“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”: A review of Thanhha Lai’s Latest Novel Butterfly Yellow About Tra
Updated: Apr 24
Thanhha Lai is a well-poised Vietnamese author who wrote her debut novel, Inside Out and Back Again. She won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was Newbery Honor Recipient. Along with her debut novel, her next novel, Listen, Slowly, also sought praise by New York Times as bestseller and New York Times Book Review.
Lai’s newest young adult novel, Butterfly Yellow, pieces together a heart-felt story about an eighteen-year-old Vietnamese refugee girl, Hằng, who is in search of her lost little brother, Linh. Hằng’s journey starts during and at the end of the Vietnam War, when she tries to escape Vietnam with her brother by posing as orphans. However, something goes terribly wrong in which Hằng and her brother get separated. After losing Linh, she and her family vow to rescue him by constructing a plan that results in many catastrophes of trauma, regret, and even death.
Throughout the novel, it reveals the shocking memories of Hằng’s complicated and traumatic past, unveiling what lies her deep feelings of guilt and regret of losing her brother and her family. As she remembers the trauma of her journey to America in order to save her brother, she suffers from panic attacks in which she must find ways to process her anxiety and trauma through therapeutic methods of meditation, writing, drawing, and support from others.
The process of remembering is not an easy task. For Hằng, the flashbacks of her memory forces her to approach her trauma by mediation and textualizes her memories by replacing the self with another character: a disguise or a mask that is safe and distances herself from that trauma. She painfully expresses, “[a]nother deep breath. It’s time to stop distancing. Call the characters by their true names. Ease her heart into withstanding the entirety of what happened on the boat, what happened on the island” (Lai 216). At this point in the novel, she faces her trauma through guiding herself in slowing her breath and exposing the monk characters as herself and her mother. The act of rewriting or remembering a story can slightly change just by point of view. Hằng takes a strong, authoritative step in revealing the “narrating I” in her memory. Although it is a tremendously painful process for her to go through, she has the support from, LeeRoy, as one of her reliable companions in the novel.
Lai develops the discourse on trauma and memory through representations of Vietnamese refugees, who lost their lives during their voyages across the sea. Lai’s inspiration of Hằng’s character is revealed from the author’s note, addressing:
At a Buddhist temple in San Diego, there is a memorial room filled with tiny photographs of those who have passed...one section of the wall, however, is reserved for black-and-white images. All are in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties. Young… It is not explained, but visitors know they are looking at those who lost their lives at sea in hopeful attempts to become refugees. Every Vietnamese know of at least one such person. (Author’s note)
Lai reveals the traumatic history of the Vietnamese refugees in the hopes of preserving the ones that lost their lives in making it to America and wanting a better life. She shares the tremendous hardships and sacrifices that are caused due to the outbreak of war and political and economical shifts of regimes inflict upon people. Lai’s interpretation of the process of healing teaches readers that anxiety and trauma are very real, and there are many ways of confronting and coping with them. From the Author’s Note, she suggests that “[s]ometimes true connection sprouts between two most unlikely people. And sometimes healing is spurred in a place that reminds you of nothing you have known” (Lai). In Asian culture, there is a lack of discourse on mental health, which is why Asian communities should reach out and spread awareness on self care.
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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA
Originally from the Bay Area and a graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. In addition, she is a recent graduate student at San Francisco State University for the English Literature Master’s program. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.