When Thanhha (pronounced TANG-Ha) Lai decided to fictionalize the story of her own early life in Vietnam and immigration to Alabama after the war, she wrote her novel Inside Out & Back Again (HarperCollins) in six months. "It was shockingly easy to write," she recalls. "Because it is my story and I'd already been processing it for years and years."
The speed of this process juxtaposed starkly with her previous effort—an adult novel completed after she earned her M.F.A. at NYU that took 15 years to write. She tried dozens of agents and publishers, to no avail. "Looking back, its beautiful sentences did not offer a plot and never really got anywhere. Whereas with this book," Lai says with a pause, "I think if you love writing it, someone will love reading it."
Lai wrote Inside Out & Back Again in a spare, poetic prose style meant to reflect in English what it's like to think in Vietnamese. "Vietnamese is so lyrical, and 80% percent of it is derived from Chinese, which is a language built from pictures not words. So this format and voice came out of that desire." The result is a taut narrative that delves deeply into the immigrant experience of Hà, her memorable 10-year-old heroine, who grows up with three brothers and a father missing in action.
"The outline of the story is the same as mine, but I made changes to invent suspense," Lai says. She condensed the events, dramatized characters and cut down the number of brothers from her own six to three. She also eliminated her two sisters in order to heighten the sense that Hà was the only girl in this family dominated by boys. Throughout, Lai kept the emotions true to her own. "When we came to Alabama and kids teased me, I really was that upset and angry. I was just as frustrated trying to learn English."
Once she finished the novel, Lai says she queried 10 agents and waited. Not for long. Rosemary Stimola from Stimola Literary Studio replied first and asked for five pages. Then she asked for 50. And within an hour of getting those 50, Stimola asked for the entire novel and then signed on to represent her.
Lai thanks Tara Weikum at HarperCollins for making the book stronger with each revision. The editing process focused primarily on accentuating the narrative arc for her protagonist. "Here I had an M.F.A., and I had never heard of a narrative arc," Lai says with a laugh.
The process made the emotional journey of Hà more pronounced. "I used to be a journalist for the Orange County Register," Lai says. "In that environment the editing process is so much quicker and rougher. Whereas the notes and thought given to each word, each poem, by my editors was so gentle and thoughtful."
Lai made a conscious decision to infuse her novel with humor. "Sure, my story is sad and I also had a missing father. But I come from a hilarious family. Our house was always a laughing house. Saigon in 1975 was horrific, but it was also a great place to grow up and lots of fun. Alabama was a nightmare, yes. I was the first Asian any of my classmates had seen. George Wallace was the governor. In my writing, from the beginning, I sought to balance the sadness with humor."
Her next novel examines the contemporary experience of the first generation of Vietnamese immigrants in America. It focuses on one of Hà's nieces who travels back to Vietnam and undergoes culture shock and resistance to the traditions of her homeland. "These kids face a lot of urging not to lose their roots," Lai says. "They're told to gather the stories of their parents and grandparents and to honor their cultural history. And yet, as they're born in the United States, they don't identify with Vietnam and feel strongly that these are not their roots, so how can they lose them?"