Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war. She now lives in Kansas with her family. Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse. This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.
Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975, the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.
The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry. At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.
Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.
A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.
Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.
Evenings we have to ourselves.
We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a white sheet.
Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.
If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.
If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.
The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,
begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.
I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,
who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.
This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children. Read it. The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.