I had the good fortune to listen to Thanhhà Lai talk about her new book, Listen, Slowly, before sitting down to write this review. In this interview, Lai talks about how she came to write her first, multiple-award-winning book, Inside Out and Back Again, the semi-autobiographical story of a young refugee's move from Vietnam to Alabama:
I have very specific reasons for writing in prose poems for "Inside Out And Back Again." You know, for years and years and years I could never get the voice right and I was working on this other novel. And finally one day I'm standing on a playground at 110th in Central Park and suddenly all these images started coming back to me. It would be sharp, quick images, like red and yellow hot dogs. And I realized, you know, I'm back inside the mind of that little girl who's standing on a playground in Montgomery, Ala., when I first entered this country. And I thought that's my voice. And I didn't know it was called prose poems and I had no idea tons of writers have been writing like this for years. This just tells you where my brain is. I thought that's how I'm going to convey that she's thinking in Vietnamese. Now - now we're onto Mai's world in "Listen, Slowly." She's not thinking in Vietnamese. She's thinking in snarky English...
Thinking about Lai's two books together deepened my appreciation of Listen, Slowly, which I have to confess felt a bit conventional at first. With Inside Out and Back Again, especially with the use of quick, sharp verses, Lai invites the reader to experience the feelings of alienation, disorientation and wonder that the young narrator feels as her family makes a new home in a new country. In Listen, Slowly, Lai takes the reader from one of the most iconically American locales possible, a beachfront community in Southern California, into the steamy geography of Vietnam. Lai's writing, with actual Vietnamese and dialogue in italics to symbolize Vietnamese, as well as her lush descriptions of the culture, from the food to architecture to the use of honorifics and the intense competitiveness among the youth, draw you in and enfold you, enrobe you, in the setting and the story.
To this setting, which felt as new and strange to me as Alabama felt to Hà, the main character of Inside Out and Back Again, is layered with wonderful characters and a compelling past that sets the story in motion. Mai (known as Mia outside of her home) is the only child of the youngest son in a family that fled Vietnam believing that their father had died in the war. When word comes from a private investigator that that the fate of Ông, the grandfather Mai never knew, is about to be discovered, Mai's father, a doctor, enlists her to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam where he will be spending the summer at his free clinic in a remote part of the country. Mai, a straight A student who dutifully studies the SAT vocabulary words her mother feeds her daily, had other plans. But, instead of unchaperoned trips to the beach with her lip-gloss obsessed bestie, Montana, Mai, who quips, "Guilt, very big in my family," is headed for six weeks of mosquito bites and boredom with Bà. Bà is a quiet, gentle woman who asks for nothing but is given everything by her grateful, successful, competitive children. As her youngest grandchild, Mai knows her as a loving presence, sharing slivers of lemon drops ("a whole one creates too much saliva and cuts the roof of her mouth, while a chopped piece releases just the right amount of sweet and sour") and her native language, which Mai understands but never learned to speak.
From Hanoi to Bà's village and onto Sài Gòn, Mai suffers the fate of a foreigner, napping on mats on the floor during the hottest hours of the day, breaking out in pimples all over her face from slathering on the sunscreen her mother packed her and succumbing to a violent intestinal upset that knocks her out for days. However, as she seems to stick out like a sore thumb, she is also gradually coming to understand her family's homeland and become comfortable with the seemingly strange rhythms of the days. Despite a rocky start, Mai is befriended by Út, a villager her own age with matching braces, a serious fondness for toads and a serious buzzcut, which Mai later learns was Út's attempt at getting out of the monthly hideous herbal treatment the villagers undergo to treat lice. As Mai suffers and adapts, Bà, the detective and the guard he found who was with Ông in the tunnels that the Viet Cong used to counter the American forces perform a delicate dance as they negotiate a meeting.
Thanhhà Lai blends these curiously delicious, irresistible story threads like the ingredients in one of the many amazing dishes she describes Listen, Slowly to create a novel that is, like a good meal, satisfying and memorable.
Source: Review Copy