“This is more than I could have ever expected from telling one little story.” With those words Thanhha Lai accepted the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature this past Wednesday night at Cipriani Wall Street. In her brief speech, she also thanked her agent, Rosemary Stimola; her two editors, Tara Weikum and Sarah Sevier; and her husband, “for doing exactly what needed to be done.”
In an interview with PW on Thursday morning, shortly before boarding a plane to Kansas, Lai provided the reason for the brevity of her acceptance speech. When Lai’s friend Chandra Wilson, who plays Miranda Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, found out about her NBA nomination, she tried to give Lai some advice about what to say if she won. “I told her, ‘It doesn’t matter because I’m not going to win!’ ” Wilson gave her advice anyway: “Keep it short, keep it humble, and get off stage.” Which is essentially what Lai did.
Asked if, in retrospect, there was anything she would have liked to have added, Lai said, “I wish I’d thanked the other four nominees. I’ve met them all, and they are all lovely human beings. I’d like to thank them for taking literature so seriously, for sitting down like I did and crafting something – money wasn’t involved, glory wasn’t involved. Writing is so unbelievably lonely and boring when it’s not going well, and you’re sitting there for hours and hours. I wanted to thank them for making the whole experience so noncompetitive and so enjoyable.”
The glittering black-tie event had a decidedly unglamorous beginning for Lai and her husband: a car came to collect them from their apartment in Harlem early Wednesday evening for the drive downtown, but the trip ended up taking an hour and 45 minutes. A traffic jam on the West Side Highway made Lai nauseated, and then the driver couldn’t find Cipriani and kept circling the area with no success. Finally Lai and her husband got out in the rain. “I walked the rest of the way in my five-inch heels,” she said.
They arrived just as host John Lithgow was beginning his opening remarks, but Lai said she was able to relax once she was sitting down and dinner was served. “When the award [presentations] started, I was eating chocolate cake,” she said. “I was not prepared for it and it came very fast. When my name was called I had to turn around and ask my editor if I was supposed to go up there.”
Since Young People’s Literature was the first award of the evening, Lai said that after she accepted her prize, she came back to her table and “was sitting there texting everyone. My phone was buzzing all night. My brothers don’t really know what the National Book Award is and I was trying to describe it to them. I’m going to tell them it’s like winning the World Cup. That they’ll understand.”
At one point in the evening Nikki Grimes stopped by Lai’s table to offer congratulations, and told her, “I was so glad that a poet won!” I told her, “ ‘I don’t really think of myself as a poet,’ and she answered, ‘You are a poet!’ ”
Lai had actually never heard of a prose poem before trying out the format that her novel appears in. “I thought I had invented the form!” Lai said. “Ten-year-olds, especially Vietnamese, think in tight images, I cut out every word I didn’t need.”
Like Hà, the protagonist of Inside Out & Back Again, Lai came over with her family from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, without knowing a word of English. As a child, she said, “I took English very seriously. My mother doesn’t speak English, and I would translate for her. I was obsessed with the challenge: can my English match my mom’s Vietnamese?”
But as hard as she tried, Lai said, “I never could translate the beauty of her words. My mother couldn’t just say red, she would compare it to the petals of a flower. In my prose poem I combined the floral beauty of Vietnamese with the practical, spare version of my English. It was exciting to be able to combine the two.”
Lai said that the next several weeks will probably be too busy to allow her much time to write. But she’s looking forward to getting back to work on her second novel. “I really do enjoy my writing life,” she said. “It’s a quiet life and I love it.”
It’s been a long journey, from a Vietnamese girl arriving in America in 1975, not speaking English, to a published novelist winning the National Book Award. “It just goes to show you,” Lai said. “English can be learned!”