Thursday, December 29, 2011

Both Going and Coming: Inside Out and Back Again by Tranhha Lai

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

Tranhha Lai's National Book Award-winning novel, Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 2011), paints an unbelievably intimate portrait of an immigrant girl from a "boat people" family from Viet Nam fleeing the invasion of the victors from the north, but in many ways it is the story of every immigrant whose life is turned inside out as a stranger in a strange land.

Ten-year-old Ha is taken abruptly from her happy life into a dangerously crowded ship where her family huddles together on one straw mat for days until the refugees are picked up by the U.S. Navy and taken to Guam. From there to a transitional camp in Florida they go and at last a sponsor, "the Cowboy," takes them to a new home on the Alabama coast. Although each of the family has few material things with them, they all bring their own baggage. Her mother brings the photograph of her soldier father, taken prisoner, missing in the war; her little brother tries to bring a baby chick from their backyard flock which he clings to too long after its death in his pocket; her oldest brother brings his English book and frantically studies, knowing that he will have to be the go-between for his family in their new life. Ha brings the stubborn knowledge that she is smart and a deep longing for the tastes and sights of home, especially the taste of fresh papaya from her own backyard tree.

At first Ha's family finds no safe haven in backwater Alabama. Ha's oldest brother finds a job as a mechanic's assistant in a small garage and her mother also finds menial work. Ha finds herself put back in the grade she's just completed, a girl who can change fractions into percentages is humiliated by the round of applause her well-meaning teacher forces on her classmates for the pitiful accomplishment of counting to ten in English:

I wish I were still smart.

The food at school is tasteless; English seems a language with insane rules; and Ha hides the food from home from smirking eyes and eats her lunch in a bathroom stall. And then "Pink Boy," not the class's shining star, discovers that he can gain status by bullying Ha, chasing her shouting "Ha-Ha-Ha" and "Pancake Face" and tripping and hitting her when he can catch her. Ha hits the class door at the end of the school day and races to outrun Pink Boy until she can meet up with her older brother for protection. And there is no papaya to be found anywhere.

But "the Cowboy" is kind and takes the stories of bullying to the school, where her well-intentioned teacher does what she can to protect her from the overt unkindnesses of the class. The Cowboy takes them up and down their street to introduce the family to the neighbors, most of who slam their doors in their faces. But one neighbor, a retired teacher whose son was killed in Viet Nam, understands her pain, tutors her in English, and tries to make her special foods to ease her homesickness--even offering the only form of papaya to be had in South Alabama, sickly sweet and tough, dried papaya in a plastic bag. It's nothing like the juicy fruit Ha remembers and in despair she tosses the disappointing food into the trash. But her mother retrieves the fruit, soaks it until it is soft and moist, and Ha recognizes that taste, not quite the same, but sweet with the love of those who are trying to give her what she needs.

Ha's problem with "Pink Boy" is solved in the usual way with bullies. She makes two friends and allies at school and her class begins to accept her. And then, when Pink Boy catches her one day after school, her oldest brother appears astride his new motorcycle, intimidating the bully for good. Ha finds that she has, indeed, come "back again," as her family's loss begins to heal and she sees that life will again be good.

Inside Out and Back Again offers a powerful look at what it is like to be an immigrant child thrust into a radically different culture. Written in easy free verse, its spare but poignant language is moving and elegant, suited to both middle and young adult readers.

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