Thanhhà Lại has been charting Vietnamese American lives for younger readers since 2011. In her debut, the National Book Award-winning Inside Out & Back Out Again, Lại chronicled—in verse, no less—the journey of ten-year-old Hà and her family after the Vietnam War as they settle in Alabama. In Listen, Slowly, the journey is reversed: a Vietnamese American girl, the twelve-year-old Mai, tags along with her grandmother to Vietnam in search of her grandfather. In her latest offering, Butterfly Yellow, Lại returns to the lives of refugees, but this time from the perspective someone older.
At the center of Butterfly Yellow is Hằng, an orphaned eighteen-year-old. Newly-arrived to Texas in 1981, she flees her uncle with plans to find her missing little brother, Linh, from whom she was separated during the Fall of Saigon. Her only clue: a card with an Amarillo address. At a rest stop, she misses her bus but thanks to the help of a kind couple, hitches a ride with another eighteen-year-old, the “self-renamed Leeroy.” Leeroy, too, has plans: to meet his rodeo hero Bruce Ford, an aspiration that confuses his “pale, fleshy, liberal” parents who only want him to go to college (Yale, preferably) and stop playing pretend cowboy.
Forced to be together, the two trek across the “brittle brown ocean” that is Texas until they do find Linh, now adopted by a white family. With no memory of his sister, Linh, now named David, slams the door in her face. An ensuing altercation with Hằng’s uncle makes the situation messier, ending with a damaged car (Leeroy’s) and leading to a summer of labor on a cantaloupe farm neighboring Linh’s adoptive family’s home to earn enough money to pay off debt and repair the car. During this time, Hằng tries to win back her brother, slowly through stories and memories. What emerges is not only Hằng’s journey but also a story of growing up and healing after trauma even if what is lost might not ever be fully restored.
Though she writes for a young audience, Lại doesn’t shy away from the violence inherent in many Vietnamese refugee stories, and Hằng’s story is certainly gruesome and complex. Like any good YA writer, Lại knows her audience is smarter than society often gives them credit for. Lại writes vividly of a Communist Vietnam where readers learn of not only the Orderly Departure Program and Operation Babylift, but also reeducation camps, land seizures, and corrupt government officials. They learn of the hardships of those who stayed, but also of the resilience of these people in troubled times, particularly the women in Hằng’s family—a mother who “studied Ayurveda beauty secrets in India and, by creating lotions and oils, supported her husband” and a strong grandmother who makes detailed plans for their safety (“they would not become a house of weeping women,” she vows). There’s an escape by boat, a claustrophobic scene where Hằng lays “pressed among forty-six still breathing bodies” with the knowledge that “eleven non-breathing one had been slipped into the sea.” There are Thai pirates, acts of violence that will change Hằng’s life forever, and a stay on an island that will scar her body permanently.
Lại also does an excellent job conveying the experience of a non-native English speaker encountering American English. Although “reading English sinks into [Hằng] as easily as breathing,” hearing people talk is difficult and “pronouncing such an illogical language…prickles every pore.” Lại displays a poet’s sensibility as she breaks down the English language into phonetic Vietnamese. “Say again” becomes “sây à-ghen.” “Street” is “sì-tuyết” or as Hằng remembers it, “a hiss and the word for snow.” And Mesquite is pronounced “me-sì-quýt” or “tamarind-(hiss)-tangerine.” The effect of Vietnamizing English words, at least for this Vietnamese American reader, is the distinct feeling of hearing one’s first language in a crowded room. It’s unexpected but it feels like coming home.
Butterfly Yellow is a Vietnamese refugee story but also an American one—the way the idea of America is not exactly aligned with the way America actually is. Before arriving Hằng imagines a land of the cowboys roaming the desert and “kicking up clouds of dust as they sped on horses. What she gets are roads lined with “an assault of billboards: on one with Repent or Live Forever After in Damnation, on another three cowboys tame a horse under the headline ACME THE REAL WEST, then a close up of a sizzling steak.” The xenophobia is also unexpected. “You’d think once we let them in, they’d do their part to not drag trouble with them,” Hằng hears a woman say. And, of course, the only cowboy she meets is the fake cowboy Leeroy, who, though at first is surly, makes for a friend who’s charming and compassionate.
More than this, though, Butterfly Yellow is a story of survival and what happens after the worst is over, when we are able to look back at what we’ve been through and what we’ve lost. Early on, Hằng resists indulging in not only memory but feeling too: “…all indulgent emotions have long remained on pause,” Lại writes. “She has yet to mourn her father or mother. Not until she finds her brother.” There is no time to feel, Hằng thinks, when one is trying to survive. At the same time, re-encountering our trauma can break us, as it threatens to do so to Hằng. Her aunt even goes as far as to say, “Telling would only bring judgment and pity. Better to smile, lift your head, forget, do everything right. Soon your life will be so perfect you will have no need to remember, much less tell.” Yet, as Lại shows readers, our memories don’t weigh us down. Instead, they make us fly.
by Thanhhà Lại
Eric Nguyen is the Book Reviews Editor for diaCRITICS.