Inside Out and Back Again
National Book Award Winner (Young People’s Literature)
Newbery Honor Book
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Recording an audiobook like Inside Out and Back Again is always a challenge. Not only was this a book in verse, but it required a native speaker in a language that is not all that common among our usual talent pool of actors. Recorded Books lucked out, though, when we found Doan Ly. We were privileged enough to be able to interview both author Thannha Lai (TL) and narrator Doan Ly (DL) about their experiences with the book.
RB: Thannha, INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN is based on your own family’s experience emigrating from South Vietnam to Alabama in 1975. What made you decide to write a fictional story instead of a memoir?
TL: I belong to a large and vocal family, so if I had written a memoir I knew I would be explaining myself endlessly to my siblings, as their experiences and memories are bound to be vastly different from mine and from each other. I did try to incorporate all six brothers, two sisters and a mother, but all those characters proved impossible to distinguish, so I chopped the family down to three brothers and a mother. If it were a memoir, what would I say to the ones who were left out? Also, to create a narrative arc and drama, I needed to convey Hà’s evolution from anguish to acceptance within a year. In real life, that process took a decade. A memoir would have been slow and dull.
RB: Doan, would you tell us your own story about coming to America?
DL: When I was 7 years old, my family and I escaped from Vietnam on a little fishing boat crammed with 110 people. We almost died, but escaped the worst. We were in rough waters due to terrible weather, but it was a blessing in that we were not pirated. Those stories are the worst stories. Miraculously we were rescued and all survived. I spent a year in refugee camps in Indonesia, and then moved to Bloomington, Minnesota. I remember the day we landed. There was a blizzard. I had never really been in a car, and had never seen snow. It was as if I had just landed on Mars! But once we got to my great aunt’s house, there was a fire in the fireplace, and she handed me some apple slices. I felt so happy…
RB: What excited you most about reading the story?
DL: I felt very honored to be a part of such a great story, and such a beautiful work of writing. It excited me to know that not only is this story being told, but told so well by Thanhha Lai.
RB: In what way is your heroine, Hà, most like and/or most different from your 10-year-old self?
TL: Hà loves her snacks and so do I. Every time I’m back in Orange County, CA, where more Vietnamese live than anywhere else in the world except in Vietnam itself, I go from shop to shop gathering snacks as if saving for a famine. We both have tempers the size of the sky, and I must say, even with her screaming fit, she deals with hers much better than I did at age ten.
RB: Were there aspects of your family’s experience coming from Vietnam to the USA that you thought about including, but ultimately left out of your novel? (Or that you were going to leave out, but ended up adding?)
TL: I had written much more about Part I in Saigon, but in the editing process we decided to get Hà to Alabama faster and make that new world the heart of the novel. There were poems featuring TiTi, her best friend, where they tried to predict what would happen after the Communists enter Saigon. The events leading to April 30 were even more detailed, almost down to hourly increments for the day they pushed to get on the ship.
RB: Doan, do you have a favorite scene from the book?
DL: My favorite scene was the fall of of Saigon, at the end of the of Part I. I found it profoundly moving. The narrative had been building up to this point, technically and emotionally, so when the pilot came onto the boat to describe how Communist tanks had overtaken the presidential palace, and that “Saigon is gone,” it felt like I was hearing the news for the first time myself. It was surprising, in the recording booth, to feel as though someone just punched me in the stomach. I myself got so wrapped up, so lost in the story, that the news was heartbreaking and it was a struggle to contain the emotion in my voice. It’s strange. Even though I was born two years after the war, but it was such a part of my childhood and my identity. It’s in my DNA. I think that’s why I reacted so viscerally to that scene in the novel.
RB: You’ve said that you chose to write in verse to help reflect in English what it’s like to think in Vietnamese. Was this always your intention, or something you came to through the writing process?
TL: Oh, how I wish I had thought to write in verse from the beginning. But my brain likes to torture me—for 15 years in fact. I was writing a novel in prose about a Vietnamese family in Texas, but that novel never clicked because the voice was always wrong. Disgusted, I gave up. But the characters stayed with me, especially the youngest daughter. One day I started jotting down images to convey what she would be feeling while standing on the playground mute and alone. Those images became phrases, which became prose poems. Once I found the voice, writing Hà’s story took six months.
RB: Your book is so superbly suited for reading aloud! What excites you most about seeing it published as an audiobook?
TL: I’m thrilled that all the Vietnamese words will be pronounced clearly and beautifully. Even more, I imagine listeners closing their eyes and letting the images transport them to another time, another being. I think of these poems as music; they really must be experienced through the ears.
RB: Doan, how did you prepare for the recording?
DL: I also escaped from Vietnam when I was young. The story was in a lot of ways very close to home. I drew on a lot of my own memories, as well as from stories of relatives and friends and their experiences of the war, of loss, of leaving your family and home, and finding a new, different life. I also talked to my mom about the northern pronunciation of the Vietnamese words which appeared in the story, who in turn called on her best friend, a northerner, to help us out. We had some conference calls. It was a group effort!
RB: How did you and your director work together?
DL: [RB studio director] Claudia was wonderfully meticulous. She’s the top of the top and could hear such subtle details in my voice, in my delivery. he sought always for a clear and nuanced way of just delivering the text. Basically, she got me out of the way. I didn’t need to do much, because everything has already done by the author. I loved how rigorous she was with me. I felt in very good hands. She taught me a great deal.
RB: What did you find particularly challenging about the narration?
DL: The novel is written in verse. I wanted to honor the line breaks, the negative space on the page, the way my eye perceived the text and how that informs the melody and meaning. I was trapped in a visual context, whereas recording is all about story telling, about being of an aural context. I don’t know what came over me! I should have known better, having had years of experience working on Shakespeare.
RB: Thannha, we have to ask: Do you plan to revisit Hà and her family in future novels?
TL: It’s been such a magical experience that right now I think it’s best to leave Hà and her family alone. But in another five, ten years? Who knows?
Thank you so much, Thannha and Doan, for taking the time to answer our questions and working to bring this wonderful book to life!