Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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.

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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.

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This novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Click here to read a 9-page excerpt (PDF file warning!)

An interview with Camilla Gibb for Bookslut

My interview with Camilla Gibb is up at the latest issue of Bookslut. Gibb’s new novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement (Penguin, 2011) is a very accomplished piece of writing, but what really intrigued me was were the issues surrounding the Canadian Gibb’s authorship of a book set in a culture and country far from her own–Vietnam. Moreover, Gibb presents a Vietnam seen through Vietnamese eyes; the only Western character is a Vietnamese-American woman visiting the country in order to trace her missing father.

I am not questioning for a second Gibb’s (or any author’s) right to handle Vietnam (or any other) subject matter, but I do think it’s a notable omission not to acknowledge the place from which an author writes. What if the situation had been reversed; what if, say, a Muslim Pakistani writer had penned a novel about Canada on the basis of a vacation to the country-a novel that didn’t concern itself with the issues that are supposed to preoccupy such a writer but instead, simply sought to capture today’s Canada. Would critics readily cast aside the author’s racial, religious and national identity while reviewing this book?

Gibb is a white Western-educated Canadian woman. Gibb is immensely adept at understanding other cultures–she has a PhD in Anthropology from Oxford. Gibb’s previous novel again dealt with  a culture very far from her own–2005’s Sweetness in the Belly explored the life of a white Muslim woman in Ethiopia with astonishing depth and sensitivity.  I kept these facts in mind while communicating with Gibb, and here’s the resulting interview.

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Camilla Gibb’s last novel, Sweetness in the Belly, was set in Ethiopia and Thatcherite Britain, and described the story of a white Muslim woman who self-identified as Ethiopian. Critics praised the work’s authenticity and cultural sensitivity, and Sweetness scooped up a number of honors, including the Trillium Book Award.

In her new novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Gibb again writes about a country and culture far from her own — Vietnam. Beauty avoids the regulation West-centric narratives of the country to offer an intimate, richly-detailed account of the forces of history and optimism animating Vietnam today.

Gibb, who earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University, was born in England and now lives in Toronto. She answered Bookslut’s questions via e-mail on the eve of her trip to the United Kingdom.

Sweetness in the Belly is set (partly) in Ethiopia, and The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Vietnam. Given how a sense of place is so key to your writing, it’s intriguing that you’ve said you always enter a novel through a character.

I see the encounter with place always happening through the eyes of an individual. I am interested in place and culture in terms of how they shape an individual life, but what and how one encounters is really determined by individual personality and circumstances. For example, the main character of The Beauty of Humanity Movement is an old, itinerant pho seller named Hung. When I “discovered” him, I wanted to know his life story, what he had lived through in eight decades, what he had experienced and how that might have shaped him. I thus encountered Vietnamese history and culture through his eyes — taking him back through the decades, from the French colonial era, to the beginning of the communist era, to the war, to the years of poverty following the war that necessitated some liberalization of the Vietnamese economy.

Vietnam has a knotty history with the West — of colonialism, exploitation and war. Do you, as a Western writer, feel a burden of representation (so to speak) when dealing with Vietnam?

Not burdened, but appropriately challenged. What I wanted to do was tell a story about Vietnam that had very little to do with the war. When I went to Vietnam in 2007, it became immediately apparent the degree to which the war is a Western, rather than Vietnamese preoccupation. Once you put the war aside, the possibility of a thousand other stories comes to light — stories we have not heard because Vietnam still exercises a stern degree of censorship, individual expression has been discouraged, there is not a strong tradition of novel-writing and there is no publishing industry to speak of beyond the government’s own propaganda department. If I, because of the privilege of living and working in the West, have some freedom to shine a light in a hidden corner, I take it as my responsibility to do so, and do it responsibly.

The Vietnam War is still an important cultural and political touchstone for America, but your novel conveys the impression that modern Vietnam doesn’t devote much mindspace to it. In the novel, a young man named Tu’ says “The war was a long time ago… And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans…” And the matter seems to end there for him.

