Some social work thoughts on Kim Thúy’s ‘Ru’

In conversation with the Boston Review of Books, writer Junot Díaz reflected on the impacts that the writings of women of color have had on his personal and professional life; “[t]o read these sisters in the 80s as a young college student was not only intoxicating, it was soul-changing. It was metanoia” (Boston Review, 2012). In raising questions about power, philosophy, politics and history, they were re-writing and creating knowledge and new “social, critical, cognitive” (Boston Review, 2012) maps emanating from their racialized, gendered and sexualized subjectivities-bodies. In this, they were “forging the tools that could actually take down [the] master’s house” (Boston Review, 2012). Díaz believed that their powerful and rich voices needed to be heard and understood by the world in order to understand and liberate itself; in the “smithies of their body-logos, [they produced] radical emancipatory epistemologies – the source code of our future liberation” (Boston Review, 2012). Bearing witness to how their identities were intimately bound to systemic inequalities and complex processes of internalized oppression and domination, allowed these writers, according to Díaz, to ‘dream’ up and weave together liberatory counter-strategies and acts of resistance and denial (Boston Review, 2012). Toni Morrison’s exploration of ‘the white gaze’ (Wallowitz, 2008) in her many novels, is but one influential contribution to this ‘counter-canon’ (Dix, 1993).

Ru, by Kim Thúy, is a passionate and poetic immigrant story written by a women of color that is composed of short vignettes that gather power the more one engages with the book. Thúy’s writing may be seen as bearing witness to, owning and coming to terms with the story of one’s old self, recoverable from the passing of time only through “fragments, through scars, through glimmers of light” (Thúy, 2009, p.139). This process weaves the past into the present, thereby proposing an underlying continuity to ‘self’, whereby what appears ‘lost’ to the flow of time is/becomes a reality within a person in the present moment; the end is contained within the beginning. This is perhaps most directly explored in a remarkable anecdote of Thúy’s encounter with a Vietnamese man at a gas station in Montreal. One look at her vaccination scar “took him back in time and let him see himself as a little boy…  and our tropical roots, transplanted onto land covered with snow, emerged again… in one second we had seen our hybrid state: half this, half that, nothing at all and everything at once… a single mark on the skin and our entire shared history was spread out between two gas pumps…” (Thúy, 2009, p.132).                                                               

An enduring and unique consciousness appears to exist within all of us that orders our experiences of the world into a ‘timeless’ inner reality-structure. This inner process is highly creative – constantly building bridges between memories and experiences of what has been, what is and what will be -, is undoubtedly personal and at times, as was the case with Thúy and the Vietnamese man, shared or communicable. In a foreword to Marcel Proust’s Combray, the editors write how this reality “exists only in all the sensuous plentitude of that moment in time when it was perceived through the senses, and it can be transmitted only in that plentitude. Abstract description or analysis would destroy precisely that which marks it as authentic” (Brée & Lynes, 1952, p. 26). Art, whether in the form of music, literature or painting, may, however, come close to a translation of inner realities.                                                                                                        

In Ru, Thúy attempts a translation of ‘all the sensuous plentitude’ of past moments so that these may not be lost – “to keep alive the memory of a slice of history that will never be taught in any school” (p.37) -, and does so from what appears to be a critical stance as a self-aware racialized, sexualized and gendered being in flux. Her poetic prose is a hedge against forgetting and a powerful contribution to what Díaz referred to as “radical emancipatory epistemologies – the source code of our future liberation” (Boston Review, 2012). At the very least, Thúy encourages a sense of curiosity about one another’s lives. Engaging with Ru from a critical literacy perspective offers an opportunity for strengthening ‘critical consciousness’ (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005), so fundamental to anti-oppressive social work praxis. Two anti-oppressive themes resonate: reflexivity and critical reflection on social location as intersectional beings (D’Cruz, Gillingham & Melendez, 2007; Clifford & Burke, 2009; Hulko, 2009), and our entanglement within personal and structural power dynamics (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005; Tew, 2006).

