Presenter of the National Book Awards

2011 National Book Award Winner,
Young People's Literature

Thanhha Lai

Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back Again

Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Interview by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Eisa Ulen: You state that Inside Out & Back Again, your coming-of-age narrative told in the form of a series of prose-poems, is semi-autobiographical. Like the book’s female protagonist, Hà, your family fled Vietnam and ended up in Alabama when you were 10 years old. In “Confessions,” Hà’s mother tell her, “Oh, my daughter, / at times you have to fight, / but preferably / not with your fists.” Was writing this book your way of fighting back, not with fists, but with words, and giving voice to the often silenced experiences of refugee children in the United States?

Thanhha Lai: I never thought of these poems as a way of fighting back with words because typing out these words was such a pleasurable process. Thirty-five years had passed between living it and telling it, so the anger and confusion had evaporated. Instead, I focused on letting readers feel, touch, taste, hear everything in Hà’s world. I’m not so presumptuous as to think I could offer a voice to refugee children, but more of a sparkle to jump start their own stories. While writing I thought often of other 10-year-old refugees in the world. I would love to read a tale from a girl who was born in a camp and has never known anything else. What would be her story?

EU: The sea becomes a space “in between” in your book—between Vietnam and America, between childhood and emerging adulthood. The forced displacement of Hà’s family destroys innocence as sweet as Hà’s papaya—and also creates an awareness of suffering and loss that makes Brother Khoi’s eyes “as wild / as those of his broken chick.” Why must Hà throw her “mouse-bitten doll” and Khoi’s dead chick overboard in a “white bundle [that] sinks into the sea”? How significant is it that they—and not the grown-ups—are the ones to bury these battered symbols of their own youth?

TL: Hà sacrifices her doll so Brother Khoi would know his chick is nurtured even when he’s not there. I’m not much for symbolism. As for a lost youth, that doesn’t happen until they land in Alabama. These characters could process losing a doll and a chick. But to lose a sense of self, well...

EU: The snake motif figures prominently in your book, particularly in poems that express Hà’s struggle to master English and use of the letter S in everyday speech. Do serpents have a particular meaning or significance to you?

TL: I was born in year of the snake. What does that mean? I have no idea. I do know that when I played United Nations with friends in Vietnam we each represented a country. The one from France would say “L” sounds like “la, le, les,” from China “bell” sounds like “chong, gong, long,” from Japan “O” sounds like “Tokyo, Kyoto, Toyo,” and the one from the United States would hiss fervently. English to foreign ears is a snaky language.

EU: Language empowers Hà in “Du Du Face” as she confronts the schoolchildren who chase her and yell “Boo-Da.” She shocks them by turning to shout “Gee-sus” back at them. Language also empowers Hà’s mother when she challenges the butcher with “a lot of Vietnamese / in a voice stern and steady” and compels him to grind the pork as she requested in “NOW!” Do you think of language as a kind of liberating force in the world? Did words free you when you moved to the United States and learned to master the English language?

TL: Language is self expression. I remember standing in the playground and not being able to say exactly what I was thinking. Right then, I became obsessed with words. I was able to regain and build a sense of self. But my mother never learned English in a way that equaled her command of Vietnamese. When I translate for her, I still can’t convey the eloquence of her thoughts. It’s such a loss.

EU: Photographs are also important in your book, as Hà’s teacher shows images of war-torn Vietnam, but Hà’s neighbor shares photographs her son took of Vietnam that reveal the country’s beauty. What image of Vietnam do you think most Americans have today? What image of America do you think most Vietnamese have today?

TL: Age and the media dictate how Americans see Vietnam and vice versa. For Americans who were 18 or older in 1975, they still remember a war-torn, desperate country because all they saw was a war-torn, desperate country on TV. These are the same people who tell ME what Vietnam was like. They want me to have run around naked and napalmed, to have starved on a fishing boat. For those younger, Vietnam is a vacation spot—seafood, canoe trips, white sand, turquoise water. Images straight out of brochures.

Vietnamese in Vietnam ask me about cars the size of boats, houses the size of palaces, bathrooms that look like living rooms and EXACTLY what do Americans eat and how much. Vietnam is a size-zero country, so the last question is from disbelief that skin can stretch to accommodate that much flesh. America remains the best bet for hope. Most parents would love to send their children to college here, but the graduates must return home, of course.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com,TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.