Hà is the 10-year old speaker of the narrative, her thoughts relayed to us through verse. She allows us to experience a single year of her life from one Têt celebration to the next. Through her, we feel the triumphs and frustrations of a whole family as they become refugees from Saigon and rebuild their lives in America.
Hà’s family consists of her three brothers (Quang, Vu, and Khoi) and her mother. Though there are no verses from their perspectives, the reader develops a sense of intimacy and knowledge of them through the power of Hà’s voice.
The cowboy and his wife sponsor Hà’s family in America. Searching for a mechanic to help with his business, the unnamed cowboy agrees to hire Quang and helps the family settle in Alabama.
Miss Washington is the family’s neighbor and closest friend. She assists the children as they learn English and is one of Hà’s most valuable companions.
With a son killed in the Vietnam War, Miss Washington has every reason to approach the family maliciously, but she instead sees it as her duty to continue her son’s efforts to help them. This outlook proves to be exceptional as the family encounters judgment and abuse from various students, teachers, and other neighbors.
Thanhha Lai’s semi-autobiographical work takes the form of a collection of short poems, dated like diary entries. Together, the poems follow a Vietnamese family as they flee Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War and eventually make their way to the American South. The family’s youngest child, and only daughter, serves as the deeply emotional poetic voice of the narrative. This child becomes a vehicle through which Lai explores the possible outcomes of war and on an individual, a family, and even a nation.
When it comes to form, I’ve never read anything quite like Inside Out and Back Again. I’ve read novels, I’ve read poetry, and I’ve even read poetic epics such as The Odyssey. But Thanhha Lai combines the forms to make a narrative unlike any of the above. Even though poetry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the collection forms a strong story that is simple to read and understand while maintaining a level of sophistication capable of appealing to an older audience. Thus accessible by both children and adults, Lai admirably maintains a voice of innocence and emotional intensity that is native to children.
Most impressive to me is the personal connection Lai manages to develop between reader and character. More than just a snapshot of Hà’s life, each poem is a direct link to her thoughts, a fact emphasized by her reactions to learning the English language and the general communications barrier she encounters. The reader understands and has access to her pain and frustration, but Hà has very few ways of communicating it to others within the story.
Lai also combines figurative language and vivid imagery with a direct and precise tone in a way that creates a peculiar psychological sensation. For me, reading Inside Out and Back Again feels like a knife cutting through the unimportant thoughts skimming across the surface of the brain, the detritus of distraction, to pierce and draw out the deep desires and petty wants lodged in the core of a personality. As Lai presents this young girl attempting to re-establish her core self in a foreign culture without breaking apart or losing who she has been, she almost forcefully erects a mirror in front of the reader. Who are you? Where have you been? When life turns on you, how far will you fall before either breaking apart or growing?
With its beautiful language, Thanhha Lai’s inspirational and introspective work will leave you craving papaya and ready to take on the world.