Thursday, November 5, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly is another story of Vietnam, following on the success of author,  Thanhha Lai's debut, Inside Out and Back Again.

The first day of summer vacation, twelve year old Mai Le finds herself on a plane to her family's home country of Vietnam and she's not happy about it. Plans to spend her days at Anita beach with her best friend Montana and possibly with the boy she's crushing on, have all collapsed. Mai, her father and her grandmother, Ba, are returning to Vietnam together for six weeks this summer. Her father, a doctor will be spending his time setting up surgical clinic to fix cleft palates and treat acute burns. But the main purpose of the visit to Vietnam because Ba has always had questions about whether her husband, Ong Ba, could still be alive. During the Vietnam War, Ong went missing in action, leaving Ba to raise their seven children by herself. Mai's father was only two years old when his father disappeared. They left Vietnam and came to American where the family thrived; "one doctor, four engineers, a professor and an accountant."

All this leaves Mai disoriented and unhappy. "What's so important? All her children and grandchildren are in California. Her life is there. My life is there."  But Mai's father points out, "Ba has had questions for decades. Be with her as she finally accepts...I thought she already did, but that quack calling himself a detective wrote her. I seriously doubt it's possible but..."  Although Mai's father hopes this trip will provide closure for Ba, he is concerned because "Ba thinks Ong might be alive..." because of the information she received from a detective in Vietnam.

When they arrive in Vietnam, Mai notices that every person has yellow skin and looks like her. The airport is clean and orderly, not at all like Mai thought it would be. But Vietnam is hot and sticky, and the city is crowded. "Tall buildings, jumbled electrical lines, tons of mopeds weaving between cars and buses. Every single driver is beeping." They arrive in Ha Noi,where the plan is to meet the detective and then travel to Ba's village. Her father warns her not to mention politics as this is not something talked about in Vietnamese society. The detective tells Mai's father and grandmother that he has spoken with a guard who was with Ong Ba but he will not travel to talk to Ba. After the meeting, Mai's father heads out to the mountains, while she and Ba travel to Ba's village. When Mai complains about not going home, her father tells her, "Listen, Ba has sacrificed everything for us. We've raised you to be considerate, so act like it. Be good, listen to Ba. The detective has to find the guard and that might take two weeks. I should be back before then."

Mai is further upset by the fact that she will have to stay for at least two more weeks while they wait for the detective to locate the guard,  but her mother, via cellphone, encourages Mai to do this for Ba. They travel to Ba's village, eighty kilometers from Hanoi, set in a land of rice paddies and water buffalo. At the village Mai and Ba are welcomed by many relatives who are especially fascinated with Mai's braces, her height and her henna-highlighted hair. During a huge meal, Mai meets Ut, whose real name is Muong and who carries around a gigantic frog. Unfortunately, they do not get off to a good start, when Mai causes Ut's frog to ingest a stone while it is eating flies.

Mai's first days in Vietnam consist of coping with the large voracious mosquitoes and getting use to having a nap in the afternoon because of the excessive heat, They walk to Ong's ancestral home, where his younger brother now resides. Ba and Mai share a bedroom that was once tiled with blue tiles of a goddess. Ba tells Mai that they were betrothed when Ong was seven and she was five, but due to the war they were married earlier than planned at eighteen and sixteen respectively. The room with the faded blue tiles was their bridal chamber. Ba at first refused to let Ong in but eventually relented. Now, after years without her beloved husband, Ba thinks the time lost and tells Mai that against reason she continues to hope he is still alive.

Mai also meets an older boy, Minh, who has a crush on Ut's older sister Lan, and who will be acting as a translator and guide. Minh who is a junior at a boarding high school in Houston, explains village life to Mai, how the boys and men work at a shrimp hatching facility the village purchased.

Mai's manages to access her facebook account and also speaks with her mother for the first time since arriving. She desperately want to return home but her mother tells her that being away will test her friendship with Montana and asks her to be open about what will happen during her visit in Vietnam.

On his second visit the detective tells Ba that he has located her husband's guard in Hanoi but the guard refuses to travel to Hanoi. Ba tells him the guard "...held my husband captive; he must come to me to release his past." Later on Mai again complains about going home, this time to her grandmother. Ba asks her for more time, that her presence brings her joy, but she does give Mai the option of contacting her father and arranging for her to travel back to America. However, Mai tells her grandmother "Khong sao." No worries.
"I chant "khong sao" to myself over and over. Perhaps after a while, I will wholeheartedly believe it'll be all right to wait. What can I do but wait? Things will happen in Laguna whether I stress or not."

Ba tells Mai about the day she learned that Ong Ba was missing in action and how she carried this date with her to America, about the last day she saw Ong before he left on a mission. She also reveals that he closed each letter to her with Mong Nho Em Dem Tung Hat Mua - which means Longing Missing You Counting Each Drop of Rain. These words are also the names of their seven children.

Mai's settles into life in a small village in North  Vietnam. Gradually her decision to stay with Ba on her journey to learn about what happened to her husband and Mai's paternal grandfather bring about a change in perspective and a deeper understanding and appreciation of her Vietnamese roots. It is a journey that will provide some closure for Ba, and many changes for Mai.


