Kim Thúy and Heather O’Neill both live in Montréal, though they have their differences. Thúy was among the boat people who emigrated from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, while O’Neill has called the city home for most of her life. Recently nominated for the New Prize in Literature, Thúy writes in French; O’Neill, in English. Both write stories that are tender and poignant. Thúy’s are pure poetic realism, while O’Neill’s are closer to magical realism.
Both authors share a deep admiration for each other and each other’s writing. Thúy first heard O’Neill speak in a radio interview. “I just fell for her,” Thúy says. “It’s hard to describe exactly, but she had such a smile, such joy in her voice.” She immediately bought O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. “I must have bought at least twenty copies since then, because I hand it out to absolutely everyone,” she says. “I had a copy I liked to keep handy, writing notes in the margins and underlining and highlighting passages, but I lost it. I was heartbroken!” She even took the novel with her on a trip to Turkey. “I wouldn’t usually travel with such a big book in my luggage. I remember I finished the last page in my hotel room in a cliffside hotel in Cappadocia. I didn’t want it to end.”
O’Neill also got to know her fellow writer through Thúy’s first novel, Ru. “Everyone in Montréal was reading it,” O’Neill says. “I liked the voice. It reminds me of Marguerite Duras, and then, in an interview, Kim said that The Lover was one of her favorite books. It’s also one of mine.”
When the two authors finally met in person, it was on the far side of the country. “We met in some small town in British Columbia,” O’Neill says. “She just ran up to me and said, ‘I love you, I absolutely love you!’ It was so special, I didn’t want to sign any books. I just wanted to hug Kim Thúy and say, ‘Go away, everyone!’”
Despite immediately hitting it off, the two women don’t see each other very often. “The more I like an author, the less I want to be around them,” Thúy says. “I’m afraid to meet my heroes.” “I got the feeling that if she got to know me, she’d be disappointed,” O’Neill says, laughing. “She has such a beautiful view of me, I’m just going to spoil it.”
Thúy and O’Neill attribute this distance, in part, to the invisible frontier that divides Montréal’s Anglophone and Francophone cultural worlds. “It’s really a pity,” O’Neill says. “When you are in other places in Canada, there are so many amazing Francophone writers that are so well-known here and yet no one has ever heard of. Kim Thúy is one of the very few Francophone writers who are being published by a large press in the rest of Canada. It’s very strange that in Montréal there hasn’t been that sort of interchange and acceptance and just knowledge of one another’s works.”
Both writers have an enduring love for Montréal, which features prominently in their work. O’Neill’s writing captures the city’s magical undertones through the interactions between its residents and the myriad details of neighborhood life. In it, Montréal takes on a metaphorical dimension. “It’s almost the land of fiction,” O’Neill says. “Everything I have written takes place here. I’ve spent my whole life here, my imagination was cultivated in the city, so it just belongs here.”
For Thúy, Montréal is also a people’s city, one whose beauty resides in its details. “Every day there’s something about Montréal that charms you and takes you by surprise,” Thúy says. “It’s never over-the-top or overwhelming. You can really feel—and touch—the happiness.” And taste it, too. She spontaneously begins to describe the little souk in the Maison Pépin alleyway and Montréal Plaza, which, for her, epitomizes the city. “The decor could be New York City,” she says, “but you could never mistake the ambiance for anywhere but Montréal.”
O’Neill loves to explore the city’s Plateau and Mile End districts, and Thúy spent her adolescent years a stone’s throw from the Lionel-Groulx metro station, in the Saint-Henri neighborhood. She later opened a Vietnamese restaurant in Little Burgundy, now one of the city’s hippest areas. In the early 2000s, the two writers may well have crossed paths without realizing it on rue Sainte-Catherine while O’Neill was attending McGill University and Thúy was working as a lawyer.
In a broader sense, each has been inspired by Québec literature to create her own literary world. They both point to the singular musicality of Québécois French. “There’s also a lot of experimentation that you don’t see as much of in English-Canadian work,” O’Neill says. “There is a lot of poetry and a certain wildness in it. It’s sometimes why I find it can be difficult to translate into English and why I wish sometimes more poets were translators.”
O’Neill often insists that her writing is much closer to that of Québécois authors such as Marie-Claire Blais, Gaétan Soucy, and Michel Tremblay than it is to that of writers in the rest of Canada, even though she writes in English. “Sometimes, I find I’m a little bit of an anomaly in English Québec literature,” she says. “People say it’s so poetic and so urban but luminescent, and I can just say I write in the Québécois tradition.”
As for Thúy, she sees herself as something of an imposter. “I didn’t have the sense I was actually writing a book as I wrote,” Thúy says. “I don’t even have the words to express what it means to be an author. For me, Vietnamese culture is something that is expressed through cooking, through the senses, while Québec culture is expressed through literature.”