Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“Becoming a Prose Poet”
by Thanhha Lai
Photo © Sloane Bosniak
I do not consider myself a poet. I do read plenty of poetry but am trained in prose. After all, I started my writing life as a journalist, on the police beat. Very little time was devoted to crafting just the right phrase; mostly I was panicking to make deadline.
Inside Out & Back Again (Harper, 2011) began life decades ago when I was still chasing down robberies and murders. I wrote it in the voice of a reporter: third person, impersonal, outside observer. That attempt crashed because the characters never rose above the depth of a newspaper article.
Then I started reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez and my fingertips tapped out imitations of his twisty, fluid sentences: third person, hyperboles, nonjudgmental, magical. What worked perfectly for Marquez’s characters did nothing for mine. They were still too distant.
Years passed. I tried every voice from omniscient third to close third to first person to second person. Disgusted, I stopped writing. Then one day I was on a playground and it brought back intense memories of how I felt as a child on the school playground in Alabama. Furious, indignant, embarrassed, lonely. These feelings form themselves into phrases exploding with images.
A typical Vietnam War image. This is how Hà’s classmates in Alabama imagine her homeland.
Instead of: she was a lonely newcomer to a land filled with trees she couldn’t name and food she couldn’t eat, hiding in the bathroom and wishing to go home.
I was thinking: anger whipping like flames, raw scars, salt in shape of tears, not thick finger red boiled meat, but sweet, orange flesh of ripe papaya, tender like a late-night chant.
A papaya tree, where each fruit clings to the trunk like each piglet to its mother.
Right then I knew I had found the voice of a 10-year-old girl who was yanked out of her beloved home and replanted in an alien land called Alabama. She would be thinking in Vietnamese because when the story opens she has not learned English. That’s why none of the thousands of sentences I had written before rang true. When she thinks in Vietnamese, every word springs forth from images and condenses into quick, sharp phrases that capture vivid emotions. Vietnamese is a naturally lyrical, rhythmic language influenced by Chinese, which is written in characters not letters, thus lending itself to visual expressions.
This is how Hà remembers her home.
Writing in English but thinking in Vietnamese, I thought I had invented a new format, only to find out later it’s called prose poems and has been around since forever. I’m thrilled to have stumbled into the company of other prose poets.
- An original article by Thanhha Lai
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Thanhha Lai. All images courtesy of Thanhha Lai.
More online resources about Thanhha Lai:
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Hear Thanhha Lai introduce and read an excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again. Listen now
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