August 14, 2017

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The Inside Story: Thanhha Lai

It took Thanhha Lai 15 years to write her first novel, but it was well worth the wait.

Thanhha Lai was eating chocolate cake at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, nearly 9,000 miles from her birthplace. It was the evening of November 16, and she was about to be astonished.

“I thought surely I possess enough social grace to chew and clap simultaneously, so why not eat?” says the 46-year-old author, who never imagined that her debut novel would actually win one of our nation’s most prestigious literary prizes. But that was before author-historian Marc Aronson stood behind a lectern in the restaurant’s grand ballroom to announce the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and began ticking off the list of nominees.

slj1201w_FT_CVstoryThanhha(Original Import)

“He described the book, and I found myself playing an elimination game,” says Lai. “First he said ‘she,’ so that eliminated two finalists. Then he said ‘note-perfect evocation,’ and I thought, what a great way to describe a book, and wondered whose book it was. Then he mentioned ‘exile’ and ‘immigration’ and I concluded it was Debby’s book set in Alaska,” remembers Lai, referring to Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name Is Not Easy. “Then he actually said ‘Thanhha,’ pronouncing [TANG-Ha] to near perfection, and I thought, ‘No, did he just say my name?’ I panicked and chewed and swallowed then turned to my editor and asked, ‘Do I have to go up there?’”

The answer she got from her editors, Tara Weikum and Sarah Sevier, was, yes indeed, she did have to go up there and accept her award… with everyone watching.

Lai was 10 years old—the youngest of nine siblings—when her family fled Vietnam in the dark of night, leaving behind the gleam and shadow of her childhood and the last sight of her father, who had been captured by the Viet Cong. Her semiautobiographical novel, Inside Out & Back Again (HarperCollins), is set in 1975, the same turbulent year as her own exile, voyage, and complicated arrival in America. She has crafted a powerful story in slender, sinewy prose poems, just a few words in each line, inviting and intriguing young readers who are eight to twelve, some of whom may be meeting their first novel in verse.

Ten-year-old Hà narrates her harrowing journey: on April 30, 1975, a family of five leaves Saigon by boat just hours before the city comes under heavy artillery attack from North Vietnamese forces, who raise their flag over the presidential palace, marking the end of the Vietnam War. As narrator and guide, Hà brings with her the flavors and fragrances of her beloved Vietnam. She also brings a newcomer’s vision to America, with its sharp-edged barriers of color, ethnicity, religion, and custom. The family’s Montgomery, AL, sponsor makes possible their first home in the United States, but hostility in a neighborhood whose adults refuse to welcome them keeps the family off-balance, and, for young Hà, school is torment.

These days, Lai is a New Yorker with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin and an MFA in writing from New York University, and she teaches writing at Parsons School of Design. She’s currently working on a contemporary novel about a rich, spoiled 12-year-old who’s forced to live in Vietnam for a summer. Lai and her husband, Henri Omer, and their five-year-old daughter, whose favorite book is David Lucas’s The Robot and the Bluebird, share their Manhattan home with a 12-pound male Havanese named Pico. My conversation with Lai took place just after Thanksgiving, which she and her family celebrated with her mother in Kansas. With the holiday meal a fresh memory, Lai felt she could “refocus on work instead of running around town looking for an organic turkey.”

You’ve said it took 15 years to write your novel, while you sought the best way to tell the story.

I tell everyone, do not go into writing unless you can handle sitting still for hours and hours and hours. It’s shockingly boring. Like anything else, what you see is merely the end result of hours of practice, be it shooting hoops from midcourt or playing Chopin.

I didn’t write about Hà for 15 years, but I was writing an adult novel about a family from Vietnam—so basically the same narrative. That novel was written in third-person omniscient, spanning 4,000 years of Vietnamese history, and whiplashed by hundreds of overly dramatic, showy sentences that went nowhere. I read it now and laugh. But writing, even bad writing, counts for something. By the time I started jotting down images that would culminate into these things called prose poems, I had gotten long, writerly sentences out of my system. I was able to cut ruthlessly and kept just enough to capture the character and her emotions. Sure enough, once I found Hà’s voice and got out of the way, the story told itself.

