Virginia Wolff interviewed Lai for the January 2010 number of School Library Journal. She calls Inside Out "a powerful story in slender, sinewy prose poems, just a few words in each line." Hà and her family flee home and meet America's "sharp-edged barriers of color, ethnicity, religion, and custom."
Lai worked for 30 years on an adult novel. In her own words it was "third-person omniscient, spanning 4000 years of Vietnamese history, and whiplashed by hundreds of overly dramatic, showy sentences." The transformation worked when she got "inside the mind of a 10-year-old girl who feels as much as an adult but can’t express the emotions yet, it seemed right to employ a few precise, pungent words and have them explode into real, raw emotions."
The fictional girl Hà once says, "No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama." The story features her discovery of an adjustment to "the foreign world of Alabama". A review by Publishers Weekly calls it "especially poignant as she cycles from feeling smart in Vietnam to struggling in the States, and finally regains academic and social confidence."
Lai explains, "She felt dumb in Vietnam.... For her, being smart equated to confidence that she could manage her world. That’s why she would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama." In America, the little girl writes,
- So this is
- what dumb
- feels like.