Category Archives: Vietnamese

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Frangipani Hotel*STARRED REVIEW
What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.

In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.

Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Hapa, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos

Year of the JungleWith the impending release of the book-to-screen adaptation of Catching Fire on November 22, Suzanne Collins will again be back in the headlines sooner than later. Although The Hunger Games trilogy is what made her a household name, Collins does have other (dare I say … even better) books. I stayed ever so partial to the five-part Gregor the Overlander volumes, but this, her latest, has just moved into the favored Collins spot.

Year of the Jungle begins and ends with the same sentences: “My dad reads me poems by a man named Ogden Nash. My favorite is about a dragon named Custard. Even though he always feels afraid, he is the bravest of all. And that’s what makes him special.” In between the first and final pages, a year passes – 1968 – after which, life can never be the same.

“My dad has to go to something called a war. It’s in a place called Viet Nam,” the little girl narrator explains. From the father’s postcards, we learn the girl is Suzy or Little Sue. And in case you’re still unsure who she might be, the black-and-white photograph of Collins in 1968 at book’s end will banish any lingering doubts.

Suzy, her older sisters Kathy and Joanie, her brother Drew, even Rascal the cat, all keep an eye on their mother “[j]ust in case she’s thinking about going to the jungle, too,” where their father has been deployed. The passing holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas – are marked by postcards, and then an errant birthday card arrives months too early. “The jungle must be a very confusing place for him to make such a serious mistake,” Suzy muses. After a few months of silence, another postcard finally arrives, this time signed with “Pray for me.” While worry grows, forgetting happens, too: “Sometimes it’s hard to remember what my dad looks like … So many things are scary now.”

And then her father finally returns. And yet, “[h]e is here but not here.” Suzy is bursting to talk to him: “I need to tell him what I know. About the jungle. About the things that happen there.” But she’s still a little girl searching for understanding: “The words are hard to get hold of.” No matter how glad she is that he’s finally home, she also realizes, “Some things have changed but some things will always be the same.”

While Collins might be the current reigning queen of teen dystopia, Year of the Jungle confirms she’s quite the effective spokesperson for a growing genre of books targeting the left-behind children of deployed military: recent examples include Deborah Ellis’ Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, Jill Biden’s Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops, and Pat Brisson’s Sometimes We Were Brave. Colorfully brought to the page by James Proimos’ complementary naïf-style pictures, Collins provides just the right balance between the challenges of waiting – the unavoidable images in the media, the frustrations of forgetting, the fear of an unknown future –  and the insistent belief of a parent’s someday-return. Move over, Katniss … Suzy is her own best heroine yet.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific, Vietnamese

Author Interview: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy is one tough writer to get to, although she declares in our first email exchange when I finally track her down, “I am not at all the kind who plays hard to get :-) .” Attempts to contact her included pleas to both her Canadian and U.S. publishers and publicists (multiple times, ahem!), as well as to her Canadian literary agent’s office. Two months had already passed since my feature piece on Kim Thúy had been filed, edited, and readied for publication.

So, I got personal. I sent random emails to friends who happened to be Canadian writers. How hard could six degrees of separation be, right? I asked an Israeli Canadian buddy and an American ex-pat-now-Canadian professor. Nothing. And then I remembered a Nepali Canadian journalist author friend, who quickly replied she didn’t know Kim Thúy personally, but she thought of two friends who might. The connection that finally came through was a missive from Shanghai from a novelist on her way to a Vancouver residency! Talk about searching the ends of the world!

Kim Thúy insisted on a Skype chat: “… my English is weak [it’s so not!]. Live Skype allows me to use my hands to speak to you.” And she requested an 8:33 call on a Thursday morning, warning “a later time will be interrupted by all kinds of daily stuff: phone calls, people at the door, wild cats … and bears in the garden …” I will add that, regardless, her phone(s!) rang as if on cue every few minutes.

Still, we managed a two-hour session of gesticulating and laughing and outright guffawing.

Okay, so you’ll hear me typing while we talk, and I’m also recording our conversation …
Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve said so many stupid things during interviews, I don’t worry at all anymore! So you can do anything you want with this!

