For Thanhha Lai, a National Book Award was never part of the plan. At age ten, when she emigrated with her family from Vietnam to Alabama, she had a much more modest goal: mastering English. Decades later, as an adjunct writing professor at Parsons The New School for Design, she has won the nation’s most prestigious writing prize.
Her novel, Inside Out and Back Again, tells the story of Ha, a young girl who leaves wartime Saigon for the United States and struggles to reconcile two very different worlds. Lai spent 15 years trying to write the story as an adult novel. The character is some version of me, so I had that down. I just couldn’t find the right voice,, she said. It needed to reflect the Vietnamese inside a ten-year-old’s mind. I think of Vietnamese as poetic, so I worked to cut out every unneeded word.,
What she ended up with was a young-adult novel in prose poem form. After finding her narrator, the rest of the book came naturally. Once I had the voice, writing was a pleasure,, Lai said. I had a draft in six months.,
Lai workshopped five of the poems from that early draft in 2007 in Writing for Children, a summer course at The New School. Fellow students, including Angie Wojak, former director of Career Services at Parsons, were impressed. At the end of the class, Wojak offered to introduce Lai to an editor at HarperCollins, who ended up publishing Inside Out and Back Again.
Lai’s journey came full circle on November 15, when she took the stage at Tishman Auditorium for the National Book Awards reading, held on the New School campus each year. The next night, while eating a piece of chocolate cake during the National Book Awards ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street, Lai heard her name called: She had won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction. The win, she said, was unexpected. You certainly don’t write to win,, she said.
Lai, who is on a yearlong leave from Parsons, is at work on a new book. There’s a novel percolating in there somewhere,, Lai said. And it will come out.,
For now, she’s just looking forward to returning to a normal routine, and a slightly different atmosphere at the holiday dinner table. The family I come from, we’re striving refugees. My siblings are doctors and engineers, they all made it a long time ago,, Lai said. Every time I come home, they look at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ Now I have my answer.,