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'Listen, Slowly' About Connecting To A Heritage You Don't Know


Mia is a 12-year-old girl from Southern California who likes eating fish tacos and obsessing over boys. Her parents call her by her Vietnamese name, Mai, but she doesn't have much of a connection to their homeland - that is until she accompanies her grandmother back to Vietnam to find out what happened to her grandfather in the war with United States. Mia is the main character in the new novel "Listen, Slowly." It's a story for young readers from National Book Award winner Thanhha Lai, and it begins when Mia's grandmother feels a glimmer of hope about her long-lost husband.

THANHHA LAI: This summer she gets a letter saying that he might be alive or we might have more information about him, so she wants to go to Vietnam. And it will be the first time she'd be going back since the war ended in 1975, and she needs someone to accompany her. And Mai's parents just volunteer her and say here you go (laughter). And off she...

MARTIN: (Laughter) You have nothing else to do.

LAI: Absolutely nothing, so she is not happy. She complains, but mostly in her head 'cause she knows better than to say these things out loud. And at some point she gets a little bit more bearable and learned a little bit about herself and everyone else in Vietnam. But before that we're going to get a very grumpy 12-year-old.

MARTIN: Give us a little more detail about this young woman -she's 12, she's a Southern California girl.

LAI: And she knows that she has a Vietnamese heritage and she doesn't really even speak the language because her parents tried to get her to go to Vietnamese language lessons on Saturdays. They have them in Orange County. And she would just rather not. But one thing that has always tied her to the culture is her grandmother, whom she calls Ba. She loves Ba.

MARTIN: Was this a voice that was easy for you to channel?

LAI: You know, I just imagined myself if I were 12 and I am being raised privileged and spoiled in Laguna Beach, Calif. And I am eating Vietnamese food probably every weekend in Little Saigon. This is exactly how I'd be.

MARTIN: The voices of the other characters are so different. And so much so - I mean, you clearly acknowledge it because you set them off sometimes by using italics in the book.

LAI: Right.

MARTIN: What did you want to do that to draw such a distinction?

LAI: If a line is in italics it means they're speaking in Vietnamese and I translate it into English just so we can understand. And I really wanted to play with the idea of someone who understands Vietnamese but who speaks English. And, you know, when you speak another language it's not just a matter of saying different words. Your body language is different when you speak the language. As far as I can tell because I have a bilingual mind, it changes who you are depending on which language you're speaking. And so I really wanted to bring that out. To me that's fun to play with.

MARTIN: Your first book, we mentioned, won the National Book Award. It was a semi-autobiographical story about you when you were 10 years old, a girl who escapes the war in Vietnam to live in America. And you wrote that book in a series of short chapters that were more like poems.

LAI: Yes.

MARTIN: This book is different. It's written in a traditional narrative style. Why did you move in that direction?

LAI: I have very specific reasons for writing in prose poems for "Inside Out And Back Again." You know, for years and years and years I could never get the voice right and I was working on this other novel. And finally one day I'm standing on a playground at 110th in Central Park and suddenly all these images started coming back to me. It would be sharp, quick images, like red and yellow hot dogs. And I realized, you know, I'm back inside the mind of that little girl who's standing on a playground in Montgomery, Ala., when I first entered this country. And I thought that's my voice. And I didn't know it was called prose poems and I had no idea tons of writers have been writing like this for years. This just tells you where my brain is. I thought that's how I'm going to convey that she's thinking in Vietnamese. Now - now we're onto Mai's world in "Listen, Slowly." She's not thinking in Vietnamese. She's thinking in snarky English...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LAI: so I need - I need sentences.

MARTIN: Lots of words, long sentences.

LAI: (Laughter) yes, lots of opinions, lots of words.

MARTIN: (Laughter) This book is also a departure in that you're writing about a girl who was not a refugee. She was born in the U.S. And as she grows up she's starting to make sense of where her family comes from. What did you learn about looking at Vietnam through her eyes?

LAI: Well, you know, I have nieces and nephews who were born after the war in the United States, so I know what it's like for them. To them Vietnam is so exotic. It's this place I'm going to go backpacking through after college. And I asked them, well, what do you know about Vietnam? And they say, well, I know that you can eat this there and you can eat that there and I'm going to go ride elephants in the mountains. And I'm like OK. So to me it's just an evolution of after war - this is what happens after as part of the recovery process. You come to a point where a land that was so damaged becomes a land of tourism. And I see evidently nothing wrong with that.

MARTIN: The book is called "Listen, Slowly." It's written by Thanhha Lai. She joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us.

LAI: Thank you. It was great fun, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.