In conjunction with our new exhibition The Vietnam War: 1945-1975, our Reading into History Family Book Club welcomes National Book Award winning author Thanhha Lai to our November 12 meeting. Thanhha Lai discusses her stunning semi-autobiographical book-in-verse Inside Out and Back Again and then joins us on a special tour of our Vietnam War exhibition.
To prepare for our meeting, we interviewed Thanhha Lai about her book. Join us this weekend when you’ll have the opportunity to ask Lai your own questions about her book and her writing!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Your book is dedicated “to the millions of refugees in the world.” Why is a refugee story like this one important for young readers to read today?
Thanhha Lai: When I was writing this novel, a story about refugees did seem like historical fiction. Since publication in 2011, the world has turned so that stories of present-day refugees have become essential to understanding who we are, how we arrived in our home, and what responsibilities we have toward those still searching for a home.
DCHM: How did you decide that Inside Out and Back Again had to be told in verse?
Thanhha Lai: The main character is thinking in Vietnamese, which is a naturally lyrical and melodic language. For years I wrote in long, loopy sentences that did not sound authentic to someone thinking in Vietnamese. Once I came up with prose poems, the voice clicked.
DCHM: In your author’s note at the end of the book, you write that it was very important for you to capture Hà’s emotional life. What did you do to access Hà’s emotions and feelings?
Thanhha Lai: That was the simplest part, as I based Hà’s emotions on my own feelings as a refugee in Alabama.
DCHM: What type of research did you conduct while writing Inside Out and Back Again? Were there any primary sources that helped you fill in some of the details?
Thanhha Lai: The story is autobiographical, so the dates and facts already run in my blood.
DCHM: When Hà and her family arrive in Alabama, her mother tells her and her brothers, “Until you children master English, you must think, do, wish for nothing else. Not your father, not your old home, not your old friends, not our future.” Why did you decide to make this language struggle such a central part of your book?
Thanhha Lai: I don’t think one can appreciate language until it’s taken away. Without being able to be understood, even in the simplest terms, Hà and her family had to regain a sense of themselves. Everything—school, job, house, future—depended on their ability to master this strange new language.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Inside Out and Back Again?
Thanhha Lai: Observe, Wait, Balance
–Caitlin O’Keefe, DiMenna Children’s History Museum