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Saigoneer Bookshelf: Americana Through a Vietnamese Lens in 'Butterfly Yellow'

“Read what you don’t know because if you can already imagine it, then you can already imagine it; but if you can’t, then open up something that reveals a world you can’t imagine and then suddenly you’re like, 'oh wow.'” 

Despite all the cultural, linguistic and historical connections, a divide exists between Vietnamese in Vietnam and members of the diaspora. This separation is perhaps nowhere more obvious than what seems to be a lack of interest amongst some readers here in literature written by overseas Vietnamese focused on their immigrant experiences. For some, the tales may seem too foreign, too unrelatable. For others, there may exist an undeserved bias about the lives and privileges afforded to overseas Vietnamese that invites scorn.

Author Thanhha Lai explained to Saigoneer that one doesn’t get to plan their lives, nor choose the circumstances they were born into, and who knows what happenstances result in a person growing up in Saigon versus having left for America aboard a makeshift boat. So while she doesn’t write with an audience in mind, her newest novel, Butterfly Yellow, offers readers in Vietnam a chance “to imagine it was like for someone that left…this is your window into another person’s experience.” She also adds that simply, “If it’s a good novel, it’s a good novel, so just read it.”

America Through Vietnamese Eyes

Butterfly Yellow focuses on Hang, an 18-year-old Vietnamese girl who arrives in Texas in 1981 to search for her younger brother, Linh, whom she inadvertently sent to the US six years prior on an Operation Baby Lift airplane. After the war ended, Hang and her family endured tremendous hardships and sacrifices so she could make the perilous journey to find him.

Their reunion, however, turns out to be far from the fairy tale moment she imagines. He left when he was just a toddler, and thus has little memory of his family in Saigon. It is, therefore, understandable that he would have taken on an English name and created a life for himself that revolves around horses, ranches and other elements of Americana. Hang understands, but is undeterred by his hostility in accepting her and the world she embodies.

The story takes place in a rural Texas town populated by midnight rodeos, carnivals filled with every deep-fried food imaginable, and the first iterations of rap rumbling out from pickup truck radios. The chapters told from Hang’s perspective present the setting via a decidedly Vietnamese lens.

Photo by Paula Landry.

Thanhha says she has a bilingual mind and thinks in Vietnamese when writing from Hang’s view, but translation occurs before her fingers hit the keyboard. This results in descriptions that contain the poetic, metaphor-rich phrasings found in Vietnamese. A mustache becomes “two red caterpillars windblown around the cowboy’s mouth” and an unfamiliar oil derrick “straightens as if looking for predators then bends back down, again and again. A parched giraffe made of metal.”

People express what they see via language, but sometimes the language one uses informs what one sees. This truth lies at the core of how Hang interprets the strangeness of America. For example, she learns the name of LeeRoy, an 18-year-old wannabe cowboy that gets involved in her saga. To her, his name “sounds exactly like Ly-Roi, or Glass Whip, a direct translation. She hopes the meaning in English carries more vigor, the way Vietnamese boys’ names translate to Bravery, Brightness, Intelligence, Prosperity, Strength.”

This intersection of English and Vietnamese allows for moments of levity while rewarding readers who understand Vietnamese. When Hang speaks in English, her accent and understanding of phonetics are expressed using quốc ngữ. For example, she says “Du ri-eo cao-bồi? Du đu nót nô” instead of “You’re [a] real cowboy? You do not know.” Such a device helps to characterize her and makes clear the barriers she faces to assimilation. The Vietnamese which Thanhha sprinkles throughout include Trinh Cong Son song lyrics, which simultaneously add authenticity to Hang and serves as something of a literary Easter egg for Vietnamese audiences.

Unlike Thanhha's first novel, the National Book Award- and Newbery Honor-winning Inside Out and Back Again, this book isn’t even loosely based on her own experiences as an immigrant to the United States. While she did spend time in Texas, unlike Hang, Thanhha was part of the first wave of refugees who fled right at the end of the war. The initial inspiration for Hang came in the form of a faceless photo she saw during her years working as a journalist, and was supplemented with primary and secondary-source research.

