Thanhha Lai's semi-autobiographical verse novel, Inside Out & Back Again won the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor in 2011. I feel like I say this at the start of every verse novel that I review (which, admittedly, is few) but I continually find myself in awe of the author's ability to convey emotionally charged life experiences using a mere a handful of words. This economy of language is perfectly suited to Lai's story of Hà, a native of Saigon who flees with her older brothers and mother as the city falls. After weeks on a crowded boat then more weeks in a crowded tent city on Guam, they finally find a home in Alabama. Lai's concise poems and deliberate word choice are the ideal medium for conveying the powerful experiences of leaving the only home you have known and making in a new home in a country where at best your experience is completely alien, at worst, you are the face of the enemy of a nation. And, I can't imagine a more perfect way to convey the struggle to learn a new language, especially one as bafflingly illogical as English. But, Lai's story is more than a first person account of a refugee of war. Ten-year-old narrator Hà is a complex character, willful, spoiled and sometimes mean before leaving her home and determined, frightened and frustrated once she is in America, waiting for the day when she will feel smart again.
Lai begins Inside Out & Back Again on Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, in 1975 and ends her novel on Tết, January 31st, 1976. Hà begins the year by setting her foot on the floor first, ahead of her brother who has been chosen for this ritual because "only male feet can bring luck." When the "I Ching Teller of Fate" predicts a year that will turn her family's lives inside out, Hà carries the secret of her unlucky girl foot being the first to touch the floor with her as the events of the year unfold, unburdening herself of this secret just before the next Tết arrives. Almost as impossible to bear for Hà is knowing that, in Saigon she was the smartest in her class. In Vietnam, Hà was already reading Truyện Kiều, The Tale of Kieu, the story of a girl who sacrifices herself for her family, thought of as the most significant piece of Vietnamese literature written. In an interview, Lai said that she began reading Nguyễn Du's masterwork at the same age as Hà. At the age of twenty, she read a couplet in the poem that made her think, "how wonderful my life would be if I could spend hours conveying the world in as few words as possible. While writing Inside Out & Back Again I got a taste of that life, and let me tell you, it was wonderful." Lai's joy and mastery of this form of expression are both ever present as you read Inside Out & Back Again, but also elegantly subtle. Images and feelings will return to you long after you have finished.
While Hà's experience trying to teach herself to read with a Dick and Jane book and an English dictionary is quite an insight:
I look up
Jane : not listed
sees : to eyeball something
Spot : a stain
run : to move really fast
Meaning : ______ eyeballs stain move.
And her experience in a lunchroom divided by color is equally eyeopening:
On one side
Of the bright, noisy room,
Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred
would show up.
I experienced my first glimmer of illumination and understanding at the end of the novel in the poem 1976 : The Year of the Dragon.
there's no I Ching Teller of Fate,
So Mother predicts our year.
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and the new
until it doesn't matter which is which.
Simple words and simple imagery, but somehow, it was in this moment at the end of the novel that I felt like I almost understood what it might feel like to leave your home, your way of life, the country where your father went missing nine years earlier, the place where you grew a papaya tree from a seed, your favorite fruit in the whole world and move to a new place where you can't even buy a fresh papaya and children pull the dark hairs on your arms and you mistake a flannel nightgown for a dress and wear it to school. Over time, your old life and new life blend together. Time softens the sharp edges of memories. But to have lived through this threshold year with Hà in Inside Out & Back Again, to go from sneaking money to buy toasted coconut, sugary fried dough and crunchy mung bean cookies at the market that you eat in delicious secrecy to "a white meat sandwich, an apple, crunchy things sprinkled with salt and a cookie dotted with chocolate raindrops" that you eat in the classroom alone so the children cannot pick on you is a potent experience, even in, or especially in, the form of a free verse poem.