I don’t know how I missed these books, but I am so glad I found them. Thanhha Lai’s writing is charming, funny, and oh, so real.
In Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha pulls her readers into a fictional world based on her experiences as a child in Viet Nam, fleeting at the fall of Saigon, and emigrating to America.
In Listen, Slowly, Thanhha explores living in two worlds as a teen who has cultural and family roots in Viet Nam, but feels very American growing up in California.
Inside Out and Back Again went through many versions over many years as Thanhha experimented with different voices and styles. After starting with long, flowy passages that just didn’t seem like a 10 year old’s voice, and then moving to Hemmingway-ish close third-person, one day she started jotting down just how Ha, the 10 year old female protagonist, was feeling.
And that was powerful.
Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again, shows the reader snapshots into the mind and heart of Ha during a single year, 1975-1976, a year where she and her family escape Viet Nam during the fall of Saigon, survive as boat people, and eventually settle in rural American. Through Ha’s eyes, we experience random acts of kindness, prejudice, fear, hope, longing, acceptance, and despair. While told in English, the free verse poetry feels like lyrical, poetical forms of Vietnamese, blended with sucker punches of raw emotion. With Thanhha’s prose stripped down to the bare essentials, readers find space to fill in the gaps with their own experiences. The good, the bad, and the ugly are pitch-perfect of that time and of fourth grade politics. It’s a book that invites lots of discussion and deep thinking and, I hope, will inspire others to write their own tales. In the edition I read there was a lot of supplemental materials perfect for reading groups and the classroom.
Listen, Slowly, is about a second generation twelve year old Vietnamese girl growing up in California and reluctantly accompanying her grandmother back to Viet Nam one summer to learn more about what happened to her grandfather. It’s a classic insider/outsider story. Mai starts her journey with the goal of returning to Cali as soon as she can, but learns to love and appreciate her Vietanmese-ness and finds space within herself to bridge both worlds. Materialism, family obligations, roles in society, and worldviews are big themes. I think upper MG and YA readers will relate to Mai, and that can spark a lot of conversations about privilege, race, and what is owed.
Both books are available on Amazon and other fine bookstores. Go read ‘em, go read ‘em, go.