Palawan Story, by Caroline Vu, Deux Voiliers
In dreams, we often recall events as if disconnected from the stream of life. They survive when fused into memory by emotion. In the absence of recollection, however, we tend to invent memories – and ourselves. To make order out of chaos, we tell stories.
This is the recurring theme that haunts Caroline Vu’s debut novel, Palawan Story, a finely-crafted narrative that follows Kim, a young Vietnamese girl set adrift in the roiling waters of family secrets and the anarchy of being a boat person.
Growing up, Kim lives with her mother, two younger sisters and grandmother in Hue, the city of artists and tai chi adherents, best known to Westerners as the site of the bloody1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.
Kim sits precariously at the fulcrum of her all-female family. Neither the oldest nor the youngest, she seems to draw her mother’s slaps for every little thing. She longs for her father, who she saw on television escaping on the last helicopter to leave Saigon. At least, that’s what she thinks she saw. As a ten-year-old, watching your fate unfold on television can be easily misinterpreted.
At her mother’s insistence, Kim has been well-schooled in both English and French, which will ultimately prove invaluable for her future. Long after she has exited the action, Kim’s mother continues to loom over the story, a ghostly apparition whose intentions are never clear. A once beautiful and always resourceful woman, she had “…shelved her smiles in some forgotten closet” after being married off to Kim’s father, a cross-eyed hunchback who paid the dowry that saved the mother’s family from financial ruin. Aunty Hung, a neighbour, later describes the union, as “…smelling of lovelessness.”
That lack of love, Kim is convinced, extends to her as well, because no amount of dutiful behaviour or accomplishments can crack her mother’s meanness. Dutiful daughters, women who do what they must to protect and feed their families, are a recurring theme in this, as in so many, refugee stories.
One dark night, Kim’s mother leads her to a leper colony on the Perfume River and abandons her there in the custody of Aunty Hung. They board a dinghy crammed with people desperate to leave Vietnam despite the danger of rough seas or, worse, pirates. Kim’s boat is lucky and eventually arrives on the shores of Palawan Island. But the two weeks it took to get there are erased from her memory, perhaps obscured by the events that follow.
At Palawan, the Filipino refugee camp, time passes slowly while the inhabitants “wait for America” and Kim “rubs penises for Seiko watches,” gifts from Minh, a crafty, cross-eyed orphan. At the camp, drawing on her knowledge of French, she is enlisted as a translator by Dr. Jacques from Médecins Sans Frontières. Eventually, a misunderstanding about her name results in Kim being adopted by a church family in Derby, Connecticut and there, from her surrogate mother, Kim gets a glimpse of unconditional love and the power of forgiveness.
Every life is a story and what Caroline Vu does so well is allow the chronicles of pain, love and loss to unfold naturally, and without judgment. From Derby to Montreal and finally, back to Palawan and Hue, Kim searches for her stories, and when she can’t find her own, she collects those of others.
Ultimately, what she remembers and invents sustains her search for answers and for the oft-unknowable truth about what compels people to do what they do.
Gina Roitman is a writer, biographer, and author of the acclaimed short story collection Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth, and the subject of her own refugee story, the award-winning documentary film, My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me.