Updated: Feb 26, 2020
An achievement in literature
Inside Out & Back Again is a novel told from the perspective of a child, Kim Ha, written in the form of poetry. With short stanzas separating each thought, everything from the third chapter and beyond begins to read like a sing-song. As readers, we travel with a child refugee and her family as they flea war-torn Saigon, and we experience the heart-tugging moments that will shape protagonist Ha’s future. While we witness Ha go from a self-assured, hot-tempered little girl to a confused and doubtful kid, readers are given hope from her tale as they watch the bold protagonist learn that hard times don’t last forever, and that faithfully hanging onto hope is far less dreadful than carrying anger and desperation in her heart.
Ha’s voice is humorous. Her honest take on the world around her speaks in a tone that can only resonate from the mouths of children. We learn of her spunky nature immediately. In the first chapter they are celebrating Tet, their new year, and Ha secretly and defiantly wakes up first in order to touch the floor before anyone wakes up. She tells us that her mother says only a male’s feet brings good luck, but Ha is angered by this and chooses to do it herself before anyone else awakes. Immediately, readers are drawn in by Ha’s willfulness.
In a scene where Ha is saying goodbye to her best friend who is moving to another province “where the rich go to flee Vietnam”, Ha naively, yet positively, says “I’m glad we’ve become poor so we can stay” (11). When Ha and her mother are listening to one of President Thieu’s speeches, he begins to cry and chooses not to wipe his tears. Ha’s mother mutters, “tears of an ugly fish,” and Ha explains, “I know that to mean fake tears of a crocodile” (36). She doesn’t know it yet, but at this moment she’s foreshadowing the impending doom of her beloved Saigon. Ha’s extreme literal interpretation of what is said around her is a delightful reminder to adult readers of how they once viewed the world. Lines like these are what make this book a page turner.
Lai juxtaposes Ha’s naivete with her acute awareness, and readers quickly realize that children see much more than we think they do. In a scene where Ha’s mother is making dinner out of very little food, she says “Yam and manioc taste lovely blended with rice,” to which Ha explains, “as if I don’t know how the poor fill their children’s bellies” (37). It is immediately apparent that she is well aware of the less than desirable circumstances they are living in; scraping for food and facing imminent invasion which will inevitably lead to war. Somehow through it all, Ha maintains an incredibly positive perspective, reminding readers that all circumstances, whether good or bad, are relative.
From my perspective, I couldn’t imagine Ha’s situation getting any worse, but then the setting changes from Saigon to a ship of refugees fleeing Vietnam as the communists have taken over and war has ensued. Suddenly, the little food Ha had access to back home seems like a feast as they are now almost starving on the ship. Food must be shared amongst all the passengers. Ha can smell the fried dough and papaya, but she can’t eat much of it. “Mother smoothes back my hair, knowing the pain of a girl who loves snacks but is stranded on a ship” (81). She describes the nauseating stench on the ship, as well as the boredom and confinement felt by everyone aboard. In such few words, Lai evokes such a sense of desperation that we are left yearning for Ha’s days back in sun-drenched Saigon.
In the midst of Ha’s misery, she witnesses the plight of many refugees and immigrants who wrestle with the love for their country and the reality that a quality of life in their homeland is nearly impossible. She witnesses women weeping over the communist takeover, leading some to attempt suicide by jumping off the ship. For a girl whose life revolved around playing outside, growing her papaya tree, and scavenging for her favorite snacks, abruptly saying goodbye to her early childhood is much more difficult than she originally anticipated.
Desolation turns to hope when they spot a ship with an American flag. Ha humorously remarks on the commander of the ship who happens to have a bald head and a red beard. Readers learn that this is her first time seeing a ginger: “I had not known such hair was possible,” (92). Then again, Ha reminds us of the value of perspective as her ship is now being towed by the American ship, and loads of food and water are being provided. She finally gets to give herself a bath and she remarks, “how sweet water tastes even when mixed with soap” (93).
After a stint in a refugee camp, Ha’s family make their way from Florida to Alabama, where she experiences the brutal reality of being a fish out of water. Ha sticks out like a sore thumb. Once the smartest girl in her class, she is now struggling to learn a new language, a feat that brings about a great deal on insecurity and frustration. As a native English speaker and English major, I thoroughly enjoyed Ha’s perspective on all the exceptions to the rules in the English language.
She calls the following the “Third Rule”:
"Always an exception. Do not add an ‘s’ to certain nouns.
One deer, two deer.
Why no ‘s’ for two deer, but an ‘s’ for two monkeys?
Brother Quang says no one knows. So much for rules!” (128).
As someone who once tutored ESL students, I’ve heard this sentiment echoed more times than I can count.
One of my favorite parts of Ha’s story is her experience in her new, American school. No other kid looks like her and no other kid sounds like her. Having gone through a very similar experience when I was a child, I related very easily to her sense of embarrassment and isolation. She eats alone in the bathroom for lunch, and when asked why she does this, she tells readers, “how can I explain dragonflies do somersaults in my stomach whenever I think of the noisy room full of mouths chewing and laughing” (181). Time and time again, Lai gives us a sense of what Ha is feeling without ever putting a name to it. Her ability to communicate emotion without ever explicitly stating it is spectacular; the epitome of great writing.
Through the teasing Ha endures, through the fights she finds herself in, and through the difficult process of adapting and assimilating, hope turns to triumph as she comes into her own, successfully defending herself against the class bully, making good friends, falling in love with KFC’s fried chicken, and learning English so well that she quickly solidifies herself as the smart girl in class once again. Slowly, things start to fall into place for Ha and her family, and we are reminded of the uplifting age-old adage, “tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”
It isn’t every day that I get ahold of a children’s book that manages to find extreme relevance in the life of an adult, but Thanhha Li manages to grip adult readers with a wide range of emotions through the innocent voice of a child. Ha’s purity and uninhibited honesty give the story a deeper sense of urgency. In a scene where Ha’s mother is asking one of her sons to obey her, Ha says, “who can go against a mother who has become gaunt like bark from raising four children alone?” (54). Sacrifice is deeply felt by children, and as a reader, I felt desperate for Ha and her family to find success. Her confusion throughout the story is palpable, and I found myself cheering for her more and more with each turn of the page. Although we know war and famine are looming around her, we continue to experience her life of simplicity.
Returning to the idea of perspective, Ha never seems to view her life in Saigon in a negative light, yet she is keenly aware of her mother’s suffering, a fact which drives her survival from the refugee ship all the way through her childhood in America. The living space they have in Alabama is small, but Ha’s mother brings them perspective once again, reminding them, “more room here than two mats on a ship” (116). At times, this constant check on perspective irritates Ha, but she never dares lash out at her mother, not after all the sacrifices she has made for them.
Lai’s debut novel is truly a work of art. I have not been so gripped by a children’s story in years, I was jolted back to my days of reading Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. Conveying an odyssey is challenging enough, but doing so through the vehicle of poetry is no small fete. Inside Out and Back Again is everything it’s hyped up to be, and Thanhha Lai is undoubtedly deserving of the Newberry Honor that it received. Through her story, I traveled the world with a heavy heart, and I ended it uplifted and proud of a young family’s persistence and unity in the face of adversity. Lai’s novel is not only a testament to the strength of family and the power of positivity, but it is also a literary achievement. Lai created a protagonist who conveys so much while saying so little, yet whose complexities continue to shift and take new shape as she lives through each new experience. As a fan of classic literature, I can often be critical of new books that come my way, but this work wowed me and left me wanting more, so I read it again, and then one more time for good measure.