This fall Thanhha (pronounced TANG-ha) Lai publishes her debut novel for young adults, Butterfly Yellow. Her powerful book centers on two 18-year-old protagonists, a Vietnamese refugee named Hằng in search of her brother who was evacuated years before, and the Texan LeeRoy, who dreams of being a cowboy. Lai previously published the award-winning books for middle grade readers Inside Out & Back Again and Listen, Slowly. Lai spoke with PW about the novel she always knew she wanted to write about the stories Vietnamese immigrants hesitate to tell, and about crafting two distinct narrative perspectives.
This is your first novel for young adults. What made you decide to write for this audience?
I don’t make those decisions. Those are editorial decisions. I knew that for this story the character needed to be 18 so that her uncle couldn’t just snatch her back. And then I knew that if she were 18 there could be an innocent beginning of a romance. When I approach a book I don’t think in terms of audience, I think in terms of character. So, if the character is 10 they would think like this, and if they’re 18 they would think like this. All three of my novels are in the present tense, so there’s no reflection back in time. They all occur in the moment, and that guides me.
What inspired this novel? In particular how did you decide to center the story around your two protagonists, Hằng and LeeRoy?
This book was 30 years in the making. It wasn’t a matter of inspiration; I always knew I had to write it. Years ago I was a journalist for the Orange County Register in California, and Orange County has the largest population of Vietnamese in the country. When I was a cub reporter, there were two times a year they always sent me out. The first was for Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, and the second was April 30th, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975. And I would always ask people how they came to the United States. I know my own story; Inside Out & Back Again is my story. But what I noticed was that many people did not want to answer. They wanted to skip over that and to tell about their children and what their lives were like now.
And I became more and more interested in what happens in between, and the stories that no one wants to talk about. I made it out in the first wave [of immigrants] on a navy ship. In the second wave, people escaped in fishing boats and things happened on the journey. The second wave [of immigrants] from Vietnam came in 1979, 1980, and 1981. And that wave’s stories were the most intense and painful. I noticed that when I asked about what happened people would always say, “I’ve heard rumors. I’ve heard rumors that there were rapes. I’ve heard rumors that pirates would take the men.” No one would say that it was their story, because it’s such a dark story that you don’t want to put your name to it.
I knew I wanted to tell that story. But I wasn’t sure how I was going to get at it. It became clear to me that it had to be in fiction. And Hằng came into my head. I knew I had to focus on her after the horror, as she came out of it, and to show her healing but in a twisted way, her healing by forgetting. But that story is so dark and I knew I needed humor. The humor couldn’t really come from Hằng and that was what inspired LeeRoy, the wannabe Texan cowboy. I lived in Texas, I went to high school there. So it was fun to write this Texan and use the language and the idioms. It was a balance of extremes. Here’s LeeRoy, whose biggest problem is where he should go to college, and then Hằng has endured a horror so intense that she can’t quite face it. I knew that these two would be instantly connected and that they would balance each other. And their connection would be in humor, solace, annoyance, and work. I knew it had to be a story of physical work, and that she would work to recover. For that reason, I set it on a ranch where they would be busy with muscle work from sunup to sundown. And once I found that, everything clicked. I’m madly in love with these two characters.
The novel alternates points of view between these two main characters. What inspired you to shift perspectives in this way?
For a while, I had a hard time finding the voice for this book. I started with third person omniscient, but I do third person in a very writerly way. It’s not exactly didactic, but I get very knowledgeable. And I just couldn’t get close enough to the characters and to Hằng’s point of view.
Then I arrived at shifting their perspectives. My problem was, how do I make each voice distinct, so that you know it’s Hằng or LeeRoy without having to look at the chapter head? When the chapter is from LeeRoy’s point of view the voice is a true Texan. It’s infused with humor and I use Texas idioms. He’s a cowboy but not really sure he’s doing it right. Then when it switches to Hằng I made the language more poetic for her because Vietnamese is a poetic language.
It took five years to write and was really hard work. I started this book before Listen, Slowly and I thought it would be my second novel. But I couldn’t nail the voice and figure out how to tell her trauma without making it just too sad. I had a contract for a second book so I switched to Listen, Slowly, which was a breeze to write and done in a year. That book was just one main character.
But this one [Butterfly Yellow] was much harder. I’m a former journalist and I don’t miss a deadline. And I missed three deadlines on this book. After five years, when it felt like I lived in a cave, locked in a room getting this right, I am now so happy with how the book came out. It turned out even better than I expected, which is a rare thing. I think it’s a fast and fun read, but it wasn’t easy to write. I’m glad that some of my anxiety and frustration while I was writing didn’t land on the page.
Hằng feels such guilt about her brother’s evacuation from Vietnam and is determined to find him and heal this relationship. How did you layer her emotions and set up the complicated dynamic between them?
I knew there had to be a compelling reason for Hằng to get on that boat. It was not enough to have her wish for cliché freedom. As a former journalist I know what people say, that they wanted freedom, but that is not a reason to jump on a boat. I knew it had to be something dire that would cause her tremendous worry and guilt. But her parents could take care of themselves and her Ba [grandmother] would never leave, so it had to be a little brother, and she feels such intense guilt about his evacuation that it compels her to leave. And then it turns out that she’s wrong and that he’s fine, and it takes a while for her to get over that and create a new life for herself.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
That even when life is at its most dire, that’s not all that you feel. One of the things that makes human beings so complex is that there will be an aspect of brightness. And even in the happiest moments, a wedding or graduation, things will never be perfect and there is still sadness. I am fascinated by dichotomies and looking at the unexpected.
You established a charity called Viet Kids. How did you decide to create this organization?
In 2005, I went to Vietnam as a translator for surgeons who were doing cleft palate surgeries in the countryside. When I asked the kids about their hopes and dreams and about what they wanted right now to make their lives better, what they all said was that they wanted a bicycle. These kids would have to walk an hour or two to school, and by the time they got there they would be exhausted and couldn’t concentrate. But if they had a bike they could get there faster, so we set up Viet Kids. And the bicycle does more than just help the kid, it also helps the whole family. I wish an MIT engineer would invent a bike that doesn’t rust in the monsoons, but that hasn’t happened yet. I donate all my speaking and school event fees [to Viet Kids]—and I work with a Buddhist nun to get the bicycles to kids in rural areas.
What are you working on now?
I just sold a picture book. I’ve always wanted to be an illustrator, but I think this is the closest I’ll come. It’s about a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease and how the grandfather and her grandchild think of ways to spur her memories and bring her back. I am also playing with a bigger novel. I have the most wonderful [journaling] app called Day One, so I walk my dogs and talk through my ideas. It’s nice not to be tied to my desk at this point.
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins, $17.99 Sept. 3 ISBN 978-0-06-222921-2