Author lê thi diem thúy and English teacher Sara Primo after an inspiring GFS Upper School assembly lecture.

Author lê thi diem thúy and English teacher Sara Primo after an inspiring GFS Upper School assembly lecture.

Lê thi diem thúy, author of “The Gangster We Are All Looking For,” who left South Vietnam in 1978 to grow up as a refugee in California, spoke at Germantown Friends School about the role words have played in her life and her experience as a “boat child.”

The book is a fictional account of a young girl with a similar tale. “The book follows the trajectory of my experience,” thúy told students, “but the girl is not necessarily me.”

Thúy developed a reverence for language at a very young age.

“I grew up translating for my father who was a very eloquent man in Vietnamese,” she said. “And I knew that my translations were a failure. Language is unstable and insufficient. You have this alphabet, but what are you going to do with it? How are you going to string it together?”

Thúy’s book has a hazy quality, and she remembers her time in Vietnam through dreamy and abstract images.

“There was a way in which that whole world vanished,” thúy explained, although she found that she could make things come alive through language. “From a very early age I wanted to live with words because they had the power to conjure something and alter the world.”

Thúy didn’t merely read sections from the book, but reenacted them with her smooth, strong voice and movements that flowed with the words’ rhythms – bringing life to the language.

“You can’t really plan for something to hit so many students and adults in such an important way,” said English teacher Sara Primo who organized the assembly. “The visit became the highlight of the year for me and for many of the students. I almost can’t describe the conversations in class that followed her assembly. There was a new energy and concentration around the book after meeting her – the air was buzzing.”

The students asked thúy questions about her writing process, her imagery and metaphors, and her life as a writer.

“I am not in this to make a living,” thúy said to the students. “I’m in it to live – whether I can make a living or not. If you have a story to tell, you must find a way to tell it in your own way and with your own words.”