A Review of Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again
In closely reading Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai’s almost lyrical, beautifully- metered account of her year-long (one Tet to another) experience of coming to America after the fall of Saigon, I am fascinated by the author’s delightful use of the English Language as she chronicled in almost epic-poem style, her “hero’s journey”. In engaging in what seemed to be an easy-reading yet complex bio-fictional text, I paid particular attention to how she described the cultural nuances and artifacts as well as her psychological and cultural journey written in an almost Taoist-Buddhist way: natural yet with a clear narrative structure chronicling a tension of profoundly sadness.
The story of Kim Ha’ or Golden River, named after the “river of courtship” in North Vietnam where her father and mother used to stroll in the evenings (pg. 6) became a symbol of grace, preciousness, dignity, and pride of a child torn by war and the erasure of memory. Simplicity or words and sentences and how these are skillfully crafted into the unstructured poem made this story a linguistic treasure trove of Vietnamese cultural imagery. In the four parts of the story: Saigon, At Sea, Alabama, and From Now On, Thanhha Lai gave us a lesson of how to use foreign words without over-describing them; punctuating the end of each “journal entry” with a powerful line/verses signifying irony, ambivalence, or even sarcasm arising out of her experience in mediating two worlds: Vietnam and America. Here are three sets of anthropologically-memorable examples:
In the entry “S-l-o-w-l-y” in a scene on the refugee naval boat, the character taught us words to be learned with contextual clues. “No one has offered to share/what I smell:/sardines, dried durians, salted eggs, roasted sesame/ (pg. 75) In another, she wrote: People began to cook/as long as they/can get/a cup/of nuoc mam (pg. 101). She did not need to explain what the words “durian” and “nuoc mam” mean but we could guess that they are popular and cherished food that evokes the memory of what is served during peacetime in Saigon.
Next, when she spoke about the memory of her father, Vietnamese words are used in their cultural context: “Brother Quang remembers/Father always said tuyet sut/the Vietnamese way/to pronounce the French phrase tout de suit/meaning right away. (pg. 22) This is an example of a foreign language lesson that carried an intense emotional meaning. She went on to write: “Sometimes I whisper/tuyet sut/to myself/to pretend/I know him/ … I would never say tuyet sut/In front of Mother/None of us would want/To make her sadder/than she already is (pg.23)
Lastly, when there were instances when the words signifying the conflict between spiritual needs dictated by circumstance (pg. 108,) the author used verses in the Vietnamese to distinguish the one used in Christian prayers when the family was baptized (“HA-LE-LU-DA” as Thanhha Lai puts it, to mean “Hallelujah”.) (pg. 169-172). In calming down Kim Ha, after she was bullied in school and chased after, with the boys calling her “Boo-Daa, Boo-Da” (insinuating Buddha) and calling her “Ha-Ha”, her mother used the chanting phrases in Vietnamese, as narrated by Thanhha Lai (pg. 168). “Nam Mo A Di Da Phat/Nam Mo Quan The Am Bo Tat,” goes the chant, quieter than the shouts of “HA-LE-LU-DA” of the Del Ray Baptist Church in Alabama. (pg. 198)
More examples abound. In reading the story, I had bookmarked almost every other page to catalog such examples. Each entry is a gem and glitters like gold, of the River Ha as the character is named. Each is a bridge that linked the cross-cultural world of the land of pride and the still-alive memory of Kim’s father (Vietnam) and the land of opportunity, or the “brave new world” the new immigrant had to brave through, overseen and micro-managed by the children’s mother. Language became a bridge across the troubled waters in that language both ease and exacerbates the pain of reconciliation. In the words of the character “… better not to know the meaning of English words that hurt (pg. 198)) as she wades through her year-long experience of leaving Saigon, being in the open and dangerous sea as the “boat people”, meeting her “cowboy” savior, meeting her mentor Miss Washington, dealing with Pink Face the school bully, and finally accepting the fact that her father is a revered memory, possibly no longer alive, as symbolized by the loss of her mother’s amethyst stone, a gift from her father (pgs. 248-250.) In all these stages of her hero’s journey told in profound simplicity, the power of liberation comes in the form of language as a shaper and modifier of reality.
In conclusion, I have titled this brief essay “golden river/in simplicity/flows” to capture the element of how Thanhha Lai used simple words as keys to opening doors to the gardens of Taoist-Buddhist-Vietnamese delights of a world left behind, turned upside down, yet in the end reconstructed in memory as, still, a profoundly meaningful one to be timelessly in memory etched – till death do one part. The world of the Fatherland. Of Kim Ha’s father! She summed up her view of life:
No one would believe me/
but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon /
peace time in Alabama. (pg.195)
Lai, Thanhha, (2011). Inside Out and Back Again. (New York: Harper)