Lessons in Small Print: A Diary That Invokes Compassion
Once a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.
“To the millions of refugees in the world: may you each find a home” is the dedication line at the start of Inside Out and Back Again. The words of this verse novel assumed a more particular poignancy in a world that has seen, in the past year, both a fierce backlash against refugees and superhuman efforts to help them.
The children were moved by the lilt that belies the grim truths on which this 2011 book is based. “Crisply emotional” and “completely to the point,” as they pronounced it, Inside Out and Back Again is inspired by the childhood experience of author Thanhha Lai’s flight from Vietnam at age 10 after the 1975 fall of Saigon.
Short poems describe a year of tribulation for 10-year-old Ha, the protagonist, and her family. From waiting in vain for her missing soldier father to immigrating to the United States, Ha’s anguish evokes a beautiful compassion.
Rather than be put off by what is basically a diary in verse, the kids warmed to the unusual medium. They particularly chose to cluster around these lines: “People share / When they know / They have escaped hunger. / Shouldn’t people share / Because there is hunger?”
This verse left the preteens “pricking with guilt” as one of them put it. Having too much feels as bad as having too little, she said and the group agreed. Less is really more, another went on to say, and no deprivation ever can actually stand in the way of growing sensitive. Sheepish and shamefaced, they shared how indulged and unreal it felt leading safe and sanitized lives. “Mom says we’ve too much too soon,” one boy said.
The bullying Lai describes, when Ha moves with her family from a refugee camp to the US, touched a chord with the kids as well. When Ha endures derogatory nicknames like “Ching Chong,” one bookclubber had a revelation: “Isn’t that a bit like us saying all South Indians are Madrasis, or labelling our North-Easterners ‘chinks’?”
The meeting ended with the kids attempting to live up to Ha’s (and, presumably, Lai’s) exhortation in the book’s conclusion, to “sit close to someone you love / and implore that person / to tell and tell and tell their story.” In one-on-one sessions between the kids, each chose to reveal something personal to the other. From “My longest day” and “The day I was most relieved,” to “My most rewarding moment” and “What I feel really bad about,” the real-life episodes were in turn tender, dark, funny and, above all, honest.
One boy shared feeling “safer than safe” while strolling the dark streets of Glasgow late at night as a visiting music student; another related an incident that was so distressing “it was just 40 minutes but felt like a million days.” A girl recalled the shock of seeing her baby brother jaundiced just hours after birth and being whisked off to the neonatal unit on an infant incubator.
“We should do this with the family at home,” a few suggested, returning the candour and depth of Lai’s book to the real world.