Stories of history and history as stories

Proma Basu Roy

Lyndon Johnson told the nation
Have no fear of escalation
I am trying everyone to please
Though it isn’t really war
We’re sending fifty thousand more
To help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese
(‘Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation’, Tom Paxton)

In 1975, when America sent their ships to Vietnam to save the people from the Vietnam War, 10 year-old Ha, her mother and three brothers got on to the ship and sailed to Alabama, leaving her city Saigon for the first time and forever. ‘Inside Out and Back Again’ is Ha’s story, written by Thanhha Lai. It is a fictionalized autobiography, where Ha narrates in a powerful yet tender voice, through short, free verses, and layered with humour and memory. It covers one year of her life, from one Tet (Vietnamese New Year) to another.

The book opens with remembering early monsoon, which sets the dominant mood for the readers at its immediate best for the rest of the book.

‘We pretend
the monsoon
has come early.
In the distance
bombs
explode like thunder,
slashes
lighten the sky,
gunfire
falls like rain’

The bruises that geopolitical movements have caused lie only in the hearts of those who suffered. Thanhha Lai is able to share this trauma by immersing the reader in relevant time and space. She unfolds the soft-deep attachment and detachment of the young girl with her worlds old and new, using a carefully crafted, matter-of-fact style. Through every page of the book, the craft of her telling is special, the most solid memories are kept light, embedded in longing, using metaphors that strike so much that one is left with re-reading many parts of the book.

‘My biggest papaya
is light yellow,
still flecked with green.
Brother Vu chops;
the head falls;
a silver blade slices.
Black seeds spill
like clusters of eyes,
wet and crying.’

Ha’s struggle is interspersed with humour which offer an escape from her grim reality. The occasional light heartedness is rich and is sure to make the reader laugh if not loud! When the family moves to Alabama, the children begin to learn English. Ha has a tutor who helps with her difficulty to make meaning of this new language. But of course, she is not happy and finds no logic in the rules. The first rule she learns –

‘Brother Quang says
add an s to nouns
to mean more than one
even if there’s
already an s
sitting there.
Glass
Glass-es
All day
I practice
squeezing hisses
through my teeth.
Whoever invented
English
must have loved
snakes.’

Though the elements of emotion and memory remain the same, they travel through the story and take new forms at different times of Ha’s life. The question of identity, gender, ethnicity – from feeling smart in the homeland to feeling weak and small in the foreign land seems like a tectonic shift of the human mind – as an individual, and at the same time a representative of an entire community.

In another part of America is a young boy who goes fishing with his father and listens to stories of fishing and different ponds in their homeland, Vietnam, in a brilliant picture book, ‘A Different Pond’. Written by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui, the book is about the Vietnamese culture of fishing in a different land which over a generation they have grown to call home. This is the story of Bao Phi’s family who migrated to Minnesota from Vietnam in 1975, the same year as Ha.

The book centres around fishing as a part of livelihood and not sport. Fishing, seen in the light of the struggling immigrants and a retention of culture that helps keep pace in a country that is growing economically is a bonus to family income. The young boy who remembers Vietnam only through the stories that his family shares, tries to hold on to their tradition while at the same time wonders what life could be in the distant homeland.

The illustration is splendid! Fishing before dawn, against what remains of the night sky still studded with stars perhaps reveals the dark beauty of the family’s struggle who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The style and confident lines bring out the expressions of each face to strike an empathetic chord with the reader. With much sensitivity, Thi Bui takes the reader to understanding the quietness of the time of the day before dawn, and the silence between father and son while fishing. The colours of pre-dawn tranquillity and the changing sky engulf the reader within the essence of the narrative to its fullness.

Both ‘Inside Out and Back Again’ and ‘A Different Pond’ are a reiteration of memory and life as a Vietnamese refugee in America. The two meet at the crossroads of similarity, similar elements juxtaposed in different light. For instance, while Ha deals with English and the rain in a way that is difficult and strenuous, the young boy while driving to the bait store with his father remembers how a school mate thinks his father’s English is ‘a thick, dirty river’ while to him it sounds like ‘gentle rain’. In both books we also find losing of a loved one to the Vietnam War and the scars that it leaves behind. The devastation is common, while one is bold and telling, the other is quiet and expansive.

The books are an interesting and important keep for the library where the scope of using them for teaching history and social science are plentiful. Not only that, it can be used to draw children to understanding the history of refugees in India and the constant migration within the country, drawing in similarities from global to local. For example, books like Mukand and Riaz, published by Tulika is a great book to open the topic of migration and friendship across borders, and Stitching Stories on adaptation and struggle under new circumstances. Exposing children to thematic reading across diverse texts may help in deepening their understanding of ideas, events and circumstances. Not only that, it often sparks children’s interest for information regarding the concerned theme, which can act as a catalyst for subject learning. It would be a loss to not explore history and other subjects that live through literature and books beyond textbooks. History textbooks do not offer the lived experiences of people of the times and everyday detail that stories like these offer. Often, the perception of ‘memory’ is not strong enough as the perception of ‘facts’ which textbooks rely on.

Also, it may be important to note that no history of war, migration and partition discusses children in any way, be it during the war time or after. The inclusion of books that speak through struggle, devastation and loss can enable the teacher or the librarian to bring forth a humane dimension to understanding history. They also include a child’s perspective or point of view that makes history relatable to children.

While inclusive reading needs much enhancement, it is not simply with a sense of improving content. What remains important is for children to know about the lives of others and situations in particular to make them relatable. The role of the facilitator can be to consider the advantage of relatability and connect the dots.

Like Thanhaa Lai, Bao Phi and Thi Bui built their nests in a changing world with memory and courage, we hope that their stories will plant a seed of empathy in the young readers’ minds and help them grow as compassionate citizens of the world.

The author works with books, libraries and reading with the Parag initiative of Tata Trusts. She can be reached at [email protected].

A few books on migration that are good to have in the library –
1. Mukand and Riaz by Nina Sabnani
2. Stitching Stories by Nina Sabnani
3. A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui
4. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
5. Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
6. One Green Apple by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
7. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, illustrated by Nizar Ali Badr
8. Sitti’s Secret by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
9. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
10. Inside Out and Back Again by Thhanha Lai
11. The Night Diary by Veera Heeranandani
12. Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

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