Brief Biography of Thanhhà Lai
Inside Out and Back Again is partially autobiographical. Born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Lai fled the country with her mother and eight older brothers in 1975, when she was 10 years old. In interviews, she’s described the escape from Vietnam as “too easy”—the hardest part of leaving Vietnam, she’s said, was feeling at home when her family settled in Alabama. After high school, Lai went on to earn a degree in journalism from University of Texas, Austin. She worked for several years for a California newspaper, covering the local Vietnamese community, and then earned a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. Lai remained in New York after this, and today, she teaches composition at Parsons The New School for Design. Inside Out and Back Again was her first book, and it took her about 15 years to write. When she began writing, the story was an adult prose novel. The novel only really began to take shape when Lai decided to write about a child and use poetry, which in her author’s note she explains helps convey how rhythmic and musical the Vietnamese language is. After it was published in 2011, Inside Out and Back Again won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was named a Newbery Honor Book. As of 2021, Lai has written two more books for young adults, Butterfly Yellow and Listen, Slowly.
Historical Context of Inside Out and Back Again
Hà and her family leave South Vietnam at the very end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In early March of that year, the CIA and Vietnamese intelligence agencies believed that the South Vietnamese forces could hold out against the Viet Cong (the North Vietnamese army) at least until 1976. However, they were wrong and were shocked at how fast the Viet Cong moved. Throughout the Vietnam War, Saigon had stayed relatively unaffected by violence, but as the Viet Cong got closer, people—Vietnamese and American alike—began to fear a bloodbath. Flights out of the city were totally full by the end of March. On April 29–30, the United States carried out Operation Frequent Wind, in which it evacuated nearly all Americans, both military and civilian, and thousands of South Vietnamese citizens. The Viet Cong took control of the city on April 30, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City and planting their flag at the presidential palace. This effectively ended the Vietnam War and resulted in the reunification of North and South Vietnam into a single country. In Vietnam, the day is celebrated as a day of liberation and unification—but among members of the Vietnamese diaspora who fled the country, it’s often known as The National Day of Shame or The National Day of Resentment. The thousands of people who left Vietnam fearing violence led to a major refugee crisis and resulted in the single largest influx of refugees in the United States (only the 2021 influx of Afghani refugees rivals it in numbers).
Other Books Related to Inside Out and Back Again
Thannhà Lai has written two other novels for young adults that take place around the same time period and focus on Vietnamese refugees (or would-be refugees): Listen, Slowly
and Butterfly Yellow
. There are a number of verse novels about immigrants, including The Poet X
by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Good Braider
by Terry Farish, and Aida Salazar’s Land of the Cranes
. Contemporary verse novels have their roots in ancient epics, such as the Odyssey
and the Epic of Gilgamesh
. One of the most famous early modern verse novels was Eugene Onegin
by Alexander Pushkin, which was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832.
Key Facts about Inside Out and Back Again
Full Title: Inside Out and Back Again
When Written: 1995–2010
Where Written: New York City, New York
When Published: 2011
Literary Period: Contemporary
Genre: Young Adult Novel, Verse Novel
Setting: South Vietnam and Alabama, 1975–1976
Climax: Vu Lee rescues Hà from Pink Boy.
Antagonist: Pink Boy
Point of View: First Person
Extra Credit for Inside Out and Back Again