Thanhhà Lại describes the international success of her debut novel in verse Inside Out & Back Again, which fictionalized her early life in Vietnam and immigration to the U.S. after the war, as one of the great surprises of her life. This spring, she will publish a sequel, When Clouds Touch Us, dramatizing the next phase of her heroine ’s refugee experience. Lại spoke with PW about how current events led her to revisit the past, writing in prose poems, and about her nonprofit for kids in rural Vietnam.

In this book you return to your protagonist from Inside Out & Back Again. What drew you to revisit ’s story?

The withdrawal from Afghanistan had just happened and I was struck by how remarkably similar it was to the fall of Saigon. You have the rush to the airport, and you have the panic. You have the Taliban coming in, and nobody knows exactly what they’ll do, but there’s a general feeling that it’s going to be bad. It was the same thing in Vietnam—the communists are coming. All I saw then was panic and wondered how do we get family out. Everyone rushed the airport, and my family rushed the Navy Yard where we had contacts and we jumped on a Navy ship.

There is all this news coverage when the actual fall happens. That is on the front page. And then it falls off. You do not hear about the Afghans anymore, because there are other things going on. But that is when the real story happens. It is the decade after the earthquake. But how do you rebuild? Yes, the Afghans have come here. Yes, they have sponsors. Yes, people will show up at the airport with welcoming signs and balloons. They have got the interpreter they need, they have got the food they need, and they take them shopping. But, still, it will drop off. Then it is really just up to each individual and up to the family. There’s no other way to shortcut reclaiming a self because that’s what you have to do. You have to rebuild from the core.

And I thought Hà’s story is not over. At the end of Inside Out, she wants to fly-kick and you get the sense that life is on the upswing and everything will be fine. For that moment, absolutely, but the family cannot stay in Alabama, just like my real family did not stay in Alabama. There were no jobs there for refugees that my mother thought could set her children up for life. She heard about a factory in Fort Worth, Texas, that was hiring people to work at in factories on the assembly line without knowing any English. So that is where she ended up, and for $2.30 an hour she sent her children to college, as shocking as that sounds. It took about a decade before everyone felt like we could exhale, and that it was going to be okay.

The novel is set two years later, as ’s mother decides to move their family from Alabama to Texas for better opportunities. struggles to find friends, confront racism and cultural misunderstandings, adapt to new schools, and face puberty. How did you seek to frame the challenges of this phase of the refugee experience?

I have had so long to process what happened to me, so that when I think of Hà as a character, she is no longer me. As a fictional character I knew that I have a 12-year-old girl now instead of a 10-year-old, and there’s a vast difference. I have just raised a daughter, so I know. At 10 they truly are still innocent. But then starting at 12 things happen—your hormones are going and you are really able to place yourself in the world and not just within your family unit. I knew Hà was going to start to understand how to make money, and what money means. Money is very important to every refugee family because that’s how you reclaim yourself. You have to be financially solvent. They are going to need to get a house. Hà is thinking everyone else is contributing to this house-buying process and I need to, too. So first she tries babysitting, but it paid about two cents an hour. I have her come up with propagating the piggy poop plants that she loves so much. I made her into someone who was going to not only handle herself in this society, but she was going to thrive in it. She already had supreme confidence from her mother, and she is going to take that and just go out to the world.

The initial reason for prose poems was that I needed a reader to feel inside Hà's mind.

Why did you choose to write in prose poems? And how do these poems change over the course of the novel as matures?

The initial reason for prose poems was that I needed a reader to feel inside Hà’s mind. When I started, Hà is living in Saigon, and obviously she is not speaking English. It is Vietnamese you are reading and by literary magic you are able understand it in English. When I wrote it, I was thinking in Vietnamese and what came out of my fingertips onto the keyboard would be English. It is automatic translation and very much inside of the Vietnamese mind. And then for the sequel, I thought it is two years later, she is not completely fluent in English, especially with the weird English verb tenses and parts of speech. But I thought she is definitely fluent enough so I could have switched to prose, but my editor [Tara Weikum] said when it is a sequel, readers want the same thing. And truly at 12 I was still thinking in Vietnamese. You know you are fluent when you dream in the new language and then when you can tell a joke in the new language and have it actually be funny. I was not there yet at 12. So I wrote in prose poems, but they have changed. Because I need to show that the infiltration of this very wordy, gray language has happened to her brain. English comes in and English is the wordiest language. It is very subtle, but I let the poems loosen a little bit to show her evolution.

You run a charity called Viet Kids, which gives bicycles to kids in Vietnam. What prompted you to create this organization and how has it grown and evolved?

In 2005, I went on a translation trip with a group of doctors who go to the country side to do cleft palate surgery. I talked to the kids and I asked what they wanted and every one of them said a bicycle. They said [they wanted them] so that they could get to school and not walk two hours each way and so that their moms could get to the market. They rig up contraptions to carry extra kids and packages, so that a bicycle becomes like a family car. I thought if a bicycle can change your life that much, we should do it. The bikes cost $75 and come from China. It has been a very popular program and I work with a Buddhist nun who finds these children.

We also started a new scholarship program this year. For just $1,000 you can send a kid to college in Vietnam for a whole year, and for $4,000 somebody has a college education. We started with a boy and a girl, our first two scholarship students. With the bicycle kids, I do not know them aside from the cute letters they write me. But I am going to interview these scholarship kids at the end of each year to see how it is going. Maybe there is a book in there. These are very practical kids. They are going to their nearby college to major in something humble but to them is very uplifting, like hotel management, working the front desk, or restaurant work. They are not going to be the next CEO of some amazing startup doing something with AI, but maybe their children will.

When Clouds Touch Us by Thanhhà Lại. HarperCollins, $18.99 May 9 ISBN 978-1-338-18063-3