Friday 7 December 2012

Inside and Out and Back Again

Inside and Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (University of Queensland Press)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 978 0 7022 4941 9
Reviewed by Jo Antareau

This is the story of a year in Ha’s life. Written in verse to portray her Vietnamese thoughts, this semi-autobiographical piece begins with snippets of her life in a privileged family in Saigon as a ten year old. But it is not carefree, as the family live under the shadow of their absent father, missing in combat, and a not-too-distant war.

Ha is otherwise a typical kid. She has her flaws, her conflicts with siblings. When trusted to shop for groceries in the market, she skimps on quantities in order to buy herself treats with the change. She longs for the delicious fruit of her papaya tree to ripen. But before she can enjoy them, the army marches into Saigon. The family is torn between remaining where her missing father may find them, and fleeing for safety. They eventually cram into a crowded boat headed for the US, abandoning the life they knew.

Moving to America turns her life upside-down, hence the title. Lai portrays the culture shock sensitively and with humour. The family are sponsored by a man who wears a cowboy hat but has no horse. The first Asians encountered by most in the small town in Alabama, the family meet both generosity and cruelty. Ha is confused by the smell and colour of her first hot dog, unlike any food she has ever experienced.

Sensitively written while avoiding any self pity, Lai writes of Ha’s humiliation, school ground bullying and her ultimate triumph. She is a survivor, not a victim.

As an adult, I found her literary style excellent, and her portrayal of a childhood in Vietnam and subsequent displacement, compelling. Comparisons to Amy Tan are inevitable.

This story of resilience is Lai’s first book, and won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in the US, and was a 2012 Newbery Honor book.

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