“I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama”.

July 1, 2012

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again,  Harper: New York, 2011

Reviewed by Rebecca Garcia Lucas

It is the first day of Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in 1975, the year of the Cat, less than three months before the fall of Saigon. The clear voice of ten year old Há begins a year long chronicle until the the first day of Tết, 1976, the year of the Dragon. Há’s story describes her family’s life in war-torn South Vietnam, of fleeing on a navy ship, and then as recently arrived refugees in Alabama, America.

Although some readers might assume a verse novel to be onerous, this narrative is lucid and rich. A child’s transparent telling of her own struggles small and large, from hunger in Saigon and at sea, to being called “Ching Chong” in her new class room where she is “the only/ straight black hair/ on olive skin”, carries with it the enormity of war, cruelty, and culture shock, as well as many funny moments.

“Again they’re yelling./ Boo-Da, Boo-Da,/ but I know to run toward Brother Khôi/ two corners away/ …/ Enough time/ for me to turn and yell,/ Gee-sus, Gee-sus./ I love how they stop,/ mouths open.”

The length of each ‘verse’ is a page or two, with concise and carefully chosen titles: ‘Unknown Father’, ‘Saigon is Gone’, ‘Feel Dumb’.  Thannha Lai’s novel of a young girl’s thoughts and observations has a distinct literary and poetic eloquence, which even so comes across as an authentic child’s voice, unsurprising given that this story is also an autobiography and a remembering. Imagery emerges smoothly and vividly: Amongst thousands of other desperate people cramming onto a South Vietnamese navy ship that is abandoning a losing battle to carry refugees:

“our family sticks together/ like wet pages./ I see nothing but backs/ sour and sweaty.” When Há’s beloved papaya tree is chopped down before the family leave Saigon, because “it’s better than/ letting the Communists have it”, they eat the not quite ripe fruit: “Brother Vũ chops;/ the head falls;/ a silver blade slices./ Black seeds spill/ like clusters of eyes,/ wet and crying.” There is also much matter-of-fact description that marks the pain of individuals who cannot dwell on all they suffer if they are going to survive it: “South Vietnam no longer exists./ One woman tries to throw/ herself overboard,/ screaming that without a country/ she cannot live./ As they wrestle her down,/ a man stabs his heart/ with a toothbrush.”

The physical and emotional protection of belonging within a family is especially powerful when shown through its youngest. Há’s accounts of her mother, her three older brothers (Brother Khôi, Brother Vũ and Brother Quang), and her impression of their father who has been missing in action since 1966 when Há was one year old, and whose presence remains known to Há largely through her mother’s sorrowful features, lets each family member’s character, and more mature perspectives beyond Há’s understanding, stand out within their tight family unit. Há’s recurrent descriptions of her mother by her eyes, mouth and brows (“Her brows/ twist like laundry/ being rung dry”) build a powerful insight into her mother’s grief, strength and love. She is “a mother/ who has become gaunt like bark/ from raising four children alone”, and understands Há more than Há. Brother Khôi is fourteen, sensitive, and the closest brother to Há. A connection between Khôi’s anger at his hungry family for eating his hen’s eggs instead of letting them hatch, his quiet, wild anguish at sea, and his emerging vocation in America, is one example of the depth of the individuals in the novel besides Há. Brother Vu is eighteen, and in Alabama makes everyone call him Vu Lee after his hero. He embodies 1970s cool: his motorbike, jobs of newspaper round and flipping hamburgers, local boys and giggling girls coming to his karate classes conducted in the front yard. His teenage popularity and acceptance provides hope, but also safety for the family as they endure racial hostility in a clean Southern bible-belt town.

Alongside a few new vital relationships (Há tells people’s names as she hears them or conceptualizes them: her compassionate neighbour is MiSSSisss WaSShington, “our cowboy” is the family’s sponsor, her school friends are Pem and SSsì-Ti-Vân and meeting them earns the verse the title ‘Most Relieved Day’) the threat of violence is strong in Alabama (‘Pink Boy’ inflicts the school bullying).

“Mother asks,/ What’s a pancake?/ Tears gush/ because I can’t/ make myself explain/ a pancake/ is/ very/ very/ flat./  / “I don’t have to tell Brother Khôi,/ who heard in the halls/ of his school/ that my face/ is to be flattened/ flatter/ tomorrow.”

The novel exposes the potential for inhumanity everywhere through the frankness of a child: “No one would believe me/ but at times/ I would choose/ wartime in Saigon/ over/ peacetime in Alabama.” In Saigon sirens warn of imminent bombs, and in Alabama “Eggs explode/ like smears of snot/ on our front door.”
In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Lai comments that her American raised nieces and nephews “may know in general where their parents came from, but they can’t really imagine the noises and smells of Vietnam”. The novel captures this life, and Há’s enjoyment and discussion of food all the way through contribute to this sensuous knowledge. A hungry Há at sea draws pictures:

“Pouches of pan-fried shredded coconut/ Tamarind paste on banana leaf/ Steamed corn on the cob/ Rounds of fried dough/ Wedges of pineapple on a stick/ And of course/ cubes of papaya tender and shiny./  /Mother smooths back my hair,/ knowing the pain/ of a girl/ who loves snacks/ but is stranded/ on a ship.”

Reading the novel will inspire you to seek out and taste some of these new things, and also critiques the familiar, such as that seen in the verse ‘American Chicken’

“Today our cowboy brings/ a paper bucket of chicken,/ skin crispy and golden,/ smelling of perfection./  / We bite./  / But/ Mother wipes/ the corners of her mouth/ before passing her piece/ into her napkin./ / Brother Vũ gags./ / Our cowboy scrunches/ his brows,/ surely thinking,/ why are his refugees/ so picky?”

Inside Out & Back Again doesn’t take long to read, but it contains so much to think about.,  

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One Response to ““I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama”.”

  1. […] SteepStairs reviews INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN  by Thanhha Lai […]

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