Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai was a unique and compelling read. There were parts of it that particularly resonated with me and I loved the way the setting in Vietnam was evoked. Mai’s character arc and her grandmother’s storyline, although somewhat flawed, were interesting to read about, and this is definitely a book I recommend. Also, I have to say it: look at that beautiful cover!
Twelve-year-old Mai can’t wait to take a break from being perfect. But all straight A’s have gotten her is an unwanted trip to a foreign country she’s never been to – over eight thousand miles from home.
Mai’s parents are making her spend her vacation in Vietnam so she can learn more about her roots and help her grandmother discover what happened to her grandfather during the Vietnam War. Mai barely knows the language, the culture, or the customs, and she is desperately counting down the days until she can go back home.
In this sharply funny and poignant story, Mai will realise that home is not found on a map, but is instead made up of the people she calls family.
The explorations of a diasporic experience: visiting your ‘homeland’
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, for me, was how it explored Mai’s experience as a Vietnamese-American visiting Vietnam, the way it depicted the cultural differences between America and Vietnam, and hence her sense of disconnection as a result. It’s a common Asian diasporic experience – I was actually reading this book whilst staying with extended family in China – and one I’m really grateful to see represented.
Whilst I’ve seen a similar journey portrayed in a handful of other books, this was unique in how it emphasised how starkly different the two cultures were, and the impact of that on Mai – having grown up in America, not being able to speak Vietnamese, and being there for the first time.
Vietnam and China are obviously different countries and cultures, but there are similarities that I really loved reading about in this book, because of how much they aligned with my experiences of visiting China. I’ve always felt the initial shock of having 99% of the people around you look like you, even when you’re used to being around other Asians; the lack of privacy and space; the way relatives might focus on how different you are, both physically and through your inadequacies of not knowing the language and culture; certain habits they have around family; the way they continuously try to feed you as much as possible; Mai walking around a bookstore knowing she can’t read most of what’s in there, resolving to learn more Vietnamese, and finding the bilingual section…
Overall, it was great to see this represented as someone with similar experiences, and well worth learning about for people who don’t share it. Diasporic Asians are often subjected to the idea that we are outsiders and inadequate from ‘both sides’ – mainstream white society and the culture of our origin. Listen, Slowly shares the nuances of this experience with detail and empathy.
Mai: her voice and character arc
Mai is a heavily flawed character at the start: she complains constantly about Vietnam, about having to visit and accompany her grandmother (Bà) there, and about her parents for encouraging her to connect to her roots – “they’re [my dad’s] roots, not mine”. Whilst, personally, my attitudes have been/would be quite different in the same circumstances, I appreciated the realism of this (I’ve known many people who’ve acted the same way) and was excited by the potential of seeing her develop throughout the story.
Unfortunately, the main issue was how inconsistent her character arc was – rather than slowly developing an interest in Vietnamese culture or reflecting on herself in a natural way, there were many times she’d change all of a sudden, and then regress, which I found unnerving. I did like the endpoint, though – how it wasn’t an unrealistically radical change but involved her making a small decision.
In terms of her voice, I generally felt it was a very strong twelve-year-old’s voice. Whilst the humour didn’t really work for me, I’m expecting it would be more suited to the middle grade target audience (I’ve seen similar styles of humour in other such books, like Mike Jung’s).
Thanhhà Lai’s lyrical writing described Vietnam beautifully, and again there were similarities with China I could relate to here – the chaotic way people drive, the differences between more rural areas and the crowded, in-your-face sights and smells in the city, the climate, as well as details specific to Vietnam which were a wonderful insight into the country. I felt completely immersed in the setting for the entirety of the story.
As described on the blurb, there’s a prominent storyline regarding Mai’s grandmother , who is searching for the truth of what happened to her grandfather (Ông) during the Vietnam War. There were some pacing issues here, but I did like the way it integrated the legacy of the Vietnam War – I definitely learnt a lot from it – and there were moments that I found genuinely moving.
Overall, Listen Slowly is a book I enjoyed and definitely recommend.
Some similar/further recommendations: Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang and Willow Tree and Olive by Irini Savvides, both Australian YA novels, also explore the visiting-your-homeland experience. Parts of Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung (memoir) is another book that portrays this, though note this is more mature and the middle section contains confronting content about the genocidal regime in Cambodia.
Have you read Listen, Slowly, or any other books about the visiting-your-homeland experience? Have you had this experience yourself? How do you feel towards your ‘roots’?