When Thanhha Lai’s students find out she’s from Vietnam, they share stories of canoeing along the coast, biking through the countryside, camping on beaches, devouring spicy fish-head soups. Vietnam equals tourism. Not one has mentioned helicopters on a rooftop, a naked girl burnt with napalm, protests on campuses, body bags containing soldiers. Those associations typically belong to the students’ parents.
For Ms. Lai, who has taught freshman writing courses in The School of Art and Design History and Theory for more than a decade, Vietnam means mother tongue, fresh papaya, bossy brothers, a missing-in-action father, and a mother who raised nine children in the midst of war. And yet, she had plenty of fun. It was living in Alabama after the war that still haunts her.
So what does one do with childhood memories after getting an MFA in Fiction from New York University? Write a book, of course. Inside Out and Back Again, a novel in prose poems geared toward middle schoolers, will be published by HarperCollins in February 2011.
The front flap reads:No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by…and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed towards hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape…and the beauty of her very own cowboy.
This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, of hope, of grief, and of healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.