Young readers to discuss history behind ‘Inside Out & Back Again’

insideoutbackagain-HC-cFor 10-year-old Há, Saigon, Vietnam, has always been home. Like any young girl, she loves spending time with her friends and celebrating age-old traditions. Há especially loves the papaya tree in her yard that bears the sweetest fruit she’s ever known.

In the midst of enjoying her youth, it is 1975 and Saigon is quickly changing. As the sound of bombs grow closer every night, Há and her family must leave home and embark on a journey to the United States, one filled with sadness, frustration, dreams and hope.

This week, the CLSC Young Readers program will feature Thanhha Lai’s Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award-winning Inside Out & Back Again, based on Lai’s own immigration to the United States and her experiences of Vietnam during war. Lai uses free-verse poetry to tell the story of Há’s journey of healing as an immigrant in Alabama during one of the nation’s most tumultuous times.

At 4:15 p.m. today in the ballroom of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall, readers will have the opportunity to meet and speak with Chautauquan Naja Pham Lockwood, who shares a similar story with Lai’s Há.

In 1975, at the age of 7, Lockwood and her family, like many Vietnamese-Americans, escaped aboard ships and immigrated to the United States. With the help of her uncle and the Boston Catholic dioceses, Lockwood said that she and her family were the second Vietnamese family to immigrate to Massachusetts after the war.

From having a successful career as an investment banker to exploring her passion for art and helping others through her own philanthropic family foundation and countless others charities, the mother of three is very busy. Currently, Lockwood is working to ensure that the stories of Vietnamese-Americans and veterans of the Vietnam War are told and preserved for future generations.

Two projects helping Lockwood reach her goal are Ken Burns’ “Vietnam,” which he will discuss at today’s morning lecture, and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” for PBS’ “American Experience” program. “Last Days in Vietnam” tells the stories of the last hours in Saigon before the city went under North Vietnamese control, causing many South Vietnamese to flee. The film has led to the development of The First Days Story Project and PBS’ first-ever crowdsourcing campaign through Indiegogo.

The First Days project aims to answer the question of what happened to the many families who fled Saigon, and help people understand the little that is known and understood of Vietnamese-American immigration.

“Every Vietnamese has a story, and it is a very precious story that needs to be told,” Lockwood said. “What I think is beautiful about Inside Out & Back Again is that Thanhha Lai has shared an amazing experience from a young adult perspective of how she experienced the war. So many books have been written about the war, but I think very few people have touched on the human experience. Just like “Last Days in Vietnam,” Inside Out & Back Again is a very human story and what’s nice is that it touches a younger generation and a generation that would not have known about the war.”

This afternoon, Lockwood will share her story with the young readers. Lockwood said that as she had children, lost her parents and watched her surviving relatives age, telling these stories became very important.

“I just felt as though, after my mom passed away, the kids won’t really have a sense of history of that side of the family and the whole Vietnam experience,” Lockwood said. “I think a lot of my Vietnamese-American friends, after they have children, realize that the memories and the experiences in Vietnam that we knew before the war is going to be gone after that generation. I think for me, it’s just to preserve the Pham family history and for [the kids] to understand more about their mom and their grandparents, especially with my dad whom they never knew. Growing up, I really want them to have a sense that they are Vietnamese-American. That’s important for me.”

Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, said he hopes that Inside Out & Back Again will spark a conversation for not only the young readers, but also for adults and families to engage in.

“Traditionally, we try to keep the focus for young readers’ conversations on the kids,” Ewalt said. “But I think this is an appropriate program where parents and grandparents can attend so that we can have that kind of dialogue.”

As America’s demographics continue to change and expand with each generation, Lockwood said that the telling and preservation of stories adds to the ever-growing definition of what it means to be an American.

“I think that these unique experiences form the fabric of an American experience,” Lockwood said. “I want the kids to see another perspective but that perspective is part of who we are as Americans. America is a truly a melting pot of people who have come from different places and are able to come and build a new life in America. They truly feel as if they are Americans and that they are part of an American experience. I don’t think that happens anywhere else in the world.”