diaCRITIC Kim-An Lieberman introduces us to a new Vietnamese American poet and her award-winning work of poetry. Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again takes us readers into a child’s experience of immigration and the American South through the beautiful and lyrical storytelling.
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Vietnamese American literature continues to flourish, and author Thanhha Lai is one great reason why. As diaCRITICS noted last November, Lai won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with her debut novel Inside Out & Back Again. (To relive the moment, click here and watch her acceptance speech.) She is, to our knowledge, the first Vietnamese American ever nominated for a National Book Award in any category. By winning, Lai joins such luminaries as Maxine Hong Kingston and Ha Jin in a very small club of Asian American authors to have achieved this prestigious recognition. Inside Out & Back Again was also recently selected as a 2012 Newbery Honor Book by the American Library Association—another Vietnamese American first.
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A closer look at Lai’s much-lauded book reveals a thoughtful approach to storytelling that succeeds on many different levels at once. Following a family of refugees as they journey from Vietnam to the U.S., Inside Out & Back Again blends history lesson with coming-of-age tale. The story itself, as recounted by a spunky and introspective 10-year-old who shares the author’s name Hà, rings especially authentic for its semi-autobiographical status. Lai’s primary source material is her own childhood memory of escaping with her family from wartime Saigon—only to find herself equally embattled as a cultural outsider in Montgomery, Alabama. Additionally, while Lai writes with a young-adult audience in mind, lyrical language and multilayered subject matter ensure that readers of all ages will find much to appreciate.
Inside Out & Back Again is arranged chronologically to resemble a journal—a format strongly linked with narratives of girlhood, from Anne Frank to the Princess Diaries. To this familiar context, Lai brings extra depth by writing in poetry rather than prose. The language remains straightforward and accessible for younger readers; the poems themselves consist of short lines and compact stanzas that allow the plot to flow easily. At the same time, the line breaks and white space on each page lend a reflective, measured pace to Hà’s observations. Spare syntax encourages us to pause on key symbols and motifs, like a beloved backyard papaya tree in Saigon or the strange “hiss every s” sounds that Hà hears in her initial encounters with the English language (as exemplified in this excerpt from the book, describing Hà’s first days at an American grade school).
Lai’s choice to versify her novel also conveys an important cultural note. Just like any act of translation, rendering a non-English-speaking character’s thoughts in written English presents a challenge. Lai wanted her concise poetic lines to capture some of the innate characteristics of Vietnamese without compromising the English-language integrity of Hà’s voice. As the author explains in an interview with School Library Journal, “I thought in Vietnamese in terms of images, then translated those images into English in a way that left the rhythm of the original language intact. The Vietnamese I know, influenced by my mother, is naturally poetic, rhythmic, melodic….I was able to cut many unneeded words, leaving just the core, like boiling down sap to make syrup.” Lai also cites Vietnam’s best-known bard Nguyễn Du as an inspiration: “he can convey the world inside two lines of six or eight syllables. I’ve always loved that.”
Another key to the book’s success is Lai’s ability to frame a moment from the past with concerns that remain widely relevant for middle-schoolers and adolescents today. Details of the communist takeover in Vietnam as well as the racially tense atmosphere in the 1970s American South infuse Inside Out & Back Again with historical realism. Hà’s inner thoughts and emotions, however, transcend her immediate time and place. Lai tackles issues like schoolyard bullying, which Hà endures almost daily for her first few months in Alabama, and the hardships faced by a single-parent working-class family, with Hà’s father still missing in action in Vietnam. Likewise, a central theme is Hà’s preteen puzzling through the intersection of gender and identity. The only daughter and youngest child in a household full of brothers, Hà resents being perceived as weaker or lesser than. She loves her family, but she is headstrong and opinionated—continually defying “girl” expectations both in traditional Vietnamese culture and in her new American home. Hà’s older brothers also embody a range of possibilities for what “boy” can mean, from sensitive animal-lover Khôi to muscled martial-arts aficionado Vũ (who rechristens himself “Vu Lee” after his movie idol Bruce). Once again, Lai strikes universal chords within an authentic and specific context. Her characters reflect core concerns of American adolescence, as well as aspects of the social value-shifting and recalibration of personal identity that go hand-in-hand with assimilation into a newly adopted culture.
Though a familiar story among both the Vietnamese diaspora and the many war-made diasporas beyond, Inside Out & Back Again offers a fresh telling to engage a new generation of readers. Its verse-novel format and resonant themes also reward deeper examination. Lai reminds us all to look back at history in order to look forward with better understanding. Fittingly, the book ends with distinct hope for a future enriched rather than burdened by the past:
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and the new
until it doesn’t matter
which is which.
Kim-An Lieberman hails mostly from Seattle and holds a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Vietnamese American literature, from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Breaking the Map: Poems. More info at her website.
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