One of the great surprises for us in 2017 was discovering Michelle Kuo. Kuo writes about her experience teaching high school English in the Mississippi delta with such clarity and insight. Her memoir Reading with Patrick taught us so much about humanity, the kindness and grace that can be found in all corners of the globe. But you don't have to take our word for it. Here's our conversation with Michelle Kuo, one of our Reading Women Award shortlisted authors.
Reading with Patrick is your first book. What does it feel like to finally have it out in the world? Has there been anything about the writing or publishing process that has surprised you?
It took seven years to write, and I imagined that when I’d finish the book, I would have a sense of closure. It turns out that writing is the beginning of a conversation, with oneself and others, and there is no closure. Writing forced me to face a lot of painful topics: my own shame, all kinds of uncertainty, and the students who didn’t get to become they people they wanted to be. I had thought that when I published, I could “move on.” But it’s not like that, and I’m actually glad. I’m grateful to readers who share their responses, conversations the book sparks, and people who offer insight and hope when I talk to them.
I also miss writing, as I haven’t yet thrown myself into a new project. You know, my husband has said to me, “You’re miserable when you’re writing, and you’re more miserable when you’re not writing. So please start writing again.”
As evidenced by the extensive endnotes, you did a lot of research to provide context for your experiences. What made you decide to complement your personal narrative with a historical context? And how did you go about deciding what to include?
Patrick is a person with a deep and fundamental connection to where he lives. I wanted to understand the Arkansas Delta to understand him, and to understand my relationship with him. The Delta is a place where people have lived for generations, and which struggles with so much poverty. We can’t understand it without reckoning with histories of slavery, sharecropping, and extraordinary violence.
I wrote so many pages about history, though, that I ended up axing hundreds of pages. I’d show my husband these pages, thinking that he’d like them because he was a historian. He’d say to me, “Too much! Just tell the story and say what happened.”
I ended up including stories where historical actors grapple with a question that underpins the book: who stays, who leaves? This question plays out in a surprising way with Frederick Douglass, who was pretty insensitive to the black migrants who were trying to flee violence. He wanted them to stay. It speaks to the hopes he had invested in the Reconstruction. For him, migration wasn’t an exercise of freedom, but also a surrender to the injustice of their living conditions.
Early on you say, “When [Asian Americans] did well, people would vaguely point to us as evidence of the American dream, but when we were killed for being Asian, the media wasn’t interested. Our dying did not betray any myth or ideal about America. Why? Because we weren’t American. Our faces gave us away.” What role do stories about Asian American experiences have in correcting this assumption?
Even though I wrote those lines, it wasn’t until I met Asian American readers that I began to understand that my book was an Asian American story. You would think that I would know what my book “was,” after writing for seven years! But I didn’t. And there’s something very profound about my refusal to embrace, much less see, my book as that story.
My attitude totally transformed when I met Asian American readers. Meeting them uplifted me. Some light bulb went off. It’s so basic, but it was like this: “My story” as an Asian didn’t matter until other Asians told me that it did.
I started to get it. Many of us had grown up in a void. In the States, we grew up without stories about Asian Americans. At home, many of our parents grew up in an authoritarian regime where stories are dangerous. So they didn’t always tell us their own stories. We are connected by that void.
The passage that you quote, I’m realizing now, coupled with a paragraph about how the sitcoms growing up almost always treated Asian Americans as the butts of a joke, offer an answer to the questions about the choices I made. Why take extreme measures? Why go to the rural South and to the Delta? Why try so hard? Why learn about African American literature and history? What was I trying to prove? My upbringing—not knowing where Asian Americans belonged, not knowing how to make sense of my racial background—frames my journey to the Delta, where some of the most canonical American history had been forged.
Now that the book is finished and you’ve had time to think and talk about it with others, have your feelings or perspective changed? And how has talking to others about your story affected you?
I think I expected readers to be as harshly critical as I am of myself. But they aren’t. So many of them are generous and compassionate. They intuit your vulnerability and shame when they talk to you. They get how hard it is to be honest about some things. They draw on your experiences to reflect on theirs.
I’ve also been so moved by the diverse experiences they’ve had—in jail and in classrooms, in mental health clinics and hospitals, in rural parts of the country that nobody knows about. And I’ve corresponded with so many lovely people, including a “nonagenarian who loves reading,” as she described herself, and an Arkansas teacher who taught Marcel Williams, the man executed by lethal injection this year. These conversations are a privilege. I had this idea that a book was an object that concludes a process, but it’s something more miraculous.
As readers, we have a tendency to glamorize the power of education and especially the power of reading. But this is something you don’t do, and it’s so refreshing. From your experience as a teacher, what are some realistic expectations that we should have about education and reading in particular?
It is the rare situation where reading alone can uplift a person from poverty and crushing circumstances. But admitting that fact does not take away from its power.
Here are some realistic expectations that I developed—some of them verbatim from what kids told me. Reading gives a quiet place to think. Reading calms a kid down. Reading helps a kid understand why people do violent or wrong things. Reading gives kid a sense that the interior life is worthwhile. I think reading brings people in contact with other places, which is a profound experience especially for somebody who lives in a rural area and has no means to leave. For Patrick, reading brought him in contact with an ideal of his own racial community that he couldn’t access in his neighborhood or in jail: reading James Baldwin helped him feel solidarity and love in the black community.
You cover a wide range of contributing factors to the success or failure of your students, including race, class, gender, societal expectations, and family. What are some tangible ways that we can help students succeed? Any specific organizations or other suggestions from your own experiences?
Let me identify a few key shifts in how we think about schools and kids. Let’s recognize that kids in poverty have a number of stressors and create school environments that take into account their trauma. Let’s understand that truants are most at risk of committing crimes. Let’s implement restorative justice rather than sending kids to jail, paddling them, or suspending them. Let’s implant rural schools into our consciousness: nearly every single debate on the national agenda on education assumes urban school environments, without taking into account the unique challenges their areas face, especially brain drain.
The happiest news about Patrick is not about him but his daughter. She’s enrolled in KIPP Delta in Phillips County, Arkansas. I know charter schools are a divisive topic. But here’s an example of an excellent school that has defied the odds and flourishes in a county that is dead last in Arkansas in measures of poverty, and one of the poorest in the country. My point isn’t about charters as such; I deeply believe that we must resuscitate a strong sense of a shared public sphere. But that is long term goal and an uphill battle, and as we fight it, it does strike me as important to acknowledge and research how schools like his daughter’s manage to create a school culture, where kids are safe, free from violence and bullying, and are taught with high expectations for success. I taught at a school that regularly paddled special ed kids, and where half the teachers were substitutes, and so I do believe we need to look at how other models work.
What have been some of the favorite books that you’ve read this year?
It is too hard to name all the amazing books I read this year, but I loved Locking Up Our Own, James Forman, Jr.; Cuz, Danielle Allen; and The Burning Girl, Claire Messud.
Michelle Kuo is the author of the memoir READING WITH PATRICK, a story of race, inequality, and the transformative power of literature. She taught English at an alternative school in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
After graduating from Harvard Law, she became an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit in Oakland, California. She advocated for tenants facing evictions, workers stiffed out of their wages, and families facing deportation. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.