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Authors: Kim Thuy

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“Sniff: to breathe in through the nose in order to smell. To sniff the air. The wind. The fog. To sniff the fruit! Sniff! Rose apple, in Guyana known also as love apple. Sniff!”

After that lesson, I never ate a love apple without first sniffing the glossy, fuchsia-pink skin, its innocent coolness nearly hypnotic. And it's why I quite naturally chose that fruit out of the dozens of other exotic fruits made of plaster that Julie had arranged on a big plate in the middle of the reading table. I brought it to my nose and its sweetly fresh perfume seized me as if its white flesh were tender and real. Julie burst out laughing. “If you want to smell something real, come here.”

She opened the glass door of a big cupboard holding dozens of small glass bottles filled with spices:
star anise, cloves, turmeric, coriander seeds, powdered galangal … The inevitable bottles of fish sauce were there too, along with vermicelli and rice wrappers.

For months, Julie toiled in the workshop non-stop, but also with me, on me. She persuaded me to organize a series of Vietnamese cooking lessons and tastings. I went along with her because her enthusiasm was irresistible.



like a canvas Julie was unrolling before my eyes. New colours, new shapes revealed themselves as I progressed, as the roll was unwound. And as if by enchantment, images appeared that sketched a scene or illustrated a moment. Suddenly, the painter's movements became audible and palpable. In the same way, a voice emerged from my name—
—written in jade green on the plates, on bags, on the front window. The first group of twenty who came to the workshop amplified that budding voice as they took home recipes and repeated stories told around the table. The vibrant life of that adventure launched another life, the one that had finally come and settled in the warmth of my belly.

ảo tưởng


combined efforts to find me permanent kitchen help. Hồng was scarcely older than me but already had a teenage daughter. She had met her Québécois husband in a Saigon café; she was a waitress, he was a client. He had shown her his Canadian passport and she had agreed to the journey so that her daughter could stop smelling tobacco smoke and feeling the sweat of strangers' hands on her smock when she came home from work in the middle of the night. He was in love with Hồng, in love with his time in Vietnam, where his hundred dollars were worth a million dongs, where a thousand dollars let him live the experience of eternal love. He had long dreamed of her when he went back to his apartment full of empty bottles.

Had she known Andy Warhol, Hồng would have appreciated the walls plastered with rows and rows of beer bottles like a piece of pop art. Unfortunately, all she saw was the entrance to a dark tunnel. She disappointed him by choosing skirts that were too long and shoes that were too flat, and he criticized her for leaving too early and coming home from the factory too late. Hồng was surprised to find out that the apartment didn't belong to him and that his car coughed like an old man in the rain. But she was grateful for the bed for her daughter, so she rolled up her sleeves to erase the marks of her husband's loneliness and to allow light into the narrow hallways, whose walls had absorbed the shock of closed fists and silenced fury.



, weekdays and weekends. She hoped that her husband would do the same, that he would look for more clients, that he would cut the lawns of more houses. There were days, though, when the sky was so heavy it was impossible for him to get up. That was how she met Julie, because Hồng had replaced her husband behind the lawn mower once, twice, several times. The last time, Julie had come outside, offered her a glass of water and suggested to my husband that she could help me out in the restaurant.

New York

New York

her distance. I only heard her moving around, efficient, extraordinary. Thanks to her, I was able to leave the kitchen and go to New York with Julie and spend two whole afternoons in a gigantic bookstore where hundreds of cookbooks opened in front of us. We had very little time, so Julie took me to one restaurant for an appetizer, to a second one for the meal, and to yet another for dessert. She wanted me to visit as many addresses as possible in forty-eight hours. Julie knew Manhattan and its warehouses, which held paintings and sculptures that made me dizzy. How had Richard Serra imagined that rust-covered steel was sensual? How does a person transport a work of art twenty times bigger than my kitchen? How does a person think so big?



outside my everyday life to make me see the horizon, so that I would desire the horizon. She wanted me to learn to breathe deeply, no longer just sufficiently. A hundred times, she repeated the same message, in a hundred variations:

“Bite. Bite into the apple.”

“Bite the way the file bites metal.”

“Bite hard and make the most of life.”

“Bite! Bite! Bite!” she said, laughing hard, as she pulled my hand to cross the street or while she was braiding my hair. She educated me in languages, in gestures, in emotions. Julie talked as much with her hands as with her wrinkled nose, while I could barely maintain her gaze for the duration of a sentence. Several times, she stood me in front of a mirror, obliging me to talk with her while we looked at ourselves, so that I could observe the stillness of my body compared with hers.

I was floored every time Julie repeated words in Vietnamese. She imitated accents with the flexibility of a gymnast and the precision of a musician. She pronounced the five versions of
la, là, lạ, lả, lã
, distinguishing the tones even if she didn't understand the different definitions: to cry, to be, stranger, to faint, cool. The challenge I'd devised was much too easy for her, while the exercise she'd suggested in turn required an enormous effort from me. Learning songs by heart was not a demanding task in itself, but
singing them out loud took all my courage. Julie made the sounds come out by loosening my tongue.

“Stick out your tongue. Try to touch your chin. Turn towards the left … now, towards the right. And again.”

She roared with laughter at the sight of me putting my hand a few centimetres from my mouth during those exercises, making me giggle every time. Julie's laugh was tremendously warm, tremendously charming, but she would also shed abundant tears, unlike Vietnamese women, who cry as silently as possible. Only professional mourners hired for funerals could gesticulate and display pain on their features without being considered inelegant.



that on the nights I wrote to Maman, I cried. Or if he did know, he preferred to console me by always having booklets of stamps in the drawer. Maman didn't reply very often. Maybe because she didn't want to cry either. I heard the echo of her silence, though, and the burden of everything that couldn't be heard. At night, when we used to share the same bed, the sound of Maman's tears sometimes escaped the corners of her closed eyes. I would hold my breath then, because with no witness, sorrow might exist only as a ghost.

Most Vietnamese believe in the existence of wandering souls who haunt life, who watch for death, who stay wedged between the two. Every year, in the seventh lunar month, people burn incense, paper money and garments to help the ghosts to free themselves, to leave the world of the living, which has not anticipated a place for them. When I threw the false paper money, orange and gold, into the fire, I hoped for both the ghosts and Maman's sadness to disappear, even if she denied the ghosts' existence with the same fervour as the Communist Party, which condemned the people's fear of those roving spirits, unidentifiable and with no witnesses.

It's true that Maman's face, like my husband's, showed neither pain nor joy, to say nothing of pleasure, while I could read everything on Julie's. When she wept, full of affection, at the birth of my son, her heart was drawn on her cheeks, her forehead, her
lips. In the same way, she was moved when she carried children just arrived from faraway lands to greet their new destiny in the cocoons carefully woven for them in Montreal. She took their photos and gave them greeting cards signed by her friends in the adoptive parents' group. She was the first to say, “I love you,” to my baby who was still curled up in my belly. She was also the one who took my husband's hand to place it against the little foot that was imprinted on my stretched skin. Then, despite his stiff body language, she was quite ready to take him in her arms when he agreed to sponsor Maman for her immigration to Canada.

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