Reflexivity, critical reflection and Ru: Two key processes important for anti-oppressive social work praxis emerge when considering Ru: reflexivity and critical reflection. Put together, they constitute what is referred to as ‘critical consciousness’, defined as a “process of continuously reflecting upon and examining how our own biases, assumptions and cultural worldviews affect the ways we perceive difference and power dynamics” (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005, p.441); self-reflection must be accompanied by action.

Thúy has, in writing Ru, undergone a process of critical reflection. In the social work literature, critical reflection as ‘reflection-on-action’ has often been associated with attempts to distance oneself from experiences and thereby achieve a more objective view that may lead to new understandings and possibilities (D’Cruz, Gillingham & Melendez, 2007); it may be emancipatory as power relations and the many other myriad, often invisible, factors impacting our lives in a given past moment, are put to light and critically questioned and given (new) meanings; uncomfortable open questions – the hungry ghosts of our past that won’t let us go -, may be put to rest.                                                                                                                                      

Thúy (2009) writes, for example, how when she first arrived in Canada she was “unable to talk or to listen, even though I was neither deaf nor mute. I now had no points of reference, no tools to allow me to dream, to project myself into the future, to be able to experience the present, in the present” (p.8). It was only the passing of time which finally allowed her to “float in the air, to separate [myself]… from the empty space of an identity crisis… [allowing her] to laugh at whatever might have happened…” (p.137) and to “put down roots, so that I may dream” (p.20). Experiences of being a disorientated and frightened young girl in a new country who lacked “inner strength” (p.47) were only much later put to rest, forgiven or validated; only as a reflective writer groping for fragments of past experiences was Thúy able to consciously connect the dots between the girl who wet her pants in class, too frightened to “dare put up my hand” (p. 51) and the treacherous journey out of Vietnam where “as soon as the vessel was surrounded, encircled by the uniform blue horizon, fear was transformed into a hundred-faced monster who sawed off our legs and kept us from feeling the stiffness in our immobilized muscles… we were paralyzed” (p. 5). Only much later did Thúy also understand and forgive her father’s plans, if captured by Communists or pirates, “to put us to sleep forever” (p. 6) with cyanide; only much later was Thúy able to understand that “in other times, other places, parents showed their love by willingly abandoning their children” (p. 36) to death by poison over capture, to be raised by a stranger over living in destitution.                                                                                                                             

The lessons here are many-fold and subjective. For social workers, the importance of critically reflecting on one’s own and the experiences of others may most directly apply to and strengthen one’s commitment to and ability for reflexive thinking. Reflexivity, as critical ‘reflection-in-action’ operates ‘in the moment’ as processes of self-monitoring, reviewing and adapting to relationships and situations in a given time and place; one attempts to be cognizant of “how knowledge is created and how [one] may be complicit in relations of knowledge and power that may have consequences for inequality, privilege and power” (D’Cruz, Gillingham & Melendez, 2007, p. 86) and act accordingly; importantly, the definition embraces the experiencing/feeling of emotion(s) and emotional responses to daily encounters as opportunities to acknowledge and explore subjective experiences, affects and knowledge production and meaning-making processes that flow from one’s specific social location. Social location speaks to imbalances in privilege and oppression that individuals have/experience on the basis of identity constructs such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and faith (Hulko, 2009); how these identity categories are entangled and what the time and place specific implications are, is in turn captured by the metaphor of intersectionality and interlocking oppressions.

Reflexivity and critical reflection are connected. In critically ‘reflecting-on-actions’ that happened in the past in order to generate learning and knowledges, one may then be able to align ‘reflecting-in-action’ with anti-oppressive practice; reflexivity and reflectivity are together understood as ‘the bread and butter’ of having and practicing a ‘critical consciousness’, without which an anti-oppressive practice would be incomplete (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). Without the “social, critical, cognitive” (Boston Review, 2012) maps forged out of the racialized, gendered and sexualized subjectivities-bodies, offered as gifts so that the world may understand and liberate itself, social workers may be ‘lost’, stumble, rupture therapeutic relationships (Keenan, Tsang, Bogo & George, 2005) or unwillingly perpetuate oppression (Baines, 2011).