The legacy persists, the damage done, the scars, but perhaps in part because of a Buddhist sensibility, there seems to be a strong inclination to live in the now.

To write narratives which get deep under the skin of a country, you must have inhabited the private spaces of the people. Did you find this easy to achieve? How do you fold yourself away and become an invisible observer?

I will never be an invisible observer. I will always be an outsider. But that stance can sometimes afford you insight, with the benefit of some distance, some objectivity and some access to private spaces that might otherwise be off-limits. In the research that informed Sweetness in the Belly, for example, I lived and worked in a Muslim community for a year. Because I was non-Muslim, because I was not a woman from that community with all the associated expectations, I had the advantage of being able to move between male and female spaces in the way a woman in that community could not. Being a woman also allowed me access to the private worlds of women in a way that a male writer could never have accessed.

I can see how your training as an anthropologist helps your writing, but does it ever cramp you in the domain of fiction?

It did. The early drafts of Sweetness in the Belly were full of explicit ethnography. But then I was burdened with having written a Ph.D. thesis on the place and its people. I had to purge a lot of detail in the interests of moving along and telling a story. I learned a lot through that process.

I approached this novel very differently, just doing enough research to give me a toehold, then taking the plunge into the imaginative. I let the main character, Hung, take me back through time. I imagined he came from a village, and therefore researched village life in the ’20s and ’30s. I brought him to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Hanoi in the 1930s, and thus did research about café culture and intellectual life in Hanoi during the ’30s-’50s. And in doing so, I discovered the men I refer to as “The Beauty of Humanity Movement.” I did research about the end of the French era, the early days of communism, including the brutal land reform policies of the ’50s, and so on, situating Hung in all the eras he had lived through, asking how the universal and political was personally experienced. I encountered history through his eyes.

Is your connection to the setting of your novels primarily literary, or does it extend to other aspects of your life? Once a novel is published and done with, what sort of relationship do/can you maintain with the place?

I don’t shy away from the designation “political” writer. There is a politics at work in everything I do — a humanitarian spirit and a belief in the importance of underrepresented voices being heard. In Sweetness in the Belly, for example, I very much wanted to explore something of Oromo experience. The Oromo are an Ethiopian ethnic group who have been marginalized and denied freedom of cultural and political expression for centuries. An Oromo friend thanked me for speaking to the Oromo situation in a way that she was not at liberty to do. Her life would be in danger if she even attempted to do so.

On the topic of a humanitarian spirit, I heard you helped your Vietnamese tour guide Phuong (who told you about the itinerant pho seller who inspired the character of Hung) set up a pho shop of his own?

My friend Phuong had a dream to open his own pho restaurant. Years ago I had a dream — to write fiction. Someone — an anonymous benefactor — gave me a gift of $6,000 to quit my job and give it a try. It was then that I wrote my first novel. Because someone gave me a chance. I always wondered how and to whom I would pay the gift forward. When I met Phuong, I knew. He opened his first shop in 2008.

How has The Beauty of Humanity Movement been received in Vietnam? And by Vietnamese Canadians and Americans?

I have sent copies to friends in Vietnam, but have yet to hear their reactions. So far, I have had lovely responses from Vietnamese Canadians and Americans, most of whom left Vietnam as children. There is some relief, it seems, in reading a happy story about Vietnam, of reading about Vietnam as a modern country, and of hearing a story that is not preoccupied with the war.

Who is the one Vietnamese writer we should all be reading?

Dương Thu Hương, a Hanoin writer born in 1947, is considered something of a hero of the Đổi Mới era. Đổi Mới, an official platform adopted in the mid-1980s in order to liberalize a crippled economy, saw some degree of relaxation in social and political policing as well. At least for a time. Dương was imprisoned in 1991 after having published two novels openly critical of the Communist Party – The Other Side of the Illusion and Paradise of the Blind. She is an outspoken and vocal critic who continues to live and write in Hanoi, though her work is banned in Vietnam. Her subsequent novels, Novel Without a Name and Memories of a Pure Spring, have both only been published abroad in translation. All her works offer rare insight into post-war Vietnam, an era largely hidden from (and ignored by) Western eyes.