That’s a lot of rethinking… and then even more rethinking.

During the 15 years, I acquired a husband and a daughter and a little white dog and worked overnight proofreading at Bankers Trust and taught at Parsons and biked up and down [New York’s] West Side Bike Path and tried to think of what else I could be doing besides writing. I couldn’t think of anything, so I kept going.

And with superb results. Tell us about your own long ocean voyage as a child. Each family member was allowed only a small bag of belongings.

I was 10 and thought being on the ship was a huge adventure. I helped my mother sew the sacks half the size of a pillowcase, but I didn’t fully comprehend that I would be leaving Vietnam forever. I didn’t think beyond the Communists are coming (as everyone was saying) and we must get out. The first few days on the ship were actually fun. I saw dolphins and sharks and brushed my teeth and bathed with salt water. We still had plenty to eat. But by week two, I was bored and cranky and hungry and demanded to go home so I could finish fourth grade.

When the ship didn’t turn around, I thought in terms of when will I be going home. Even in Alabama, as my mother explained that there will be no more naps (Vietnam is a siesta country) and that I will be eating lunch at school, I was still waiting to go home. The realization came slowly, perhaps while standing on the playground mute and confused and angry, that this is my new home. Surely my mother would not put me through all this if we were just visiting.

How did you distill that experience into the lean verses that we hear in young Hà’s voice? Did you recite the lines aloud as you worked, and were you thinking in Vietnamese and English together?

I did read the lines out loud once they were set. In creating them, I thought in Vietnamese in terms of images, then translated those images into English in a way that left the rhythm of the original language intact. The Vietnamese I know, influenced by my mother, is naturally poetic, rhythmic, melodic. Because Vietnamese is based on Chinese, which of course is a language built from images, I was able to express emotions through pictures, not words. Thus I was able to cut many unneeded words, leaving just the core, like boiling down sap to make syrup.

I’m as wordy as anyone else when I talk, but in writing these poems, especially inside the mind of a 10-year-old girl who feels as much as any adult but can’t express the emotions yet, it seemed right to employ a few precise, pregnant words and have them explode into real, raw emotions.

The poet William Stafford observed that in writing a poem, the problem isn’t so much finding the right words as it is getting rid of all the wrong words.

Mr. Stafford knew his craft. I have been reading Nguyên Du, Vietnam’s most famous poet, all my life, and he can convey the world inside two lines of six or eight syllables. I’ve always loved that. In writing Inside Out, I did delete every unneeded word. At one point I also eliminated every article,thinking Vietnamese doesn’t have articles and readers would get a sense of what it’s like to read in Vietnamese. But that exercise made the poems unreadable, so I put back the articles but cut out every word that couldn’t justify its existence.

It sounds as if many forces kept trying to break Hà. Every generation laments the dilemma of children caught in the sweep of war, and we always wonder how they can grow up whole.

Hà, and children in general, are much more resilient than adults. And I would say more forgiving, too. Yes, things shatter, but by some universal law, things also mend. Hà didn’t get to grow up with a father, but in return she got an exquisite mother and funny, supportive siblings. Saigon is gone, but eventually, she does settle into a new corner of the world. As for the old South Vietnamese flag, it’s still flying right now all over Little Saigon in Orange County, CA, where more Vietnamese live than anywhere else in the world except in Vietnam itself.

slj1201w_FT_CVstoryBKjacket(Original Import)Immediately after Hà’s poignant separation from Vietnam, she has to endure the rotten manners of her American schoolmates.

