Though my father was born and raised in Vietnam, I never knew much about Vietnamese culture. I understood the basics of pho, and knew it was the land of women in ao dais and water buffalos – all images I had been exposed to while eating in Calgary’s Vietnamese restaurants. Picturesque and romantic, artwork related to Vietnam has generally evoked the same feelings of nostalgia and simple, country life. It was what I looked at every time I sat down with a bowl of pho, sipping sweet broth and listening to the restaurant’s intense volume of voices.
Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement is an exploration of Vietnam, its history, the individuals who live within its era of modernity, and the complexities that shape a country – complexities that go beyond a picturesque image of a woman in an ao dai near a river.
We follow Old Man Hung, a pho seller who doesn’t own a restaurant but a cart, finding a different location each week so he won’t be fined for operating without a license. His pho carries the history of his country, an “austere” broth that is more than what you may expect.
Gibb traverses Vietnam’s history and culture with grace and honesty. The novel doesn’t shy from the pain of Vietnam’s past, but celebrates the versatility of its characters. From an American-Vietnamese who is seeking her past, to a young modern Vietnamese man who is discovering his place in an evolving country, The Beauty of Humanity Movement crosses time and explores the liminal spaces inhabited by its characters.
I had the recent pleasure of listening to Camilla Gibb talk about how her writing has been influenced by her anthropology doctorate. Perhaps the most fascinating part in her talk was about how Old Man Hung was the driving force throughout the entirety of The Beauty of Humanity Movement. This man, who does cart around Vietnam, as real and tangible as the herbs in pho, is an integral part of the novel’s woven threads. This man will never know a book, though based in fiction, was created because of his simple, yet pure actions.
You’ll find yourself craving pho the whole time you read this book, and for weeks after. And you will also find yourself craving a type of pho you’ve never had before, a pho that is steeped in a country’s history and culture.