|Drawing from Memory
by Allen Say
|Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
Memory & Resilience: Inside Out & Back Again and Drawing from Memory
Oh, my! What a terrific, imaginative battle! Both books completely captivated me—evoking foreign landscapes, traumatic wars, immigration, and the extraordinary resilience of youth. With such similarities between Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai and Drawing from Memory by Allen Say, I simply wanted to throw my hands up and declare a “truce.”
And, yet, Inside Out & Back Again and Drawing from Memory, both by award-winning authors, are so distinctively different in point of view, tone, and narrative approach, that I felt awe. Two champions battling with finesse!
Both tales are rooted in biography. Lai fictionalizes her childhood. Say creates a visual and literary memoir.
Sifting through personal experience to create art is never easy. The possible pitfalls are many: emotional indulgence, inability to empathize with perspectives beyond the central character, and, most importantly, the failure to elevate memories to art, imbued with human truths for a new generation. Both authors brilliantly outflank these problems.
Inside Out & Back Again tells the story of Hà, a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl, who flees with her family during the fall of Saigon to foreign Alabama. “No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama,” says Hà. Through layered, complex characterization, Lai breathes life into the dramatic journey of a child becoming a young woman and her equally compelling journey as a refugee finding a new home.
Told in first-person, lyrical verse, Hà’s voice is endearing, rooted in concrete details. The chapter PAPAYA TREE begins with: “It grew from a seed/I flicked into/the back garden. / A seed like/ a fish eye, slippery/shiny/black.” and ends with “I vow/to rise first every morning/to stare at the dew/on the green fruit/shaped like a lightbulb. / I will be the first/ to witness its ripening.” Such glorious imagery! Not an unnecessary word! Symbolically, the papaya represents the tragic loss of Hà’s homeland and Saigon’s fall. Hà will not witness the fruit’s “ripening” but she will bear witness to her own growth as she acclimates to a new culture. The papaya tree will be replaced with a willow tree where Hà digs a hole and screams, “I hate everyone!!!! Lilting, tonal Vietnamese will be replaced with confounding, consonant English. Stunningly, it’s Lai’s precise language and characterization, which creates emotional restraint and makes an unbearably sad story, readable. Tragedy becomes triumph and I want Hà to tell me her story all over again.
Drawing from Memory is a full-fledged imaginative assault. Part memoir, historical narrative, graphic novel, Say uses drawings, photographs, and prose to express his journey from young boy to master artist, and how he immigrated to America and learned to “write a story… in the language of the people who were bombing” Japan.
At 12, living on his own, Say apprenticed himself to the great cartoonist Noro Shinpei. Unlike Say’s father who disapproved of his artistry, Shinpei becomes Say’s sensei and “spiritual father.”
Amazingly, through drawings and words, Say creates multiple levels of narrative drive. There are prose and cartoon stories within stories, excursions of technique that deepen the story’s emotional resonance. Tokida, a fellow apprentice, left home at 15 and walked 350 miles from Osaka to Tokyo, to pursue his cartoonist dream. Tokida’s tale, told in color and black-and-white drawings, inspires the younger Say and amplifies the book’s main narrative. Beyond tales within tales, Drawing from Memory abounds with other “sub-plots” (a most inadequate word!) in which pictures speak, layering and extending theme. There is SO MUCH in this small book that it easily could’ve become chaotic. Instead, every aspect is integrated and vibrant.
Near the end of Drawing from Memory, there is a page of black-and-white, light-filled, and over-exposed photographs of Say with his sister, fellow cartoonists, and schoolmates. At the bottom, centered, is a picture of Say’s youthful mother. His caption is: “MY MOTHER HAD A PRETTY SMILE.” It’s heartbreaking. Why? Because Say’s mother is a memory. Because on pages one and two, he draws a picture of his fishing village home. There’s a photo of the toddler, Say standing on a brick sea wall while his mother holds him tight. A school photo. A drawing of Japan surrounded by water. Say writes, “Mother constantly worried that I might drown in the sea. She tried to keep me at home.” Nonetheless, the smiling young woman encouraged her child to go, to leave home for middle school, to leave Japan for a land far away, across the sea, so he could pursue his artistic dreams.
Drawing from Memory is like a treasure trove, able to give pleasure to readers of all ages.
Two worthy opponents. Which should I choose?
The battle is won by Drawing from Memory. Deceptively simple in its parts, these parts create a more ambitious, richly layered, and unique tale. Say’s artistry can be experienced so successfully in so many ways!
Drawing from Memory can’t be told any way other than how it is!
– Judge Jewell Parker Rhodes
And the Winner of this match is……
DRAWING FROM MEMORY
It’s always interesting to see how themes emerge organically between later matches, and this one is a perfect example. Both books feature immigrants, Ha coming from Vietnam in the wake of the Vietnam War, and Allen Say coming from Japan following World War II, with both characters also finding their voice, Ha gradually acquiring a facility with the English language allowing her natural intelligence to shine forth and Allen Say finding his vocation as an artist. While I’m a fan of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN, I’m not driving the bandwagon, but then I only read it once, so I think my opinion of the book would probably only improve on subsequent readings. Nevertheless, I, too, would advance DRAWING FROM MEMORY here. It is the last remaining member of Team Nonfiction, after all. Looking ahead, I wonder if Chris will advance WONDERSTRUCK so we can see how these two heavily illustrated books fare against each other in another apple vs. apple battle.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
In a situation similar to the previous match, both books are competing in the same genre with congruous creativity, description, and tales of far away lands and the desperate means of getting there. Although the books are quite similar, there is no mistaking the individuality and uniqueness to each book. Inside Out and Back Again was a masterpiece of beautiful literature and a rich story told through verses. The style of writing was pleasantly different than most of the other works in this competition, and stood out as a fantastic work of historical fiction among the sixteen books competing. Drawing from Memory is a true and heartwarming story about the great measures one man took to follow his dreams. What really stood out for me in this piece was the author’s visualizations. The book came to life through the magnificent pictures that the artist created, and it took the story to a whole new level. I will have to agree with Judge Jewell Parker Rhodes on calling it a truce. However, in these battles one book must triumph over the other, and for me, that book is Inside Out and Back Again. Although I do have a high respect for the judges’ decisions, after reading Inside Out and Back Again for the second time I was able to appreciate the descriptive literature more so than the first time, getting a fuller and more complete experience of the book.
– Kid Commentator GI