Then I might as well ask you the most selfish question right up front: when’s the next book coming out?
I’ve written two more since Ru! They are already out in French. My second book is with another author, Pascal Janojvak. We met in Monaco because we were both there for a book prize [the Prix Littéraires Prince Pierre de Monaco]. I had not read his book [L'Invisible] and he had not read mine. Pascal is half-French, his father is Slovak, and his parents met in Switzerland where he was born. But now he is living in Ramallah, in Palestine. And I wondered why a Swiss would be living in Ramallah! He had been there for five years, he had his kids there. And I thought, there must be a love story! He met his Italian wife in Beirut at the Institut Français. They lived in Bangladesh, then worked in Jordan, then got jobs in Ramallah. Their children have many passports! We first met for only one-and-a-half hours, but something just clicked. We exchanged our first email, and the story was right there. So we started writing this book, going back and forth. It’s called À toi.

Since it’s not translated into English yet, can you tell us about it?
When we met, first I talked about French colonization, about the Vietnamese people’s love/hate relationship with the dominant culture. For the Vietnamese, we want the French to leave our country, but then we also wish we had French features. We still wish to be French, even though we despise them, because we wish to be like those who have the power.

Then Pascal came back with a great story about Palestine, about what the kids are playing in the streets. He noticed that when they had a choice, the Palestinian children chose to be an Israeli soldier, because that’s the closest they had to a hero! When they played with planes, they wanted the supersonic models from Israel, not the Palestinian versions. Israeli products are always thought of as better than the Palestinian. That was very interesting to me. I knew so little about Palestine – beyond explosions, smoke, guns. But Pascal told me about how when a pot of soup is made by someone’s mother, she shares it with her friends. I don’t have that sort of image – of mothers, fathers, their children living their daily lives. But of course, they have the same daily lives as everyone else!

Pascal told me about all the stress in Gaza that has led to a big controversy with black market sleeping pills and Viagra. The men can’t sleep. They’re too tense and not relaxed enough for that. When he told me this story, I finally realized how they must always live under such pressure all the time. The body is always reacting, the body has to keep changing and adapting. But by being under stress always, we are just muting ourselves.

I wanted to continue this conversation with him, so we did that through writing the book.

And also, he was very handsome, by the way. And now you know I’m just superficial! I just wanted to talk to him. Anyway, that’s how we started. The book is about the same length as Ru. It’s not yet translated into English but I think soon. [...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Kim Thúy,” Bloom, September 18, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Author Profile: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader

Ah, well . . . better start with true confessions: my words appear on the back cover of the U.S. edition (at least the first printing) of Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru. The blurb is excerpted from my starred review in the August 15, 2012 issue of Library Journal: “This extraordinary first novel unfolds like ethereal poetry . . . [an] intricate, mesmerizing narrative.”

So now, you’re fully aware of my publicly admiring bias for the novel. And clearly, I’m not alone. By the time Ru hit U.S. shelves in November 2012 (translated from the original French), it had already earned numerous, important, global accolades for its first-time author. After multiple lives as a refugee, interpreter, translator, lawyer, and restaurateur, Thúy was 41 when she “bloomed” with the initial publication of Ru in Canada in October 2009.

Success came quickly and broadly, with editions that appeared in 20 countries: nationally, Ru was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize; internationally, it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The original French debut won Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, only to reappear two years later on the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation when the English-language edition, translated by the award-winning Sheila Fischman, appeared in 2012. “This is an exemplary autobiographical novel. Never is there the slightest hint of narcissism or self‑pity,” read the Governor General’s Literary Award jury citation upon announcing Ru the 2010 winner. “The major events in the fall of Vietnam are painted in delicate strokes, through the daily existence of a woman who has to reinvent herself elsewhere. A tragic journey described in a keen, sensitive and perfectly understated voice.”

That enigmatic single-word title is as multilayered as the slender novel’s elliptical prose: “Ru” means “a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, blood, of money” in French; in Vietnamese, pronounced quite differently but sharing the same spelling, “ru” is a “lullaby, to lull.” “Ru” is “the most beautiful word in our [Vietnamese] language,” Thúy told Vinh Nguyen in an interview for Diacritics, which named Ru the first-ever Vietnamese Canadian novel.

“I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. . . . The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost,” Ru’s narrator introduces herself.

My name is Nguyễn An Tịnh, my mother’s name is Nguyễn An Tỉnh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, disassociates me from her. . . . With these almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.

The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother’s plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped us our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange. . . . In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.

