One-time Orange County Register reporter Thanhha Lai spent 15 years grinding away at a sprawling novel she could never quite get right. So, five years ago, she turned her creative energies to a verse novel about a single year in her childhood as a Vietnamese émigré. The result, “Inside Out & Back Again,” published a year ago this month, recently won the National Book Award for young people’s literature.
For a writer, that’s like hitting the lottery with the first ticket. “It just came out of nowhere,” says the 46-year-old Lai. “One cannot expect this sort of thing.”
Lai was a groundbreaking 1988 hire for The Register, which then was struggling to cover Orange County’s burgeoning Little Saigon community. In a sense, her reporting career here helped propel her literary journey. “Journalism is just very structured,” Lai says. “One day I turned in a story and [an editor] said to me, ‘You can’t compare inanimate objects with animate objects,’ and I realized I had to leave.”
Jeff Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor and former Register reporter who covered the Vietnamese community with Lai, says he isn’t surprised by her success: “Someone with her talent, ability, and intelligence wasn’t going to be stuck at a desk with a police radio. She was far more creative.”
Lai studied journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, and spent 18 months in Orange County before eventually earning a master’s in fine arts from New York University. Now married with a 5-year-old daughter, she lives in New York City and is on leave this year from teaching at the Parsons design school. She focused her writing passion on her arrival in Alabama as a 10-year-old who spoke no English. “I was standing in this playground, not knowing what the kids were saying to me,” Lai says. “For the first time the words were taken from me. I was beyond frustration, and there was nothing I could do. Those feelings never go away.”
Her novel deals with her alienation and fear, family love and obligation, all propelled by the loss of her father, who served in the South Vietnamese navy and remains missing in action. As the south fell to the Communist north in 1975, Lai says her mother faced an impossible choice for herself and her nine children: “It was heartbreaking. Wait for her husband and risk nine lives … or just go and believe, if he were alive, he would find his way to us. In the end, her children won.”
By Scott Martelle / Photographs by Michelle Nolan
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.