Authors: Kim Thuy
PUBLISHED BY RANDOM HOUSE CANADA
Copyright Â© 2013 Ãditions Libre Expression
English Translation Copyright @ 2014 Sheila Fischman
Published by arrangement Group Librex, MontrÃ©al, Quebec, Canada
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company, and simultaneously in United Kingdom by The Clerkenwell Press. Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
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LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Â Â Â Â MÃ£n / Kim ThÃºy; translated by Sheila Fischman.
Translation of French book with same title.
1. ThÃºy, KimâFiction. I. Fischman, Sheila, translator II. Title. III. Title: MÃ£n. English
3613 2014Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
843â².6Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Cover design by CS Richardson
Cover image: Â© Dan Goldberg / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images
Interior image: Â© Jiri Hera /
MAMAN AND I DON
look like one another. She is short, I am tall. Her complexion is dark, my skin is like a French doll's. She has a hole in her calf and I have a hole in my heart.
My first mother, the one who conceived me and gave birth to me, had a hole in her head. She was a young adult or maybe still a little girl, for no Vietnamese woman would have dared carry a child unless she had a ring on her finger.
My second mother, the one who plucked me out of a vegetable garden among the okra, had a hole in her faith. She no longer believed in people, especially when they talked. And so she retired to a straw hut, far from the powerful arms of the Mekong, to recite prayers in Sanskrit.
My third mother, the one who watched me attempt my first steps, became Maman, my Maman. That morning, she wanted to open her arms again. And so she opened the shutters in her bedroom, which until that day had always been closed. In the distance, in the warm light, she saw me, and I became her daughter. She gave me a second birth by bringing me up in a big city, an anonymous elsewhere, behind a schoolyard, surrounded by children who envied me for having a mother who taught school and sold iced bananas.
VERY EARLY EVERY MORNING
, before classes started, we went grocery shopping. We started with the woman who sold ripe coconuts, rich in flesh and poor in juice. The lady grated the first half-coconut with the cap of a soft drink bottle nailed to the end of a flat stick. Long strips fell in a decorative frieze, like ribbons, on the banana leaf spread out on the stall. The merchant talked non-stop and kept asking Maman the same question: “What do you feed that child to give her such red lips?” To avoid that question, I got in the habit of pressing my lips together, but I was so fascinated by how quickly she grated the second half that I always watched her with my mouth partly open. She set her foot on a long black metal spatula that had part of its handle sitting on a small wooden bench. Without looking at the pointed teeth at the rounded end of the spatula, she crumbled the nut at the speed of a machine.
The fall of the crumbs through the hole in the spatula must just resemble the flight of snowflakes in Santa Claus country, Maman always said, which was actually something her own mother would say. She spoke her mother's words to hear her voice again. And whenever she saw boys playing soccer with an empty tin can, she couldn't help but whisper
, in her mother's voice.
THAT WAS MY FIRST
word of French:
. In Vietnamese,
means “tin can” and
, “to go away.” In French, the two sounds together create
in the ear of a Vietnamese woman. Following her own mother's example, she taught me the French word by asking me to point to the tin can then kick it, saying
. So that second day of the week is the most beautiful of all for Maman because her mother died before teaching her how to pronounce the other days. Only
was associated with a clear, unforgettable image. The other six days were absent from any reference, therefore all alike. That's why my mother often confused
and sometimes reversed
BEFORE HER MOTHER DIED
, though, she'd had time to learn how to extract the milk from a coconut by squeezing chunks of crumbled flesh saturated with hot water. When mothers taught their daughters how to cook, they spoke in hushed tones, whispering so that neighbours couldn't steal recipes and possibly seduce their husbands with the same dishes. Culinary traditions are passed on secretly, like magic tricks between master and apprentice, one movement at a time, following the rhythms of each day. In the natural order, then, girls learned to measure the amount of water for cooking rice with the first joint of the index finger, to cut “vicious peppers” (
) with the point of the knife to transform them into harmless flowers, to peel mangoes from base to stem so they won't go against the direction of the fibresÂ â¦