In just over 140 spare pages, Thúy constructs an intricate mosaic of vignettes that flow through decades, continents, generations, and cultures. The “Reading Group Guide” available at book’s end explains that Ru is “an autobiographical novel based on the author’s real-life experience as a Vietnamese émigré and how she found her way – and her voice – after immigrating to Quebec.”

Written as a series of prose poems that range from a precise few lines to a fleeting few pages, the emerging narrative charts a young girl’s journey from wealthy privilege in Vietnam; her rebirth as a war refugee in Canada; her return to her native country where the locals consider her “too fat to be Vietnamese” – not because of her stature, but because “the American dream had made me more substantial, heavier, weightier”; and eventually her own overwhelming motherhood. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Kim Thuy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader,” Bloom, September 16, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009, 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey by GB Tran

VietnamericaBoth the inside and outside covers here are exactly the same: a mostly well-ordered, three-generation family tree … except for the bottom right corner in which the youngest member – the book’s author/creator GB Tran – is desperately attempting to complete the thus-far neatly organized tree. Under one arm, Tran holds his matching portrait with his initial-ized American name slightly askew, while desperately reaching out to grab the placard that bears his full Vietnamese moniker “Gia-Bao” which is falling just out of his reach. Scattered below him are unnamed portraits that don’t seem to have a designated destination in the familial constellation.

Tran’s pictures throughout this extraordinary graphic memoir speak proverbial volumes. As the only U.S.-born member of his scattered Vietnamese family, he is clearly the ‘odd man out,’ attempting to bridge his American ‘GB’ self with his inherited ‘Gia-Bao’ heritage. Thirty years after his family fled their war-torn country, Tran joins his parents on his first journey to his ancestral home. Packed into his luggage is a high school graduation gift his father gave him – a book about the Vietnam War that got tossed in unread with his comics and PlayStation controls – inscribed with a dedication quote from Confucius: “A man without history is a tree without roots.” Now in his late 20s, death convinces Tran to meet his surviving extended family after both his grandmothers die within months of each other, each on either side of the world. “There’s a lot about your parents you don’t know,” his paternal grandmother had warned shortly before her passing. “And they won’t be alive forever to answer your questions.”

Page by page, Tran pieces together his extended family’s violent, brutal past on both sides of a moving border that divided a war-torn Vietnam and what they had to do to survive, how his parents, three older siblings, and grandmother were able to narrowly escape the devastating Fall of Saigon in April 1975, all the while interweaving his own challenging youth as the youngest son of refugee immigrants who began uncertain new lives in South Carolina and his eventual adulthood as a culturally disconnected young artist. His return ‘home’ to a country and family he’s never met is a revelatory experience, eloquently expressed through vivid, spirited panels filled with memories, dreams, regrets, hopes, and a few answers. Halfway through, Tran’s drawings are interrupted by a single page of collaged photographs that offers a momentary glimpse of his parents’ lives before they were his parents: still-young lovers who have endured so much but seem contentedly unaware of the difficulties and challenges yet to come …

So remember the identical inside and back covers mentioned above? That sameness won’t be an option by the time you reach the final page. As you read from one cover to the other, the portraits at book’s beginning will stop being of strangers from whom you can turn away …  after sharing Tran’s illuminating journey, they’ll be just like family, too.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

Although Vincent Lam‘s first novel hit shelves months ago, I waited (and waited) to read it because I was afraid – seems to be my modus operandi for follow-up titles to books I’ve cherished, unable to move on for fear of grave disappointment. Lam’s interconnected story collection, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, arrived Stateside in 2007, having already made Lam the first-ever first-time author to win Canada’s top Giller Prize the year before. And how much did I love Cures? I just now noticed that the paperback edition comes with an excerpt of my review for San Francisco Chronicle across the top of the cover!

So I finally opened Wager with trepidation, and then because I couldn’t read while driving, running, folding the endless laundry late into the night, I also stuck the story in my ears (admirably read by Feodor Chin) whenever the book wasn’t open in my hands. No reason to interrupt four generations of Chen men because daily life must go on!

Wager pivots around Percival Chen, the titular headmaster of a Saigon English-language academy. Chinese-village born, British-educated by way of Hong Kong, Chen enjoys a privileged, wealthy life – gambling and womanizing being two of his favorite pastimes – in Cholon, the predominantly Chinese section of Saigon. He holds on to his perceived Chinese superiority, disdaining the locals as less-than-equals, especially dismayed when his only son is caught associating with one of the academy’s students.

