Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam in 1965. When her father, who served in the South Vietnamese Navy, was reported missing and North Vietnamese troops conquered South Vietnam in 1975, Lai’s mother decided to flee with her nine children. From then on, Lai lived in Alabama: »I was standing in this playground, not knowing what the kids were saying to me. For the first time the words were taken from me. I was beyond frustration, and there was nothing I could do. Those feelings never go away.« Lai studied journalism at the University of Texas in Austin and starting in 1988 worked for the Californian newspaper »The Orange County Register«, which is aimed at the Vietnamese audience in Little Saigon. She then earned a Master of Fine Arts from New York University and taught at the Parsons School for Design until 2012.
Lai unpacks her formative childhood experiences in her young adult books. Her début »Inside Out and Back Again« (2011), a coming-of-age novel, was praised for its touching childlike perspective on family and immigration and won the 2011 National Book Award for Youth Literature as well as a Newbury Honor. At the center of the prose poem is little Hà, who grows up in colorful Saigon, with its delicacies at the markets, and with the traditions and the security of her friends and family. When the Vietnam War reaches her city, Hà and her family flee to the USA. Hà discovers the strange world of Alabama: bland food, cold strangers, but also the strength of her own family. A year of change, dreams, grief, and healing begins. Lai’s second young adult book »Listen, Slowly« (2015) also deals with an adolescent girl caught between cultures. Mai is born and raised in California, but her family is from Vietnam. During the holidays, she is supposed to travel there with her grandmother, who wants to find out something about the whereabouts of her husband who disappeared during the Vietnam War. Mai experiences Vietnam as an awful place: she doesn’t know the language, doesn’t know anything about the customs, and also feels like her relatives are strangers. In order to survive this journey, Mai searches for a balance between the completely different worlds. In her latest book »Butterfly Yellow« (2019) Hằng loses her little brother Linh at the airport in the last days of the Vietnam War. Six years later, she arrives in Texas as a refugee and finds her little brother again, but discovers that he doesn’t remember her, their family, or Vietnam.
Lai is actively involved in the non-profit organization Viet Kids Inc., which she founded to provide destitute students in Vietnam with bicycles through donations. The author lives in New York.