What are you working on now?

I edited a collection of Canadian memoir that is coming out this April — The Penguin Book of Memoir. As a consequence of spending three years reading memoir, I’m leaning toward writing one myself.

One of the main themes of your fiction is, in fact, the power — and unreliability — of memory. Could you elaborate on the latter in the context of your novels as well as this anthology? What draws you to memoir?

I don’t know that I make clear distinctions between fiction and memoir. They both seek to elucidate some truth about human experience and employ narrative devices in order to tell a story. Fiction often has the advantage of reading truer than nonfiction, ironically. The draw toward nonfiction at the moment seems to be rooted in a desire to explore a more direct means of storytelling.

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The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book , perhaps best known for its Hashish fudge recipe, includes the lines “[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish to hire…’” The Book of Salt is the fictional account of the man who answered that advertisement. Binh is the live-in cook at 27 rue de Fleurs—the 1930s Parisian home of Alice B. Toklas and the noted intellectual Gertrude Stein.

Binh is Vietnamese, gay, not fluent in French, not upper-class, not rich, not well-educated; he is the colonized in the land of the colonizer–an outsider in a way that Stein and Toklas, for all their unconventionality, can never quite understand. In Paris, Binh’s identity is reduced to his skin; he is “an Indochinese labourer, generalized and indiscriminate, easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same.” The French do not care if he is from Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, for all these countries belong to France, to “the same Monsieur and Madame”. Binh longs to be back in Saigon, where he was, “above all, just a man”, where he would not be perpetually Othered.

The relationship between colonizer and colonized is perhaps ultimately a story of betrayal. The mother country’s claims of its moral and intellectual superiority justify its right to rule—a justification which proves hollow in the face of its treatment of the colonized. Binh, to me, is emblematic of the relationship between France and Vietnam; the betrayal at the national level is mirrored in the life story of this one Vietnamese man. In Saigon, Binh is abandoned by his French lover, following which he leaves for France to find employment as a cook. France, however, never lets him forget that he is a servant. His employers often fire him when they tire of his “exoticism”; Binh of course has little recourse to justice in such situations. And Stein and Toklas, for all their enlightened ways, are often cruel to him, showing more concern for their beloved dogs’ well-being than Binh’s, calling him their “Little Indo-Chinese”, and much more.

Yet Binh is not without agency. The intimate act of cooking and serving food gives him a vantage point in the domestic space of the Stein-Toklas household–an access to the couple that their admirers envy. Food is one of the most overused metaphors in immigrant literature, with the pungent ethnic dish inevitably contrasted against decorous white bread sandwiches, but Binh’s position as cook is essential to the novel rather than a convenient peg for hanging up colourful ethnic differences. But that agency too carries seeds of betrayal within itself; there is no refuge for Binh, at least not in France.

Truong selectively reveals information to construct her complex, whorled tale,   delivering surprise after surprise to the reader in the process. At no point, however, did I feel deliberately manipulated, even though she yanks the rug from under my feet every few pages. The intensity of the protagonist’s voice allows Truong to pull off this authorial chicanery; Binh is so raw and real that we immerse ourselves unquestioningly into his (self-admittedly) unreliable narrative. To apply that overused but admittedly convenient food metaphor, The Book of Salt is a millefeuille of a novel, so intricately layered that it is nothing less than a feat of engineering.

Truong has stated in an interview that while reading Toklas’s book, she felt “…in the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, these “Indo-Chinese” cooks were just a minor footnote. There could be a personal epic embedded inside that footnote, I thought. The Book of Salt is that story…”  It has always seemed to me that the Binhs of our world constitute an essential but ignored part of empire-building; they lurk in margins and in footnotes, waiting to undermine the master narrative, waiting for someone to give them a hearing. Truong’s passionate, beautiful novel makes Binh’s story worth the long wait.

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I read this book for the OneShot Southeast Asia challenge, which urges readers to step out of their reading comfort zones.  Well, my comfort zone is South Asian fiction, which is of course miles away from Southeast Asian writing.  Thanks to Lisa for the book recommendation, and to Colleen for setting up this challenge.