Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai might be considered a novel but it is written as a series of poems. It is dedicated to refugees. To be clear, in a world treated to refugee stories on a daily basis, these are stories of refugees from the Vietnam War, one that ended for the US troops in 1973, but almost ended for the Vietnamese at the end of April 1975. I write “almost ended” because refugee stories do not end until the refugees return home or are so assimilated into their countries of resettlement that the refugees consider their new countries home.
This is an intensely personal story, or set of poems, for me to read. Lai and her family left Vietnam by sea in May 1975 and were finally settled in the US in Alabama in August 1975, a long journey which included time at sea and time for refugee processing in Guam and the US. She was 10years old. My mission in Vietnam ended in December 1974. My wife and I brought three children out of Vietnam and settled in Monterey, California. Our journey was by plane and in comfort. My oldest daughter was 10 years old. My children spoke only Vietnamese and Cantonese Chinese (as did my wife and me). My children’s’ experiences mirrored the experiences related by Lai in this collection of poems.
There are four main parts: PART I Saigon, PART II At Sea, PART III Alabama, and PART IV From Now On.
Saigon in a series of approximately 32 poems is the viewpoint of a 10-year-old-girl as she sees her very tradition oriented culture destruct. She can hear bombs as the enemy approaches. School schedules are changed for no reason apparent to her. She listens to motivating speeches by the countries president and receives extra rations of food as a reward. She observes a president shed tears as he reluctantly flees, but not on a boat, and not with only one suitcase.
In At Sea Lai describes life on the boat in approximately 19 poems: the cramped conditions, the rationed food, the growing awareness that rescue will not be soon, and the fear that affects many when an engine dies. Power roles seem to change. Everyone still obeys and respects mother, but one brother seems to be pulling away as studies English and accepts a role where he is taking care of the family, replacing the father who has been captured by the enemy. There is no news of his fate, whether he is dead or alive, or even of where he might be held in captivity.
Alabama, with it approximately 46 poems, is the most interesting for those interested in cross-cultural problems. There are several poems devoted to learning English and the contrasts between English and Vietnamese. These very accurate observations were a pleasure for me to read and affirmed many of the things I have been trying to implement in my English as a Foreign or Second Language classrooms. As a Vietnamese speaker, I was aware of the problems, but it takes the authority of a native speaker (Lai) to give my observations credibility. This is also the section in which Lai describes the cruelty of her classmates in their treatment of her and the attempts of her teachers to mitigate that cruelty.
From Now On with its 12 selections describes life in the US and how each member of the family went forward with their education or, in the case of mom, employment. There is sort of a surprise ending, not in what the ending is, but how it came about. I won’t spoil that here.
I am not a fan of poetry. Poets may disagree with me when I describe this work as a series of poems. Maybe by any strict definition they are not. Whatever the construct, these selections are powerful. Because I teach in Indonesia, this semester I teach Literary Appreciation, I seek Asian writers who write in English. I am not a fan of translated works. It is too easy to get mired in arguments about the abilities of the translator. I am confident that I will use this work as well as the work of Mahlala (also spelled Malala) as two class resources.