Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhhà Lai

Inside Out & Back Again , by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

I should have read Inside Out & Back Again years ago, because I loved it. Loved it.

[Then again, if I'd read it years ago, I couldn't have read it now for the first time? I need to remember not to beat myself up for not having read ALL THE THINGS.]

It follows ten-year-old Hà as she and her family escape Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon; as they travel on a ship full of other refugees, eventually ending up on Guam and then wait, wait, wait in a refugee camp. It follows them as they fly to Florida and then wait, wait, wait in another refugee camp; until they are finally sponsored—after changing their paperwork to list their religion as Christian—by a man from Alabama. 

It takes place over the course of a year, from Tết 1975 to Tết 1976. Even after the physical journey is over, Hà has to navigate attending an entirely new school WHILE learning a new language AND figuring out all of the unspoken cultural rules that everyone else in the community seems to take for granted.  

Some poems are given specific days or times or dates, like April 5 or Late March or April 30/ Late afternoon, while others are marked Every day—this one, in particular, shows how aware the siblings always are of their mother's feelings:

Mother would laugh
when Father followed her
around the kitchen
I'm starved for stewed eel,
tuyết sút, tuyết sút

Sometimes I whisper
tuyết sút to myself
to pretend
I know him.

I would never say tuyết sút
in front of Mother.
None of us would want
to make her sadder
than she already is.

A few notes/thoughts on poems that especially struck me!

This should be on billboards everywhere:

I step back,
hating pity,
having learned
from Mother that
the pity giver
feels better,
never the pity receiver.

In the poem Feel Dumb, Hà's teacher—who is so maddening-yet-entirely-believably clueless at first that scenes with her made me want to angry-cry—has her recite the alphabet and count to twenty in from of the class, and the teacher tells the class to clap for her, and she's understandably frustrated and insulted:

I'm furious,
unable to explain
I already learned
and how to purify
river water.

So this is
what dumb
feels like.

I hate, hate, hate it.

In More Is Not Better, she writes about how a stronger grasp of English makes communication easier, but opens her eyes to the details of the bullying:

I understand
and wish
I could go back
to not understanding.

And in War and Peace, her teacher "teaches" the class about Vietnam by showing horrible and horrifying pictures from the Vietnam War:

She's telling the class
where I'm from.

She should have shown
something about
papayas and Tết.

No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
peacetime in Alabama.

It's beautiful and funny and angry and sad and hopeful; it's about family and survival and home; it's about making friends and dealing with bullies; about people working to understand one another, trying and failing and trying again. It's a verse novel that reads deceptively simply—the words themselves are short and simple, but the emotions and the relationship and the cultural/social observations have the kind of depth and nuance that make this book one to read and re-read and re-read again.