Thanhha’s prodigious imagination also played a crucial role in the penning of this book. Her Orange County newspaper frequently tasked her with re-telling the stories of how Vietnamese refugees arrived in America. While it’s always more complicated than simply wanting “freedom,” people were often unwilling to reveal the deeply painful and personal particulars of their journeys. However frustrating, Thanhha understood their reluctance. No such constraints exist in fiction. She explains, “In fiction, I got to crack open a window in this girl’s mind… and got to even the very core of her memories. Even the ones she doesn’t even want to acknowledge, you as a reader get to know because that’s the magic of writing, you get to know things she doesn’t even want to think about.”

The Importance of Humor

The gruesome experiences which Hang doesn’t want to think about include rapacious Thai pirates, starvation, illness and other forms of physical and psychological trauma, all rooted in real scenarios endured by Vietnamese refugees. Yet Thanhha tells Saigoneer, “I have basically built my reputation by bringing humor into the most dire, horrific stories out there because I think they go together; I think you need both in order to survive.”  

The comedic relief in Butterfly Yellow is largely provided by LeeRoy. He’s determined to become a cowboy despite growing up in a household of east coast academics. He seems to follow a “fake it till you make it" philosophy and, upon graduating from high school and having memorized cowboy slang from books and purchased flashy, and thus unrealistic cowboy clothing, he takes off to try and break into the rodeo scene. He quickly crosses paths with Hang and finds himself mucking stables and bailing hay on the farm where she is working so as to be near her as she holds vigil next to her recalcitrant brother, who has been adopted by a white American woman living down the road.

Despite his best efforts, the celery-chomping (“Love these things. They keep me regular.“), adopted-idiom dropping (“‘You just about knocked my heart clean out of my mouth”), rambling (“Just so happens I did my senior thesis on the geological, historical, and political significance of the Palo Duro Canyon. I’ve got enough for a book.”) chatterbox can’t help but act with sincerity and kindness motivated in part by his crush on Hang. The quaint love story that emerges helps frame the story as not one of tragedies, but recovery. “It’s really a story about healing, it’s not a story about trauma. The trauma just explains why she has to heal,” Thanhha explains. 

The Inevitability of Healing

In our conversation, the topic of healing arose in an illuminating anecdote. While Thanhha claims her National Book Award did little to change her writing process — she had been writing for over a decade in the shadows, after all — it did bring her into classrooms throughout America to speak to students who had spent weeks dissecting and discussing Inside Out and Back Again.

When she entered classrooms, the middle- and high school-ers would expect the same bullied, fragile character they’d read about. But that was her 44 years ago. The bullies and ostracism that tormented her when she first arrived? Thanhha no longer thinks about them; too much life has occurred in the interim to still be focused on them: “they're irrelevant at this point.” Instead, the students met an exceedingly funny and vivacious writer confident in her life and work. 

Thanhha's first-grade photo taken in Saigon.

So what is the point of writing those stories if their core tensions no longer consume their author? Thanhha explains that for Vietnamese-Americans they offer “a window into what their [first-generation] parents probably went through.” The stories can open dialogues and allow one a glimpse into truths that might be too painful to bring up if unprompted. And “for the older generation, it's validation; my experiences mattered, someone wrote it down.”

And in addition to her books being smart, entertaining reads, for those with no specific relationships to Vietnam, they also offer important lessons of empathy that continue to hold relevance, especially in places with continued waves of immigration. Reflecting on the personal and professional successes of Vietnamese throughout the world, Thanhha says she hopes their lives can inspire others to see new refugees and not “just look at the person right in front of you, [but] imagine what can happen in 50 years.”

Finding yourself imagining what happens to characters after the final chapter ends is one of the clearest signs of a great book. Butterfly Yellow leaves readers with such ruminations. Where are Hang, LeeRoy and Linh in 2019? Thanhhai has some ideas, but more importantly, you’ll have your own too, as she has created a world filled with unique, likeable, individuals who will occupy your thoughts long after finishing it. And while Thanhha admits books are like children, and one shouldn’t have a favorite, she likes Butterfly Yellow the most. It’s both high praise and completely understandable given how much pleasure and insight readers of all backgrounds will gain from it. 

Butterfly Yellow is available at bookstores abroad, and the electronic version can be downloaded in Vietnam from retailers such as Amazon.

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