The way her classmates behaved in Alabama? Well, that was 1975. I, as the grown-up Hà, hope that [today’s] children are more aware. Why? Because their parents are more aware. Reflecting back, I certainly don’t blame my classmates for pulling my arm hair. They didn’t know how to express curiosity, fear, and bewilderment, most probably instilled in them by adults. I’m raising a five-year-old, and I tell her if someone is different from you, go stand next to her and observe. That person just brought another world to your door without you having to travel. What does she like to eat, wear? What is her routine before bed? Where does she sleep? With whom? The questions are endless, and the answers are bound to contain surprises.

Children are naturally curious, and if left on their own without prescribed adult prejudices, they’ll do fine by each other. After all, what can be better than uncovering a pure, unspoiled mystery?

Although Hà is very knowledgeable, she can barely speak English, which is a serious problem at her new school. She writes:
So this is
what dumb
feels like.

But a bit later, after she solves a math problem that her classmate, who is already resentful of her, can’t, Hà says:
I know
Pink Boy will get me,
but right now
I feel smart.

Those two emotions, smart vs. dumb, dictated Hà’s childhood. She felt smart in Vietnam and that knowledge was enough to pull her through a missing father, a neighborhood ruled by curfews, bombs in the distance, the unreliability of money. For her, being smart equated to a confidence that she could manage her world. That’s why she would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

In Alabama, for the first time she felt dumb. So it didn’t matter that bombs no longer could be heard, or that she and her siblings had a house, school supplies, clothes, furniture. None of those tangible objects mattered because she found herself hiding in the bathroom at lunchtime. To make it worse, everyone was saying how lucky she was to have escaped.

Hà knew her family wasn’t going back to the land where she felt smart, so she had to create that confidence in Alabama. It took a while. In the book, confusion turned toward hope within a year. In my life, the process extended to a decade. But I did get there.

Hà’s entire family misses their father. He’s a potent, absent presence, although we know that as a prisoner of war, he had almost no chance to escape. As a reader, I kept hoping they’d all be reunited.

That was my way of paying tribute to a man who should have gotten to see his wife age, to see his children have good days and bad days, and to see his life end with the certainty that he had his say. Because he never returned to us, I saw no other option but to tell his story as I knew it. It’s not a happy ending, just an honest one. I think readers can accept that. Not too many readers have asked about the father. They mostly want to know if the doll and chick episode was true (no, it’s not).

Before I read your book, I didn’t know anything about Nhât Linh, the celebrated writer of Vietnam’s Self-Reliance Movement, who became a political martyr. Do you have any friends here with whom you can discuss Vietnamese literature?

My Vietnamese literary friend is my mom. She always had a book in her hand, while cooking, sewing, telling me stories. Some years back, I followed her around until she recorded all of Nguyên Du’s The Tale of Ki ê u, an epic poem of many, many pages. I promised her then I’d leave her alone after that task. Let’s just say I have broken that promise.

How were you able to shut out the daily world so that you could immerse yourself in Hà’s story?

I jog. That’s my big secret. I jog without music; that’s key. I think of all sorts of things while hearing the rhythmic pounding of my feet. Then I go home, jot down notes before saying anything to anyone. As for shutting out the world, earplugs work great. I wrote most of Inside Out at a research library at 135th and Lenox. It’s a public space; people are noisy.

Your novel is perfectly suited to readers’ theatre. Have you seen children perform it yet?

What a fabulous idea! I would love to hear these poems in a performance.

How does your mother, who bravely brought her family to this strange land, feel about your writing?

She is thrilled that finally, after so many years, my lifelong yearning has been satisfied. The Vietnamese phrase is “man nguyen,” which means something like “realized yearning.”

And you? You discovered so much in America, but left so much behind in Vietnam.

What does one take in a sack half the size of a pillowcase? Obviously necessities, and one sentimental item. That leaves a whole life behind…. Even now, I can’t look at bougainvillea without being struck by nostalgia.


Virginia Euwer Wolff’s novel True Believer (S&S/Antheneum) won the 2001 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

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