When Hằng was twelve, her five year old brother, Linh, was taken away as part of Operation Baby Lift and sent to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War. She and her grandmother spent the next six years worried about his safety, wondering about his life and planning for their reunion. After spending time in a refugee camp, Hằng made the difficult journey to Texas, alone, to find her beloved sibling. Grueling travel, the language barrier, and cultural differences all challenged Hằng, yet she remained determined.
“Her brother is the only person left from her youth. Grandmother gone, Father gone, Mother gone. Hằng never would have crossed the sea on a rotting fishing boat if he weren’t waiting for her. It has taken too many years, but finally, since landing here yesterday, the two of them are enveloped in the same landscape and the same heat.”
Along the way to Amarillo, she meets LeeRoy, a young man her age who has left home to pursue his dream to become a cowboy. He is following around his favorite country singer, when he gets roped into helping Hằng find her brother. Although their languages are drastically different, LeeRoy can understand her way of speaking and is patient and kind. They come to enjoy each other’s company and an awkward friendship develops.
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai is a story about Vietnamese immigrants, but represents immigration challenges for all humans. Separation from loved ones and the search to reunite, with dangerous travel, lack of clear communication and unexpected friends is all part of the journey. Everyone’s story is different though, and there is no guarantee for a perfect outcome. Hằng is ecstatic to locate her brother, yet when she finally is face to face with Linh, her heart breaks because he has no memory of her, their family, or their life in Vietnam.
Butterfly Yellow is also the story of an unlikely relationship, and the joy it can bring when it is unexpected. Hằng and LeeRoy spend the summer living next door to Linh and his white, adopted family, working on a ranch. As she works through the trauma of her travels and the overwhelming disappointment with Linh’s lack of memories, LeeRoy is there for her and a young love begins to grow.
I loved Thanhhà Lai’s poetic prose, short chapters and quirky characters, and appreciate her charm and sense of humor. The tragedy of war and separation is undeniable, yet with this determined, young Vietnamese girl and this white cowboy wannabe Texan, she has shown how healing can happen. Her personal experiences and research allow for her story to feel authentic and realistic. This book is categorized as Young Adult Fiction; the main characters are eighteen years old, but it is a wonderful read for all! I plan to pick up Lai’s first novel based on her own journey, Inside Out and Back Again. Check out her website for more information.
If you would like to read books by other Vietnamese authors, I highly recommend this one by Ocean Vuong.
Separation of families during wartime is not unusual and the results can be damaging. Unfortunately, even in this country on many occasions, our government has chosen to separate families for political reasons. If you want to learn how to help, here is some information on the organization, Families Belong Together.
Q & A with Thanhhà Lai
Q: Hằng has had a horrific, dangerous journey to get from Vietnam to America. Only 18 years old, she has suffered great losses, has been challenged physically, emotionally and is burdened with the language barrier. Why do you think she remains hopeful and shows restraint and patience when the meeting with her brother, Linh, doesn’t go the way she hoped?
A: First she tries avoidance of her own history and trauma, thinking she could trick her mind into concentrating on one obsession: her brother. So the hope and patience are layered. They show her attempt at coping and also her innate need to reconnect. I think we all do that when utterly overwhelmed–we push our minds to think about something else or someone else until we are forced (however reluctantly) to approach our hurts.
Q: How much of you and your personality is in Hằng?
A: We both use humor to get through trauma, and we’re both relentless when we have a goal. I tend to create funny, spunky girls whom I would want to have lunch with.
Q: You came to this country at age 10. What was your journey like?
A: At 10, everything was a hazy adventure. While at sea on a navy ship, I thought we were on a strange vacation. I was thrilled to see whales and dolphins but not at all happy to brush teeth with salt water. I thought we would turn around any day and go home. Afterall, I was a month from finishing fourth grade. I didn’t feel scared or confused until we reached Alabama. But that story is well documented in my first novel, INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN.
Q: Initially, Linh doesn’t remember anything about his youth in Vietnam. Is that typical? Hằng is just a few years older and she is obsessed with her younger years and her family. How did you decide to make their memories so different from each other?
