The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award YA nominee, Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

Thursday, November 03, 2011

2011 National Book Award YA nominee, Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

Deep breaths.

I'm the first student in class.

My new teacher has brown curls
looped tight to her scalp
like circles in a beehive.

She points to her chest:

MiSSS SScott,
saying it three times,
each louder
with every more spit.

I repeat, MiSSS SScott,
careful to hiss every s.

She doesn't seem impressed.

I tap my own chest:

She must have heard
as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, ,
and wish I knew
enough English
to tell her
to listen for
the diacritical mark,

this one directing the tone downward.

My new teacher tilts
her head back,
an even sadder laugh.

The space between words and thoughts often is at least as important as the vocalizations that we make.  The right (or wrong) tone, the delicate pause that adds import to a statement or a sense of lightness to a question, can make or break communication.  Languages have their own unique rhythms and cadences that make them much more than the sum of their vocabularies.  Yet when second language acquisition is involved, even the familiar sounds take on new, sometimes confusing connotations.  I taught social studies for two years in Florida's English for Speakers of Other Languages program (it is where I learned much of my Spanish and a smattering of Portuguese and Haitian).  I often would see students who would struggle with how to greet their teachers.  Some would call me "Ms.," thinking that was English for maestro/a.  One student from Costa Rica would silently stick his hand out at the beginning of class for his first month there, as that was the custom there for greeting their instructors.  Some of the confusions were comic; others almost tragic.

Vietnamese-American writer Thanhha Lai in her debut novel-in-poem-form, Inside Out and Back Again, covers in fictional form the very real pains and confusions that she experienced as a fourth grade student uprooted from Saigon during its fall in 1975 and her family's trip to a sponsored refugee home in Alabama.  Utilizing short 1-2 page narrative poems, Lai, through the somewhat autobiographical voice of Hà, explores those gaps in understanding, those caesura where things not said reveal more than those explicitly reveal.  Spanning from one Tet (Vietnamese New Year) to the next (or late January 1975 to late January 1976), Lai reveals so much about Hà's life, the terrible transformations brought forth by being uprooted and placed in an alien, somewhat hostile culture, and the adjustments she and her family makes in order to fit in.

Lai easily could have attempted to write Inside Out and Back Again as a traditional Romansbildung, but Hà's story is much more effective because we experience the pauses, the failed attempts to comprehend then what is happening, the mocking laughter implicit in the few words said to her by her new classmates.  If this book had been written in traditional novel form, we would have had to have more detail, more explanations, which in turn would have lessened the power of this narrative by robbing it of its achingly awkward silences and pauses that compel the reader to consider further the implications of what Hà is narrating.

Some might think that this approach would lessen the characterizations.  Yet the opposite occurs.  In little, seemingly innocuous passages, we come to understand just how complex and dynamic Hà's mother and three older siblings are.  We may smile at learning how brother Vu wants to be like Bruce Lee, until we witness how he intervenes when Hà is threatened by bullies.  Hà's mother, although rarely the center of any of the vignette poems, looms heavily as the wise and canny matriarch of a family whose father disappeared after being captured by the North Vietnamese.  Even the eldest brothers, Khoi and Quang, have interesting personalities that poke up into Hà's narrative on occasion.  Lai does an excellent job in showing how the family, as well as Hà, cope with assimilating into 1970s Southern/American culture.

Inside Out and Back Again is an outstanding read.  There were no longeurs, no places where Hà's narration felt affected, no stilted dialogue.  The prose/poetry felt natural, as if it were the means of expression for a confused, scared immigrant girl trying to make sense of the new culture around her and her place within it.  Inside Out and Back Again ended up being one of my favorite reads in all of the categories for the 2011 National Book Awards and it certainly is one of the best debut novels for 2011.

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