Monday, November 28, 2011

Inside Out & Back Again

The 2011 National Book Award winning novel in verse, Inside Out & Back Again, is full of the evocative sights and sounds of of a family's escape from South Vietnam to America in 1975.  It was, according to author Thanhha Lai in a PW interview, "shockingly easy to write," because it was her personal story. I don't know if she was just being modest. I do know it was wonderfully written.

I loved the cultural details these poems provide as ten year-old protagonist, H`a, the daughter of a naval officer missing for nine years, flees the Communists along with her mother and three brothers.

Thanhha Lai peppers her story with dietary detail. Indeed, what H`a's family eats reflects the fall of the South Vietnamese economy as the North Vietnamese Army closes in.

Months before the fall of Saigon: " H`a's mother would give her money to shop: "fifty dong/ to buy one hundred grams of pork,/ a bushel of water spinach,/ five cubes of tofu." In fact, H`a would set a little of that money aside at the store to sneak treats: "a pouch of toasted coconut,/ one sugary fried dough,/ two crunchy mung bean cookies." Before H`a's father when missing,"He loved stewed eels,/ pate´ chaud pasteries." 

That was when times were good.

But as the South crumbles, what used to cost 50 dong, now cost 200 dong. On her birthday,  H`a used to eat " . . . roasted chicken,/ dried bamboo soup,/ and all -I can-eat pudding." Now, "Mother manages only /banana tapioca / and my favorite black sesame candy." 

There is less and less protein for the family. "The hen gives/ one egg/ every day and a half. /We take turns eating them."Mother tells the four children that "Yam and manioc taste lovely with rice" as if they didn't know, "how the poor/ fill their children's bellies."

The family eventually escapes by ship, where they practically starve. "Morning, noon, and night/ we each get/ one clump of rice,/ small, medium, large, according to our height,/ plus one cup of water/ no matter our size." During the voyage, this ration is cut by half!  On the ship, H`a draws pictures of delicious food: "Pouches of pan-fried shredded coconut/Tamarind paste on banana leaf . . . " and more.

Can we imagine how hungry she is?

On a layover in Guam, "We eat inside a huge tent/ where Brother Vu/ becomes head chef, heating up cans of / beef and potatoes/ tasting like salty vomit." 

Not good. Still, something tasty and what sounds like fruit cocktail appears, a cup each. And miraculously, someone had "the heart" to send a case of Vietnamese fish sauce.  ". . . appetites/ wake up."

From there, the family is plunked down in Alabama!

The first food they encounters is a paper bucket of fried chicken.  "Brother Quang forces/ a swallow/before explaining /we are used to fresh-killed chicken/that roamed the yard/ snacking on/ grains and worms. . . . " 

Then there are hot dogs. H`a doesn't know how to eat, " the pink sausage / snuggled inside bread /shaped like a corncob,/ smeared with sauces / yellow and red."

Although H`a and her family family eventually must face the fact that their beloved father is dead, the family thrives in America, through perseverance, love for each other, and eating what they must to survive. As the family's fortunes improve, Mother again cooks Vietnamese food, but like their new lives, it is a little different.

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