Author Thanhha Li proves once again that the best novels are those written about what we hold dearest to the heart. Listen, Slowly is really two stories, one which focuses on the tragedy of a couple torn apart because of war and a second which deals with  a young girl's journey toward embracing her culture and her family's past.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that the primary reason for the family's trip to Vietnam is to bring closure for Mai's elderly grandmother who seems unable to accept that her husband is dead. New revelations from Vietnam appear to indicate that there is a possibility he might still be alive. However, once in Vietnam, Ba tells her granddaughter, Mai, that she although she is hopeful she is also realistic. It is her recounting of her marriage to Ong, that the depth of their personal tragedy becomes apparent.
"I do not live on butterfly wings, my child. His chances of remaining among us rank as likely as finding an ebony orchid. Yet I hold onto hope because I have been unable to imagine his ending."
Ba and Ong promised that if they ever became separated, they would meet again under the blue goddess. Mai asks herself, "How do you know someone almost since birth, then one day you know absolutely nothing more about him at all?"

Despite knowing all this, Mai is not really sympathetic to Ba's quest. She knows, as do her father and mother, that Ong is dead. However, gradually Ba's knowing becomes important to Mai. She and Ut trick Ut's mother into sending them to Saigon. With the detective's notebook and the help of two guides, Mai and Ut find the guard's home and Mai begs him to help her. "Then I start crying...It's so embarrassing, but the possibility of Ba not knowing any more about Ong rips a hole in my gut. Right now, I want Ba to get her wish even more than I want to go home...That's just how I feel."  This along with help from the detective lead to Ba traveling south to see the message Ong wrote her in the tunnel he was forced to dig so many years ago. That message is the same one he closed every letter to Ba with and it confirms to Ba that he is indeed gone. It is his final signing off.

Mai feels very different from the spoiled, self-centered girl who first came to Vietnam weeks ago, as she looks at the "alphabet letters scraped into the dirt by a shaky hand." She recognizes the "familiar line Ong had written in every letter home, the line that came alive each time he called their children's names, that line that ached with longing for his wife as he counted his last years, months, weeks, and days."   "While I stand there, nothing else matters, not the heat, the air, or the stench rising above a floral spray. Nothing matters as long as I can hear Ba's breathing elongate into full, satisfied breaths." For Mai, nothing matters except that her beloved Ba has closure.

In the end, Mai decides to stay on for another twelve days, for Ba and even for Ut, to help her learn the scientific names of the frogs for her examination. "Maybe I can stay and maybe I would enjoy it. What's in Laguna that's so urgent? Mom is exhausted with her trial and I will see Kevin when I see him. As for Montana, I can wait." No longer consumed about whether or not Montana is with Kevin, or what is happening in Laguna, Mai has put her life into perspective. What matters is the time in Vietnam.

The title, Listen, Slowly is a reference to the dominant theme as young Mai struggles to adjust to Vietnamese culture and to understand her grandmother's desire to uncover what happened so long ago. The theme of listening is woven into every aspect of Lai's novel. When Mai arrives in Vietnam she is examined closely by her relatives, one of whom asks her if she is obedient. Mai acknowledges that he is really asking if she listens to her parents and like most young people she's not about to admit "I just pretend to listen."  By her own admission, Mai used to "listen" to Ba, "Twice a day I used to hear long stories, one at nap time and one before bed. Then I went to kindergarten and stopped listening."

When Mai's mother calls, Mai complains that she wants to return home but her mother urges her to stick it out for her grandmother. At her grandmother's meeting with the detective, Mai finds that if she listens, she can understand. But often she finds herself not listening, especially at the beginning when she is so focused on herself and on returning home. She asks Anh Minh why, if everyone agrees the Ong is not alive, they are staying in Vietnam. Ahn Minh tells her what her father and even Ba have told her, that acceptance is difficult leading Mai to realize that in her desire to go home,  she has "missed listening."

Mai becomes ill after inadvertently drinking pond water and is given a local remedy and required to rest her stomach by not eating. When she does resume eating again, the pho stand owner tells her "Eat just noodles and broth, all right? Let's listen to what your stomach does with that." By listening Mai will know whether she can begin to eat food again. 

Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Returned Sword)
The guard who comes to speak with Ba about the last time he saw her husband reveals that Ong wrote her a message. Ba believes the message to be a letter but when she asks for it, the guard refuses telling her she must go to the south for the message. In a reversal, when Mai remembers all the times she would listen to Ba at night "whisper all kinds of maybes to herself...maybe Ong escaped, maybe Ong lost his memory but was healthy and happy..." she suggests to her grandmother that maybe the message is not a letter. "But Ba isn't listening."

In Saigon, when Ba and Mai attempt to cross a street to get Banh canh, they find it impossible because of the numerous mopeds zigzagging past. They are helped the the hotel clerk who tells them "The trick calls for not looking at any driver but listening to the engines...".

Finally,  Ba, after having seen the message Ong left for her so many years ago in the tunnel,  tells Mai that the hurts and joys of life become a part of us, that they are important. "I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen, slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself withing your being. Don't judge it proper or ugly. It's simply there and yours. When you should happen to cry, then cry, knowing that just as easily you will laugh again and cry again. Your feelings will enter the currents of your core and there they shall remain."

Listen, Slowly is a poignant story about a terrible war that tore apart a nation and affected its people deeply. The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness (Ba forgives the guard after seeing the tunnel) and of the importance of family predominate as well.  Beautifully crafted, capturing the atmosphere and culture of Vietnam for those of us who will likely never visit the country, Listen, Slowly is highly recommended for ages 8 to 12.

I hope Thanh ha Lai will write more stories set in Vietnam, perhaps continuing the saga of Mai Le.

On her website Thanhha Li reveals that her first name means gentle (Thanh) river (ha).

The map included at the front is very helpful in orienting readers who are certainly not familiar with the locations in Vietnam. This map also contains minor spoilers.

Book Details:

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
New York: HarperCollins Childrens Books     2015
260 pp.

1 comment:

Books4Learning said...

Excellent analysis and post. Thanks.