A: Linh was five. Then for the next six years, he receives absolutely nothing to reinforce his memories of Vietnam. Not language, family, climate, smells, tastes, not even a photograph. Life is about moving forward and learning to calm his panic, which happens when he is given Linh the Horse.
Hằng was twelve. That’s a huge difference in terms of establishing a sense of self in a particular culture. Most importantly, she spends the next six years obsessing about Linh with her grandmother. That is their main topic of conversation. Every fruit in season reminds them of Linh, every night whisper, every wish, every guilt. Then she accepts the monumental task of finding him and reclaiming him. So it’s no wonder she wants to neglect her own trauma in favor a potentially heroic act.
Q: I enjoyed the unlikely young love sprouting between Hằng and the cowboy wannabe, LeeRoy. Is LeeRoy based on anyone you know, and do you have any plans for them to meet again in a future book?
A: LeeRoy is a boy I might have gone to high school with in Fort Worth, Texas. I created him to be innately kind, no matter how he wishes otherwise. A more savvy or moody cowboy would have been too scary for a traumatized Hằng. For now, I’ll let them play out their bumbling friendship in readers’ imaginations.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book? What is your writing process? Research? Outlines? Revisions?
A: This was a hard write. It took forever to get the pacing right, the distinctive points of view, the research of boat people experiences. At first I set most of the action on the boat and the island, but I decided not to focus on the trauma. That feature was built-in and wouldn’t diminish no matter at which point I chose to start Hằng’s story. So I decided to set it in Texas, in a brittle flat land where against all odds she began to heal. I had an outline in my head. I had scenes like the county fair, the butterfly, the ranch, the rodeo, the boat, the island. Putting all that in the right order took so many revisions.
Q: I appreciate the construct of your book with short chapter and three parts: The Road, The Ranch, The Butterfly. Although it was easy to read, it does deal with bigger issues like the challenges and struggles of refugees, death and young love. What makes it a Young Adult Novel?
A: I think it’s because my characters are teens and the novel is written in present tense, thus there’s no adult reflection. So viola, it’s YA although I’ve met plenty of adults reading Butterfly Yellow.
Q: Hằng’s communication was difficult for me to understand, yet the context made everything clear. For me it highlighted some of the difficulties refugees face in a new country. Hằng’s use of language was poetic…can you tell me more about Vietnamese and why you chose to write much of her speaking in transliteration.
A: I wanted to show how Hằng acquires English. First she learns to write and read in it.
Then listening comes next, at least half way. But speaking, it’s usually the last step. To help herself, she breaks English syllables into Vietnamese words her tongue understands. This allows her a touch of confidence to go out into the wide world of Texas and complete her one goal in life: finding her brother. Inside her Vietnamese mind, I highlighted the poetic nature of the language and also conveyed Hằng’s fluency in her mother tongue. In her chapters, readers sense what it’s like to think in Vietnamese.
Q: You shared Hang’s past throughout the book. Did you write it separately and in advance, or as you went along?
A: All of the above.
Q: Are you working on something new yet?
A: I am playing with a prose-poem sequel to INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN. So basically myself at 12 and in Texas. A novel about the anxieties inherent in growing up with refugee, go-getting parents. I have a picture book coming out at some point. And maybe a novel that looks at female sexuality.
Q: What books are on your night table?
A: In print:
1919, The Year That Changed America by Martin Sandler
Clyde Fans by Seth
Writing America by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Frankisstein by Jeanette Wilkerson
Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls by Lisa Damour
The Soul of Care by Arthur Kleiman
The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Any dog book
Q: What books do you recommend?
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong
The Mountain Sings by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (out in March)
Self Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
About the Author:
Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam. At the end of the war, she fled with her family to Alabama. There, she learned English from fourth graders. She then spent the next decade correcting her grammar. Starting her writing life as journalist, she worked at The Orange County Register. She switched to fiction, leading to an MFA from New York University and short story publications in various journals and anthologies. Lai lives with her husband, daughter and a little white dog in New York City.