Inside Out & Back Again
HarperCollins: 262 pp., $15.99, ages 8 and older
The United States prides itself on being a melting pot, but the many immigrant stories that make up our uniquely American stew aren’t always known and are even less frequently published by the mainstream press. Take Thanhha Lai, who, in her recent National Book Award winner, “Inside Out & Back Again,” chronicles her family’s move to the U.S. from her native Vietnam in 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon.
This novel in verse, based on Lai’s experiences, is written in a spare, yet accessible style that bears no trace of her struggles to learn English as a 10-year-old immigrant. Told from the perspective of Hà, with the action unfolding in the present tense, the story begins on Feb. 11, the first day of the lunar new year, Tet. According to the fortune teller whom Hà's mother always visited during the annual celebration, her family’s life was about to “twist inside out” as the conflict between the Americans and the Viet Cong continued in a civil war.
At first, there’s little indication such a prediction will come true. Hà's father had gone missing nine years earlier, but life was otherwise good. Hà's mother had steady work as a secretary and a seamstress, and Hà and her three older brothers were enrolled in school. But when their Vietnamese neighbors could no longer afford clothes, Hà's family felt the effects of their government’s unraveling at the seams. Money was scarce and increasingly worthless. Food was less and less available.
“Mother measures rice grains left in the bin. Not enough to last til payday at the end of the month. Her brows twist like laundry being wrung dry. Yam and manioc taste lovely blended with rice, she says, and smiles, as if I don’t know how the poor fill their children’s bellies,” Hà writes in a one-page chapter that, like all the chapters in this book, are short and anchored with a dateline.
It was April 13, just two months since Tet. Two weeks later, each family member packed a home-sewn bag with “one pair of pants, one pair of shorts … three clumps of cooked rice, one choice.” Hà chose to bring a doll. She left behind photographs, the hammock where she napped and the papaya tree she nursed into bearing fruit, and was herded onto an overcrowded boat abandoned by the Vietnamese navy. There she and thousands of other Saigon refugees watched as bombs fell on a city they weren’t likely to see again.
It’s a chilling scene to even imagine, let alone live through, but Hà's impish and intelligent spirit stop the story from becoming maudlin. Hà's anxiety is grounded by simple physical experiences, such as the daily food ration, as well as her observations and interactions on the boat, where she spends an entire month before being rescued.
“Inside Out & Back Again” is divided into three main parts: Saigon, At Sea and Alabama, where Hà and her family move after being sponsored by a well-meaning “cowboy” without a horse and his disapproving wife.
“Green mats of grass in front of every house. Vast windows in front of sealed curtains. Cement lanes where no one walks. Big cars pass not often. Not a noise. Clean, quiet loneliness” is Hà's experience. But it gets worse when she enters school. Though intelligent and well-raised in her homeland, Hà is relentlessly teased and treated like a pity case. Her home is routinely pelted with eggs and toilet paper and bricks.
It’s no wonder Hà thinks: “At times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”
Assimilation isn’t an easy experience, but it’s rare that readers are given an opportunity to experience its specifics, and rarer still to hear it from a Vietnamese perspective. Lai’s fictionalized portrait of Hà may not become as well-known as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked and burning from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. But just as that picture was worth a thousand words, Lai’s “Inside Out & Back Again” paints another, much-needed portrait — one that humanizes what otherwise would be a history-book experience.