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Children’s perspective largely differs when it comes to a variety of subjects and themes. Things like great and disastrous catastrophes, family, or home will look very much extraordinarily for an adult mindset. A child’s thoughts about serious subjects might be somewhat naïve, idealistic, or even partially incomplete. Nevertheless, such notion means only that a child can offer a different and, oftentimes, an even more peculiar perspective. This lies down on paper in a corresponding fashion when an author tells a story from the child’s point of view. This is particularly the case for Thanhha Lai and her autobiographical work Inside Out and Back Again published in 2011. Essentially, telling a story of her early life through the eyes of a 10-year-old Ha sheds light on many parallels between family and immigration as well as warfare and school.
A Journey Inside Out
Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again was published in 2011, after the author allegedly worked on a book for nearly 30 years. The narrative, presented in a verse form, follows the story of a Vietnamese family who migrate to the United States as the Vietnam War rages and devastates their country. The protagonist of the story Ha, prototyped from the author herself, finds it extremely hard to adjust to her new surroundings, which are far from being friendly. As she lives through the events of the story, she often thinks about her family, its purpose and importance, as well as the war and how it might be similar to her school life (Lai). Such parallels draw quite a peculiar philosophy, offering the reader a first-hand experience as to what it is like to be an immigrant in the United States.
Warfare and, more specifically, its consequences, is one of the central themes in the book. The protagonist was born not long before the Vietnam War, and, essentially, does not remember much aside from it. In the second poem of the first part of the book, Ha thinks,
Maybe soldiers will no longer
patrol our neighborhood,
maybe I can jump rope
maybe the whistles that
to push us under the bed
will stop screeching (Lai 1.2.5-12).
The sense of need to hide all the time certainly bothers Ha and she hopes for that need to cease to exist one day. As she flees to the United States, however, the situation does not seem very different to her there as the family faces all the hardships of immigration, especially considering that none of them speaks proper English. In the 23rd poem of part 3, Ha wishes “that Mother wouldn’t / hide her bleeding fingers” and that “English could be learned / without so many rules” (3.23.6-7; 15-16). It seems like Ha’s family left the warfare behind, yet the discomforting rules and need to hide still remains in her mind. A need to hide from bombs is no different than a need to hide one’s feelings or bleeding hands and constitutes an unnecessary rule that nobody would want wish to follow.
Family is another important theme in the book and, perhaps, the only positive one. Although at the very beginning of the story, the reader finds out that Ha’s father “left home / on a navy mission / on this day / nine years ago” (1.6.1-4) to never return, the family keeps hope, with Ha’s mother “prepares an altar / to chant for his return” (1.6.12-13). The similar sense of ritual is seen in poem 54 of the third chapter, when Ha’s mother invites their neighbors for egg rolls. As neighbors arrive, they bring gifts for early Christmas without mentioning for they do not want to embarrass the family that has nothing for exchange (3.54.4-10). Despite all the hardships of escaping the war and life in immigration, Ha still sees hope in the future and in her family who appears to be treated decently as the time goes on. The family altar from the first part of the book also parallels with the Christmas gifts Ha’s neighbors provide them with. As Ha’s mother prepares an altar in a hope of her husband’s return, Ha’s neighbors prepared them gifts in hopes they will live in friendship and peace.
While Inside Out and Back Again is written from the child’s perspective, it manages to cover adult themes with a slightly bitter sense and unique perspective. Throughout the book, the protagonist Ha takes a note detail that adults would probably not notice. When these details cross and echo one another throughout the parts and chapters of the book, they present strong parallels between warfare and life in immigration. Indeed, it is an extremely emotional experience, to leave home due to the war and start life anew, through struggle to peace and acceptance.
Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. Harper And Collins, 2011.
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