In 1966, Vietnam’s turbulent politics literally arrive on Chen’s door. The secret police present Chen with a document demanding that “Vietnamese language instruction must be included in the curriculum of all schools, effectively immediately.” For Chen, who has never even bothered to learn well the language of his adopted country, the insult does not go unnoticed, nor does his uncooperative response sit well with authorities. When his son goes missing, Chen must rely on his confidante and employee, Mak (Lam’s most surprising, awe-striking creation – not to play favorites, ahem), to barter for his son’s life. Chen’s life all too soon becomes unrecognizable, as one of the most traumatic periods of modern history sweeps through.

Inspired by his Chinese expatriate Vietnamese family history, the Canadian-born Lam chooses a pivotal moment – the period before the Vietnam War – still relatively little known in western literature. He intertwines Asia’s violent colonial history (the French, Chinese, then American control of Vietnam, the British in Hong Kong, the Japanese in Hong Kong and China) and its internal civil destructions (the north/south Vietnamese split, the Chinese Cultural Revolution) with one family’s multi-generational, multi-country rise and fall from impoverished villager to American immigrant-to-be.

The result is another miraculous (literary) cure indeed. And with an utter sigh of relief, I can say with all confidence: Lam’s debut novel was well worth the wait!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese

Ru by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman

* STARRED REVIEW
The recipient of international accolades – including Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction (2010) for its original Canadian debut in French – this extraordinary first novel unfolds like ethereal poetry. The enigmatic title means “a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge—of tears, blood, of money” in French; in Vietnamese, it’s a “lullaby, to lull.” Made up of spare vignettes that flow through decades, this autobiographical narrative reveals a girl’s journey from wealthy privilege in Vietnam; her reinvention as a war refugee in Canada; her return to her birth country, where she is considered “too fat to be Vietnamese” – not because of her stature, but because “the American dream had made me more substantial, heavier, weightier”; and her own overwhelming motherhood.

Verdict: Interwoven with glimpses of cousin Sao Mai who was Uncle Two’s princess, of a father “who always inspired the greatest, most wonderful happiness,” of Aunt Seven’s mystery son raised by Aunt Four, and of young cousins and what they innocently did on the streets to survive, this is much more than another immigration story. For readers in search of intricate, mesmerizing narrative, Ru will not disappoint.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Flesh by Khanh Ha

Flesh, a turn-of-the-20th-century debut novel set mostly in Hanoi, begins and ends with gruesome beheadings. Bearing witness to both executions is Tài, a poor teenage village boy quickly forced into manhood.

In an effort to reclaim his father’s severed head and finance an auspicious burial, Tài spends the next year on an odyssey of discovery about his betrayed bandit father, their troubled family, and his own unsure self. Indentured to a geomancer who sells his contract to a wealthy Chinese merchant, Tài glimpses the backstreet Hanoi life of opium dens, desperate coolies, and the lawless rich … where his first experience of falling in love incites his own vengeful violence.

Verdict: Written in cowboyish twang filled with “yup,” “ain’t,” “em,” “gonna” – possibly meant to simulate the vernacular of the day – the novel never quite loses its anachronistic feel. One more edit might have trimmed some of the meandering passages and extraneous characters, but the fast-paced story pushes briskly to the finish. Readers who enjoy epic sagas set in faraway lands will find absorbing satisfaction here.

Review: “Fiction Reviews,” Library Journal, March 15, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is one of those mega-award-winning Canadian authors (with more than a dozen titles) who hasn’t crossed over our shared border (just yet!) with the same success. She’s best known for her historical novels for younger readers about what must be one of the most difficult subjects ever – children and war. Her latest, which debuted far north last fall, hits U.S. shelves next week (March already!). Airlift is Skrypuch’s first narrative nonfiction, the true story of Son Thi Anh Tuyet and her last days in her native Vietnam and her first days with her Canadian family.

Tuyet can’t remember life before she came to live in the Saigon orphanage with all the children, babies, and nuns. Her only memory of “outside” are occasional visits of a woman with a young boy, who may or may not have been her mother and brother. “‘After a while, they stopped coming.’”

