Real Talk

Family, Immigration, and How the Refugee Story is More Prevalent Than Ever


Family, Immigration, and How the Refugee Story is More Prevalent Than Ever

Go behind the book with National Book Award-winning author Thanhhà Lai as she delves into her debut YA novel, a poignant, gripping novel about family, immigration, and how the refugee story is more prevalent than ever.

This post was written by Thanhhà Lai, author of Butterfly Yellow.

At age ten I fled Vietnam with my family two days before the war ended in 1975. If a confidant had not told us which navy ship to scramble aboard, we would have been “stuck,” as the saying went. Eventually, we might have tried to escape on a fishing boat. I might have squeezed onto a tiny, stinking vessel next to Hằng, the main character in Butterfly Yellow.

To create Hằng, I called upon my inner refugee. Everything was bewildering: groceries, clothes, trees, flowers, fruit, facial expressions, even the air. We both had to decipher a new hissy language while struggling to reclaim our old selves.

Hằng endured each little splash at sea, the brutal sun, the freezing nights. When I was a journalist, I met many women who hinted at sexual assaults by Thai pirates. I tried to tell their stories then. But no one wanted to put a face and name to such a horrific and private story. The most they said was, “It was excruciating. I want to forget. I will have a beautiful future.”

From those three sentences, my novel percolated. In fiction I could air the memories Hằng longed to suppress yet needed to confront, and I could do so without splashing her face all over the front page.

This is among the oldest of stories: the leaving of a battered homeland for something better, no matter the risks. It tells of human instinct as basic as crying when sad, smiling when happy.

So it’s no surprise that right this minute hundreds of West Africans are floating in the Mediterranean aiming for Europe, thousands from Latin America are maneuvering to reach the southern U.S. borders.

They will not stop trying. I don’t blame them.

My mother was resolute in getting us out of Vietnam so we could be educated, would not grow up memorizing Communist doctrines, would not be ranked as traitors because our father fought on the losing side. Hằng was equally resolute in finding her brother, the one family member still alive from her youth.

In the current wave of displaced people, each has reasons for fleeing. No one floats at sea or wanders in the desert—for days—in pursuit of a bigger house or a shinier car. I imagine the common motivation boils down to HOPE. For something else, for anything else.

I’m no genie. I do not have the power to wave away Italy’s rejection and the U.S’s opposition. Yet it’s not all hopeless. There are rescuers at sea, volunteers at the borders. They are our witnesses to raw desperation. They are the ones who probably have solutions, compromises, ideas of how to react to masses of tenacious migrants.

I do not know when or how the current tensions can be resolved. But I can guarantee you this: between hopelessness and hope, each of us would choose HOPE.


About Thanhhà Lai 

Thanhhà Lai is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Inside Out & Back Again, her debut novel in verse, which won both a National Book Award and a Newbery Honor, and the acclaimed Listen, Slowly, which was named to numerous best book of the year lists. She was born in Viêt Nam and now lives in New York with her family. To learn more about Thanhhà and her charity, Viet Kids Inc., visit

Learn more about her latest novel, Butterfly Yellow, here. 


This ‘Refugee Story’ blog post is part of our on-going Real Talk blog series where we ask authors to get real about some of the most controversial and important topics of today.

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