Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Inside Out & Back Again

Thanhha Lai
Photo by Sloane Bosniak
In my previous post about how I got into publishing, I mentioned a particular book that I’ve had the pleasure of working on called Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. We often refer to this title as “our little engine that could” as it falls into the category of “off the beaten path” when one considers that it’s a middle-grade historical novel written in verse. I started at Harper right around the on-sale date of Inside Out and though it wasn’t initially reassigned to me (I later requested to take it over), I heard the buzz around the house grow as it collected starred review after starred review (FOUR total), and then whispers of awards talk started trickling in. Most of the time, we in publishing try to stay mum about awards discussions and probabilities lest we put a jinx on it (call us superstitious).  In this case, however, our highly guarded hopes were rewarded when Thanhha received the National Book Award and then a few months later a Newbery Honor. To top it off, her book then hit the New York Times bestseller list—the final feat completing what I like to call the children’s lit version of the “Triple Crown.”

Working with Thanhha has been an absolute joy. She is everything a publicist could dream of: responsive, gracious, kind, funny, and all of those other marvelous traits you’d want in any friend. Perhaps being an Asian-American myself, I felt a certain connection with Thanhha, and though my own history is a far-cry from her experiences, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride in all that Thanhha and her heroine Hà accomplished. I’ve included one of my favorite poems from the book below, because it hits so close to home. For me, even growing up in a place as diverse as Brooklyn, there was always that feeling lingering somewhere just below the surface of being “medium.”

Black and White and Yellow and Red

The bell rings.
Everyone stands.
I stand.

They line up;
so do I.

Down a hall.
Turn left.
Take a tray.
Receive food.

On one side
of the bright, noisy room,
light skin.
Other side,
dark skin.

Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred
to them
someone medium
would show up.
I don’t know where to sit
any more than
I know how to eat
the pink sausage
snuggled inside bread
shaped like a corncob,
smeared with sauces
yellow and red.

I think
they are making fun
of the Vietnamese flag
until I remember
no one here likely knows
that flag’s colors.

I put down the tray
and wait
in the hallway.

September 2
11:30 a.m.

For this blog, Thanhha was kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

Did you “see yourself” in books during your childhood in America? If so, are there any titles that were particularly significant?
I didn’t read that much as a child.  I spent it listening to my mom tell stories:  how women ran into the woods to hide from French soldiers, how leeches attacked peasants in a rice paddy, how my mom had her feet washed in jasmine water before bed, how she sneaked rice to the housekeeper so her child could have rice to eat, how my mom went from a rich little girl to poor single mom all because of this thing called war.  If I did read, I read stories with animals in them.  Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, those sorts of books.  I didn’t miss seeing myself in books because I wasn't looking in books for a sense of self.  That anchoring of an identity always came from my mom’s stories.

When did you go from trying to learn English to trying to express yourself in English (through writing)?
I was obsessed with learning English and I’m still learning it.  Certain nuances in verb tenses still confuse me.  Then I began reading.  I think if one reads, sooner or later, one will try to write.  By the end of college, after almost a decade in the US, I was putting sentences together, thinking, maybe, one day, all these sentences will culminate into something.

What’s it like getting feedback from readers? Have you heard from readers who see themselves in Inside Out & Back Again?
It’s been so sweet hearing from Vietnamese Americans who were born here, who do not necessarily speak Vietnamese or know that much about Vietnam.  Their parents fled Vietnam after the war, like I did, and for whatever reasons have declined to relate their stories to the next generation.  So for those readers, my story provides the flesh and bones to narratives they have caught glimpses of but never have been able to hold.

What are you working on now?
A contemporary story about a spoiled, rich 12-year-old girl born in Laguna Beach but forced back to her parents’ first world—Vietnam—for a summer. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm sad to say I haven't picked this up yet. It's on the list though. I have a couple of middle grade books and an adult book that will probably take me fifteen years at this rate. ;) Thanks for reminding me about this one!