On April 11, 1975, Tuyet is frantically packed into the back of a van with babies and toddlers strapped into makeshift boxes headed to the airport. She is one of 57 children on what will turn out to be the last Canadian airlift operation to save orphans from a war-torn Saigon on the verge of collapse. As an older child of 8 with a leg weakened by polio, Tuyet is convinced she’s been brought only to help care for the younger children; as long as she remains useful, perhaps she will not be sent back to the orphanage.

Her remarkable journey – filled with unfamiliar faces, words she cannot understand, a future that seems so uncertain – lands her with a family of her own. “‘You are my daughter,’” her new mother assures her even before she can understand the words, “‘Not my helper.’” “Grassswingplay,” her new father teaches her. And “‘sister,’” her new siblings call her with comforting hugs and kisses.

Enhanced with documents and a surprising number of photographs, Airlift is a touching, multi-layered experience. The strength of Skrypuch’s storytelling shows strongest in the smallest details: Tuyet’s wonder at discovering that stars are real things in the sky, her knowing better than the adults that to quiet the screaming babies is to place them close together, her doubt about “dads … [who] didn’t seem very real [as] she had never actually seen one.”

In the ending “Author’s Note,” Skrypuch explains how her initially intended novel became Tuyet’s narrative: ” … I was going to piece together a story of one orphan based on the experiences of many. But as I recreated these experiences from my research, an interesting thing happened. In small flashes, Tuyet bagan to remember more. … When Last Airlift was complete, Tuyet was overwhelmed by the fact that it was, in fact, her own story that had been reclaimed.”

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Half-way through reading this debut autobiographical novel-in-verse, I had a lively conversation about the cover with a delightful new friend who happens to be a bonafide kiddie-book expert. We had just finished sharing our shock over the recent fiasco surrounding the one-too-many finalists for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (Chime, not Shine), and what came up almost immediately after was this cover …

Our verdict on said cover in the most neutral terms (other words were exchanged) was that it was incongruous with the contents. The pink and purple background, the spindly, cartoonish figure of the little girl, her right hand upraised just so … we both readily agreed that the other novel-in-verse about the 10-year-old Vietnam War survivor (how many could there be?) was much better packaged: all the broken pieces by Ann E. Burg. Both titles together, by the way, make for illuminating companion texts in exploring the post-Vietnam War refugee immigrant experience.

As the lunar new year of 1975 begins, 10-year-old Hà rises early to be the first to “tap my big toe / to the tile floor / first.” She realizes she’s disobeying her mother who warned the night before that one of her three older brothers “must rise first / this morning / to bless our house / because only male feet / can bring luck.” That decision will haunt the rest of her year, one filled with momentous changes both wrenching and redeeming.

As Saigon falls, Hà’s family boards an old navy ship and leaves their homeland forever, eventually arriving in the U.S. sponsored by a kind man (a “cowboy” without a horse) in Alabama and his not-at-all-friendly wife. Life in the new country is an enormous adjustment for all, but especially for young Hà who must navigate the cruel intolerance of her new schoolmates.

While the immigration story is familiar, Thanhha Lai‘s ability to conjure the most evocative details give her sparse verse lasting gravitas: the irresistible fried dough Hà stealthily buys at the open market at the cost of one gram less pork, 1/8 of a bushel less of spinach, and a quarter cube less tofu than what her mother trusts her to bring home; the white handkerchief which holds together Hà’s mouse-bitten doll with arms wrapped around her brother’s beloved dead chick, that comprise the precious bundle thrown into the sea as “Last Respects” in honor of a South Vietnam that no longer exists; the bewildering spelling rules of an impossible new language in which “Knife becomes knives” and “it makes more sense / for moldy to be spelled molde” because “Whoever invented English / should have learned / to spell”; the loving next-door neighbor who nurtures Hà with words, hugs, and patience, who eventually gifts Hà a small part of her faraway Vietnam in a book of photographs sent by her late soldier-son.

Indeed, Lai’s smallest moments prove to be the most powerful.

Before I close, I will confess I had a few word-eating revelations about that cover (the cartoony aspect still bugs me): that’s Hà’s beloved papaya tree of her youth, which she holds on to as she bears witness to the destruction of her homeland, the encroaching bombs causing the evening sky to light up in ironically spectacular colors just before everything will be obliterated into smoky darkness …

Tidbit: In my old age, I’m sooo reminded of that smoldering final shot of the first half of Gone with the Wind with Vivian Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara turned away from the camera, facing the impending night sky, crying “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again …!!” Thank goodness young Hà isn’t such a drama queen …!!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American