Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

A couple of people had good things to say about this book recently – Requires Only That You Hate didn’t hate it, and Larry of the OFBlog thought well of it. So did I, evidently. As I think I say in the review, what makes Lai’s book so remarkable for me is the extent to which it centres Hà so that she’s never the one out of sync with culture, but American culture is out of sync with her.

A longer version of last weekend’s Left of Cool column

 

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Sometimes it seems as if everything about the immigrant experience novel is a little too easy to predict. Displacement, contrast between the culture within the home and outside it, physical difference, amusing linguistic mix-ups (of which the English language provides several), and a general crisis of identity. There’s nothing to stop a writer from telling this story again, and telling it well, but there’s surely a limit to how much it can be done and still feel fresh.

And so it was difficult for me at first to be enthused by Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again when it was published last year. Lai is an American author of Vietnamese descent and the book, her first, is partly autobiographical. People began to pay attention to this book when it received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year.

Inside Out and Back Again tells the story of one year in the life of a young girl. In 1975, Kim Hà and her family live in increasing poverty in South Vietnam. The war has not yet come to this part of the country, but its echoes are being felt. Hà’s own father has disappeared and been missing for many years now. Matters come to a head, and just as Saigon falls, the family boards a ship and leaves the country. This is the first third of the novel; the second and third parts take place first aboard the ship itself, then in Alabama, where Hà’s family must build a new life for themselves.

A large part of what makes Inside Out and Back Again unique is the style. The novel takes place over the span of exactly one year, starting and ending with Tét, the first day of the lunar calendar. The story develops over a series of what appear to be diary entries written by Hà, each of them carefully dated. But this is not a straightforward autobiographical narrative either – the entries themselves are in verse, and the verses themselves are often only obliquely related to what is going on in the plot. The effect of this is to give the words that make up this deceptively slim story a power that they could not otherwise have.

But I heard

on the playground

this year’s bánh chưng,

eaten only during Tét,

will be smeared in blood

(February 12)

 

But more than this Hà herself makes Inside Out and Back Again work. Because there is no identity crisis here – from the very beginning Hà knows exactly who she is and clings to that knowledge. She is no frail victim of circumstances. We learn that she was an occasional bully in her old school, and see her learn to defend herself in the new one. Where she feels rage and confusion it is not at her own inability to fit in, but the failure of her new country to accommodate her – the inferiority of America’s canned meats and imported dried papayas (she has her own tree at home); the ludicrousness of people who patronise her for being able to count and recite the alphabet when she has graduated to far more advanced literature in her own language; the English language itself. Within the text all of this only serves to make Hà a more engaging character; in the larger context of immigrant books in general this is practically revolutionary.

 

To make it worse,

the cowboy explains

horses here go

neigh, neigh, neigh,

not hee, hee, hee.

No they don’t.

Where am I?

(August 29)

She must have heard

ha,

as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, Hà,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark

(September 2)

 

I mention above the cliches of immigrant fiction, and surely one of these is a difficulty with the new language. It’s less common in literary works, I think (unless you consider The Inscrutable Americans; let’s not)  but occasionally shows up in cinema, and is usually played for laughs. Particularly because so much of this fiction is either in English or directed at people who are familiar with English – we may laugh and agree that the rules of the language are strange and illogical, but we still know that what the supposed non-native speaker has said is incorrect (or is unfortunate innuendo; hilarious!) and in a sense that makes us insiders.

Hà turns the orientalising gaze of her peers (and of the book’s primarily white, English speaking audience) back on them. She plucks red hair from the arm of an American marine and doing so makes white bodies alien. Hà is the centre of her own world, and that is exactly as it should be.

 

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