The Vietnamese refugee story that inspired a National Book Award Winner
40 years ago, National Book Award winner Thanhha Lai fled Vietnam with her family.
The experience of adjusting to life in Alabama, U.S.A, is told through Hà, Lai’s central character in her semi-autobiographical debut novel “Inside Out & Back Again”.
The story follows 10 year old Hà as she escapes from post-war Vietnam aboard a Navy ship and illustrates her trials and tribulations in adjusting to her new surroundings, culture and language in the United States.
On World Book Day, UNHCR Ireland external relations intern Anna Harvey talks to her about life growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in 1970’s Alabama, the value of heritage and the extent to which her experiences have influenced her writing.
1: What first inspired you to write “Inside Out & Back Again”?
For 15 years, I had worked on a similar novel that just fell apart. Disgusted, I was about to quit writing but thought I would try one more time using a different approach. I would focus on one year instead of four thousand years of Vietnamese history, and on one character instead of 20. And because the one character was based on myself, the book wrote itself.
2: You must have been thrilled when “Inside Out & Back Again” won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, do you think literature is an important instrument for highlighting refugee issues?
Any medium that keeps the struggles of refugees alive is important, be it film, Angelina Jolie, or literature. I purposely dedicated Inside Out & Back Again to today’s refugees to remind readers that the issue didn’t begin or end with me and the plight of the Vietnamese. We have millions of people looking for safe places to live right now.
3: Much of “Inside Out and Back Again” is written in prose, why did you choose to explore Hà’s story through this medium?
I struggled for years to write a similar novel, written in prose, but the story fell flat because the voice was never authentic. I needed a way to convey how a mind processes Vietnamese, which is a naturally poetic, lyrical, musical language. Years went by. One day I was standing in a playground in New York City and all these images came back to me about my time in a playground in Alabama. I wasn’t thinking in sentences but in sharp, precise phrases that exploded with emotions and pictures. I played with that idea and came up with prose poems to show how Hà thinks in her native language.
4: How do you think coming to America as a refugee has influenced your work?
If I hadn’t been plucked out of Vietnam and replanted in Alabama, I wouldn’t be a writer. The shock was so extreme that I spent decades deciphering all the emotional output from that one experience. I learned a new language, a new religion, new facial expressions, a new way to do long division, new clothes that expose armpits, a new way to eat rice. Who ever thought rice could be served cold, sweet and in a pudding? The contrasts have provided me with writing materials for the rest of my life.
5: In the book, Hà struggles with the American education system and perfecting her English skills, was this something you struggled with personally while growing up in America.
Yes, Hà is based on my own experiences. English verb tenses still make me scream, but then they’re not as horrifying as those in French.
6: What challenges did you face growing up as a refugee in Alabama?
For one, I looked so so different. I was the first Asian any of my classmates had ever seen outside of war images on television. This was 1975 in the south of the United States. Diversity wasn’t a buzzword and bullying wasn’t acknowledged. The only fruit available were oranges and red apples; even bananas were exotic, much less papayas.
I remember standing outside of any group and observing, a lot. And because I couldn’t speak English well, I was forced to listen. Little did I know that background provided perfect training to become a writer. And I’m thrilled I get to write. So everything worked out.
7: Integration can be one of the most important durable solutions for refugees, what was your experience of integrating in a new country and culture? What do you think is the best way to encourage positive integration of refugees, in particular children?
For me integration happened so organically that I never analyzed it. Looking back, I now realize my mother steered me in various directions without me knowing. For one, we children were expected to learn English and learn it well in order to function fully in the new setting. But my mother never learned English and always spoke to us in the same poetic, soft Vietnamese. So we all retained our native language. We ate Vietnamese food at home (this was before Vietnamese restaurants blossomed) and tried everything outside the home.
In all, there was this constant flow of the old and the new, which each person naturally integrated in various degrees into his or her own life. There was little pressure or guilt or anxiety. My mother was confident we each would create a new self without completely losing our core identities.
If you expose children to as many different aspects of as many cultures as possible, they each will select what they see fit. How and what they choose will become one of life’s most lovely surprises.
8: How important do you think it is to explore both your own and other people’s heritages? Is literature a valuable means to do so?
My second novel, Listen, Slowly, dramatizes that very idea. How can you know who you are until you have contemplated how those around you became themselves? And literature is great for that very process. It’s slow and safe and thoughtful and enlightening, and I hope funny. Reading will help answer questions you’ve always had and bring up questions you have not thought of.
9: Your newest book Listen, Slowly, follows the story of a girl who travels back to the land of her ancestors, Vietnam. Have you returned to Vietnam and how do Mai’s experiences resonate with your own?
I have traveled to Vietnam often to buy bicycles for poor students in the countryside. My approach to Vietnam is too seasoned to be Mai’s. This 12-year-old does not speak Vietnamese and has no interest, at first, in her parent’s home country. I based Mai’s experiences more on my nieces and nephews’ generation.
10: Do you have any words of inspiration for other writers, in particular those writing about their own experiences of becoming a refugee?
I always tell any young writer to read and read some more. That is the core of your education. Let’s say you read one million books. One of those books will resonate with you so intensely you will sleep with it under your pillow and dream of writing a similar one. So write it. Tear that dear book apart, see how the author put those words, sentences, ideas, motifs together. Approach that dissection with surgical precision. Then based on what you’ve gathered, write your own story with your own voice and experiences. Don’t worry about copying the author. You won’t. By magic, you will invent a new way to telling your story although it might be informed by your first love.
If you are a refugee and choose to write about that, then do so. But you might want to write about aliens disguised as ducks intent on gathering every drop of water on earth to create dream ponds on their own planet. Who knows. I trust that if you love reading and you are willing to dedicate hours and years to what goes on behind a novel, you will write. And you should write, even though no one will ask you to. I wish you the best.
UNHCR Suggested Reading List for Adults: click here
UNHCR Suggested Reading List for Children and Young Adults: click here