I’m an ardent devotee of kids’ immigrant fiction, but often such books feature an incredibly earnest message. I wasn’t young Gandhi when I was twelve; why are most protagonists in these novels are so very virtuous? And why is their virtue rewarded by acceptance and popularity, when real life is infinitely less fair?
If you’ve ever asked these questions (and found only half-baked answers), you should rush to pick up Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again. Lai’s memories of childhood haven’t been transmogrified by adult notions of correctness, and her narrative about a young Vietnamese girl transplanted to racially-charged 1970s Alabama is utterly convincing. Oh, and her prose beats the pants off most YA writers in business today. I reviewed this book for the Asian Review of Books recently, and it was a real pleasure.
It’s 1975 in Saigon, and ten-year-old Hà is busy celebrating her birthday, waiting for the papayas to ripen, and solving fiendish math problems at school. Father’s away, fighting in the war, but Hà, her three brothers and Mother have managed—until now, when war has arrived at their doorstep. The family boards a ship leaving Vietnam, and finally end up in Guam, where they are sponsored by a family from Alabama. But now they “must consider the shame/of abandoning [their] own country/and begging toward the unknown/at the lowest level/on the social scale.”
The notion of social demotion caused by immigration lies at the heart of Thanhha Lai’s award-winning novel in verse, Inside Out & Back Again. In Vietnam, Mother is a secretary who designs baby clothes on the side; she is prosperous enough to consider buying a car, and sees her children becoming engineers, doctors, poets and lawyers. Immigration forces them to begin anew, disadvantaged by language, religion and race; the family is, at best, met with condescension (Mother observes that “the pity giver/feels better/never the pity receiver”), and at worst, with ignorance and hatred—a brick is thrown through their window, and eggs at their front door.
So, the Buddhist family joins the Del Ray Southern Baptist Church in Alabama, hoping that the neighbors will now stop slamming doors in their faces. Mother finds work sewing at a factory, while Brother Quang, a former engineering student, works as a mechanic. The compromises are all one-sided, and Hà often thinks she’d rather be in wartime Saigon. School is unforgiving—she’s called pancake face and Ching Chong, is asked if she eats dogs, and is poked and prodded till she starts hiding in the bathroom during lunch time. And academics are no better, for although she could probably win the Math Olympiad, she speaks no English, and is utterly humiliated and enraged when her teacher asks her to count till twenty—and the class claps. “So this is/what dumb/feels like.”
But there are good people too, of course, who help the family, and with time, Hà makes friends and learns English—enough to combat the school yard insults with some judicious taunting of her own. I was particularly taken with a scene when some students yell Boo-da, Boo-da (Buddha) at Hà, and she turns and yells Gee-sus, Gee-sus right back. What a rare pleasure—a fictional Asian character who doesn’t win over her enemies by modeling herself on Gandhi. Nope, Hà overpowers her chief tormentor (whom she calls Pink Boy) in a classic schoolyard fight. And when Brother Vũ, all dressed in black, picks her up from school on a “gigantic motorcycle”, the rout is complete—Hà is now cool. This book is targeted at eight-to-twelve year olds, and Lai knows her audience—she doesn’t advocate violence (far from it), but neither does she insist on a restraint unnatural for this age.
The Young Adult novel in verse has gained popularity in recent years, seemingly as much as gimmick as a genuine attempt to stimulate the reader’s aural imagination, but Inside Out & Back Again gives a rare organic synthesis of story and form. The confessional, intimate tone of Hà’s first-person narrative and the intensity of her emotions find their logical expression in the short, sharp cadences of verse. Verse demands to be read out loud, and Hà’s attempts to pronounce English words add further richness to the phonological experience. “He says, Steven./I hear SSsì-Ti-Vân.” If you didn’t sound that out loud, well, you must be missing an ear or two.
Lai infuses Hà’s story with energy and insight and fun, and her prose will appeal to readers of all ages, for her thoughtful, poetic observations make us see the familiar afresh though Hà’s eyes. Here’s Mother, stitching with “the needle a worm/laying tiny eggs/ that sink into brown cloth.” There’s Hà, biting into a cookie “dotted with chocolate raindrops”. Tales of immigration and assimilation may now be commonplace; Lai’s writing is anything but.
This novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Click here to read a 9-page excerpt (PDF file warning!)