One of Thúy’s anecdotes drives home the interaction between reflectivity and reflexivity. Thúy had returned to Vietnam with her boss for business. At first she felt “flattered when people thought I was my boss’s escort, in spite of my designer suit and my high heels, because it meant that I was still young, slim, fragile” (p.125). After witnessing a restaurant scene where naked escorts, young, slim and fragile, were lined up in a private room “bending to pick up… tightly rolled American hundred-dollar bills” (p. 124) that men had thrown at them in sport, Thúy reflected on how “they carried all the invisible weight of Vietnam’s history” (p. 125) with “scars so deep they’re invisible to the naked eye” (p.126). This experience changed how she from then on reacted to when being considered her boss’s escort; “like some of the girls whose skin was too delicate, who couldn’t bear the weight, I left before the volley… my head filled with the resonance of the stoic silence of the girls who’d stayed behind, who had the strength to strip the money of its power, becoming untouchable, invincible” (p. 125). Thúy’s learning moment led to a more nuanced cognition of social position, history, power dynamics and her own privilege. This stimulated a change in how she acted, what she assumed and how she related with people.                                    

Power dynamics and Ru: This anecdote highlights how we are all entangled within personal and structural power dynamics that are often invisible or hidden (in plain sight) from how we experience ourselves. Junot Díaz writes how white supremacy is the ‘great silence of our world’ and that its “greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us” (Boston Review, 2012). He challenges us to think about how “a critique of white supremacy [that] doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, [will] have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction” (Boston Review, 2012). This is important for critical consciousness in that it suggests that cognitive and affective limitations may not allow us to easily see the oppressive practices that are part of our identity; ‘the process of becoming an oppressor is hidden from the person’ (Mullaly, 2002, p. 208 cited in Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005).  Thúy writes, for example, how “merely touching the head of a Vietnamese person insults not just him but his entire family tree. That is why a shy Vietnamese eight-year-old turned into a raging tiger when his Québécois teammate rubbed the top of his head to congratulate him for catching his first football” (p. 96). This underlines how critical consciousness must be an iterative process, never complete and forever adapting to what is learned. A power analysis and an examination of one’s various identities, locations and standpoints (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005) must be at its heart.                                                                                      

In Ru, we see examples of how one can be simultaneously advantaged and disadvantaged and/or oppressed depending on how one’s multiple identities are situated in a given historical, socio-cultural and political time-place. Even though Quebec had given Thúy “my American dream, even though it had cradled me for thirty years… my slanting eyes automatically placed me in a separate category” (p.79). And yet, when returning to Vietnam, her American dream, which had “made me more substantial, heavier, weightier… [and] given confidence to my voice, determination to my actions, precision to my desires, speed to my gait and strength to my gaze” (p. 77) meant that she no longer had “the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears” (p.77). In Quebec and Vietnam, Thúy experienced herself both as privileged and marginalized and found that her perception of reality differed depending on her changing social location.  

Standpoint theory suggests that individuals in oppressed groups develop a different perception of reality than those in non-oppressed groups” (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005, p.442). “When I met young girls in Montreal or elsewhere who injure their bodies intentionally, deliberately, who want permanent scars to be drawn on their skin”, Thúy writes, “I couldn’t help secretly wishing they could meet other young girls whose permanent scars are so deep they’re invisible to the naked eye” (p. 127). It is the distinction between “a wanted scar and an inflicted scar, one that’s paid for, the other that pays off, one visible, the other impenetrable, one inordinately sensitive, the other unfathomable, one drawn, the other misshapen” (p. 126), which delineates the vast gap in affect or between ‘affective communities’ (Da Costa, 2016) that standpoint theory points to.                                                                                                                          

