

But the book is ultimately about healing. As much as he uncovers the dirt of history, King shines a light on what is possible in the advancement of Indians to an equal place in both countries. It is essential reading for everyone who cares about Canada and who seeks to understand native people, their issues and their dreams. We come to understand that Indians are inconvenient because, despite everything, we have not disappeared.

Thomas King is beyond being a great writer and storyteller, a lauded academic and educator. He is a towering intellectual. For native people in Canada, he is our Twain; wise, hilarious, incorrigible, with a keen eye for the inconsistencies that make us and our society flawed, enigmatic, but ultimately powerful symbols of freedom.

The Inconvenient Indian is less an indictment than a reassurance that we can create equality and harmony. A powerful, important book.

I borrowed this review from Richard Wagamese whose writing I admire.