Friday, February 17, 2012

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my family sponsored a family of refugees from Laos. If I remember correctly, there were two parents and three children (two boys and a girl?). This, added to our family of two parents and three daughters, made for a crowded house for a week or so until our church found an apartment or house for them. We had such a good time, though! I had a great deal of fun teaching the children English words using Richard Scarry's well-labeled picture books. Looking back, I see my incredible selfishness in not asking them what the words would be in Lao or French. I remember being concerned that they were missing home, but I had only the vaguest idea of what a refugee was or why they were in the United States.

Reading Inside Out and Back Again makes me long for the ability to go back in time to show that family true listening compassion instead of just bold eagerness. Kim Ha (in Asian fashion, the family name is first, the given name is second) is ten years old when her family is uprooted from her life in war-torn Viet Nam and taken to Alabama. She and her three brothers and her mother are able to stay together. Only her oldest brother--an engineering student at college before they left Viet Nam--speaks English with any fluency, but Ha must go to school anyway. There she is bullied and harassed by some of the students and ignored by most of the rest. A few brave souls befriend her, and she begins to feel smart again.

This novel in poetic prose really brought home to me how hard it must be to move to a new country. No matter how smart you are, no matter how educated, moving to a place where you can't even ask how to get to the grocery store reduces you to stupidity in the eyes of your new neighbors. Ha's experiences are based on the author's own life when she moved from Viet Nam to Alabama in 1975, and the style of her writing is so free of the extraneous as to be abrupt in places, but sometimes our emotions and our thoughts are abrupt. In an interview with Publishers Weekly (June 20, 2011), Lai says the writing style is "meant to reflect in English what it's like to think in Vietnamese."

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