Social workers aiming to practice critical consciousness can learn from Ru aboutthe multiplicity of ways in which people are anchored into their lives, the ways they belong at certain places and along certain trajectories…and how they might orient themselves in relation to certain attachments” (Da Costa, 2016, p.26). Affective states (think standpoint theory) remind us of how the past is woven into the present and how experiences of the world, arranged into a ‘timeless’ inner reality-structure, are personal-subjective. For girls with permanent and deep scars, struggling under and resisting a history/present of domination-oppression, the experience of power is intimate, material and embodied and much different from how those of us more privileged by our social location, are oriented to ‘power’. Struggling with the complex and much debated definition of what power is (i.e. power to, power over, power together, oppressive power, protective power, collusive power etc. see Tew, 2006) and how it is experienced at the personal and structural level by different groups of people is fundamental to anti-oppression social work praxis and critical consciousness at the interpersonal level of relationship / relating (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005; Tew, 2006; D’Cruz, Gillingham & Melendez, 2007; Clifford & Burke, 2009).

A working definition of power as “a social relation that may open up or close off opportunities for individuals or social groups” (Tew, 2006, p. 40) allows us to view power as a dynamic and often contradictory process, oppressive or limiting in some respects and productive or protective in others” (p. 40). A critical reading of Ru and literature of women of color in general, as Díaz argued, nuances our understanding of power processes in social relations. We come to understand how Thúy felt both “cradled” (p.79) by Quebec, describing that “there wasn’t enough space inside of us to receive everything we were offered, to catch all the smiles that came our way” (p. 23) while at the same time living the experience of being invited to dinner by friends and returning to school “with nearly empty stomachs because we didn’t know how to use a fork to eat rice that wasn’t sticky… didn’t know how to tell them that this food was strange for us” (p.21), or feeling “extreme shame” (p. 20) in what may seem, from the perspective of an outsider, to be a benign situation (i.e. buying sugar at the grocery store, p.20). Such experiences did not allow Thúy to forget that she was “one of the Asians” (p. 136) belonging to a different “category” (p.79), which shifted significantly, however, when later returning to Vietnam as an outsider.                     

How does one, as social worker, acknowledge being implicated in systems of oppression, bear the heavy complexity and endless responsibilities that this brings while learning to serve with greater humility as “imperfect allies” (Reynolds, 2013) in the face of another person’s / group’s vulnerability, subjectivity, standpoint, affect and resistance strategies? Social workers do not have the liberty of withdrawing into themselves but are called to stand up, with all their failings and individual sufferings, to support others along dynamic and constantly (re)negotiated/defined social justice trajectories. As Thúy’s Ru is an immigrant story, perhaps the most direct implication for social work practice and policy is cross-cultural social work with refugees/immigrants struggling to ‘find their reference points in order that they may grow roots and dream’. In an homage to what is possible, Thúy shares that it was “thanks to Jeanne [an elementary school teacher in Montreal] that I learned how to free my voice from the folds of my body so it could reach my lips” (p. 57).

One approach to such open ended questions is for social workers to develop a robust ‘practice framework’, defined as an integration of “empirical research, practice theories, ethical principles and experiential knowledge in a compact and convenient format that helps practitioners to use the knowledge and principles to inform their everyday work” (Connolly & Healy, 2009, p. 27). The themes considered in this paper and the “radical emancipatory epistemologies” (Boston Review, 2012) offered by literature such as Ru must flow into this framework. This may then lead to social policy as ‘ally work’, whereby allies belong to groups that have particular privileges, and work alongside people from groups that are subjected to power in relation to that privilege (Reynolds, 2013). Policies as tools for pushing systemic social change may collectively contribute to the making of a space in which the person who is subjected to power “gets to have their voice heard and be listened to” (Reynolds, 2013, p. 56). One may consider this as a combination of ‘collaborative power’ and ‘protective power’ within a framework of an emancipatory praxis (Tew, 2006) where the voices and leadership of individuals and groups on whose behalf one is advocating are foregrounded.

A recent UNHCR study on the psychosocial wellbeing of Syrians (Hassan et al. 2015), for example, led to best practice proposals for cross-cultural psychotherapy; culture-specific mental health symptoms and idioms of distress, explanatory models of mental illness and psychosocial problems, and religious and culture-specific healing practices / coping mechanisms were identified/clarified. Undoubtedly, policy such as this required a robust practice framework that drew on immigrant stories such as the one shared by Kim Thúy in Ru.                                                                                                                                         



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