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Finding words after wartime: Thanhhà Lai on discovering her voice

The Vietnamese novelist, who won a National Book Award for ‘Inside Out & Back Again,’ says the aftershocks of war followed her family to Alabama

5 min

When American soldiers withdrew from Vietnam 50 years ago, they took their salaries home with them. Immediately, the people who had depended on their dollars panicked. Women who used to be able to afford the children’s clothes my mother designed began to worry about meat and vegetables. That meant my own family had less to spend.

My mother had to let go of the woman who washed our laundry (by hand) and cooked our lunch (we paid her with a bowl of the food she made). My teenage brothers found themselves shopping and cooking. I, at 8, had to forgo my after-nap snack. In a tropical country, most awakened early and napped during the heat. Waking into those soggy afternoons, I craved cool plastic pouches of raw sugar cane, stripped and cubed and iced.

Two years later, the war ended, but its aftershocks followed my family and me to Alabama. My father had been part of the losing side’s navy, which meant his children would not be allowed to attend college. We fled and became refugees.

These aftershocks multiplied every time I left our rented house: new clothes, new foods, new trees, new weather, new school, new routine (no more naps) and, worst of all, a new language. Nothing hurt like losing the words to express myself. For the first few months, I copied my fourth-grade classmates. Of course I understood the international language some of them spoke: pointing and laughing.

Six months into our move, I had absorbed enough English to yell back at the bullies. Another year passed before I could write an intelligible essay, yet teachers always marked my work with “awkward” because I so loved the thesaurus. I shredded the American Heritage Dictionary, vowing to conquer English the way my mother commanded Vietnamese, orchid petals floating from her mouth. I was her interpreter after all.

I looked up every word in the first book I read in English, “Where the Red Fern Grows,” even every “a,” “an” and “the.” I was annoyed English had so many tiny words, only to learn later they are called articles, which Vietnamese does not have. Laura Ingalls’s churning butter equally confused me. The translation for “churn” stated it was a bucket, but it didn’t explain how milk became butter. By my freshman year in high school, though, I needed to look up only a few words per page when I read “The Outsiders.” I loved that novel’s theme of finding a world in one’s own group, leading me to find my own.

Fluency took another decade, and even now, almost 40 years later, I still make verb-tense mistakes. But I’ve stopped obsessing about grammar, hearing all the idiosyncrasies around me — from everybody.

Relieved of perfect English, I gave myself permission to write fiction. I had wrestled with words and more words, so I might as well use them. I found as I started outlining what would become my middle-grade novel “Inside Out & Back Again that my brain naturally relived the sensory world of a 10-year-old. I’m sure if I’d fled Vietnam at age 16, my first novel would have been for young adults. I knew the story I would tell, no research needed. Each historical event was tattooed into my memory. But how to tell it?

Searching for a voice took 15 years. I tried prose, but the sentences did not ring true for characters thinking and speaking Vietnamese, a language naturally crisp and poetic.

I landed on the perfect voice when I found myself at a New York City playground. I had not been in such an environment since my childhood in Alabama. As I listened to the children play, quick, sharp images returned to me: slashes, red and yellow, pulled arm hair, a pink-faced boy yelling. Never complete sentences, yet substantial enough to tell a story. I knew then that my main character, Hà, had to tell her story in prose poems.

I’m often labeled a children’s writer, even a poet at times. I think of myself as a storyteller who writes about the ages when I have the most stories to tell. While these stories are set in trauma, I do emphasize humor, because in the midst of tumult there is joy. We lived through a war — my father missing in action, my mother gaunt with worry — but I still remember us laughing.

That time on the American rescue ship when we were given tins of runny peanut and sweet purple goo — which I now know, of course, as peanut butter and jelly. The way it got stuck in our throats made us roar, and we flicked the sticky jam at each other. The time my mechanically inclined brother patched together a car, which spewed a BOOM every time he accelerated. I heard him laughing all the way down the street as I stood in the driveway, howling too.

So yes, the Americans left, the economy collapsed, Saigon fell, rebuilding was even more daunting than fleeing in panic. But mostly, I remember the sugar cane, raw and sweet.

Thanhhà Lai is the author of “Inside Out & Back Again” and its upcoming sequel, “When Clouds Touch Us.”

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