by Nick Kleese
The trees held onto their leaves for one final week this year, all so that attendees’ journeys to the 2017 Book Week event with Thanhha Lai could be quintessentially autumn. In fact, Lai would go on to acknowledge this picturesque weather in her lecture. “It’s not cold enough,” she joked. The crowd of 124 laughed, already enthralled with Lai’s quickness, humor, and readiness to open the presentation into a communal conversation.
After an introduction by Dr. Marek Oziewicz, Lai prefaced her presentation—an illuminating overview of the history and images she considered while writing her first, National Book Awarding winning novel, Inside Out and Back Again—with the admission that she would present a little to allow more time for questions and discussion. “Listening to Thanhha speak was fascinating,” one attendee said, “she spoke in poetry.” This poetry was present as the conversation wound its way from feminism to writerly inspiration to identity. Lai’s thoughts emerged in metaphor and striking imagery—the way that, when she writes, English comes out “through her fingertips”; her visualization of a light emitting from a jar, which ultimately became the foundation for her second novel; and the sense of identity that is inside her, a feeling, that need not be spoken into existence.
“I know who I am,” Lai said, responding to a question about the way she positions herself as a Vietnamese-American writer. Lai spoke about herself as a feminist–“Who isn’t?” she asked. “Everyone is a feminist until they’re told otherwise”–then a mother, a writer, and Vietnamese American. But these identities aren’t at the forefront of her work. Rather, Lai, who studied journalism at the University of Texas, focuses on story first. “Everyone wants to tell the nice story, the happy story, but that’s not the interesting story,” she said. She advocated for writers to pursue what interests them. As the conversation continued, however, it became apparent that the personally interesting and the politically relevant stories have the potential to overlap. Lai’s two novels offer stories of Vietnamese refugees and their families. They lead to conversations on immigration and refugees today that are by no means easy. “Everyone wants to paint a shiny picture of immigration: learn English, go to college, get a job, buy a house… and I’m sick of it.” Rejecting a simplified version of the American Dream, Lai suggested that human fulfillment must be central to the picture. We need stories that offer a more nuanced account of people, events, and lives, she said, stories that stimulate reflection and curiosity.
For these reasons, and for many more, those in attendance at McNamara went into the mild night with much to consider and much to be grateful for. As a teacher in training put it: “It makes me hopeful that we have strong, forward-thinking women like Thanhha Lai creating children’s literature and providing diverse perspectives…. Hopefully, I can attend more events like this in the future because seeing an author give a talk and have a discussion with the audience [gave me] a whole new understanding for her and her work.”
Nick Kleese is a graduate student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota.