We've been trying to do a common text in our first year writing courses for the past couple of years; the idea is to have faculty and students reading the same book during a fairly early part of the semester. The hope is that students will see each other carrying around the book and start talking about it even though they're in different classes. An auxiliary hope is that faculty will sit around the lunch room and chat about a book.
We don't, and neither do our students. We don't because we don't have time, and because there's plenty else to talk about.
The book chosen for the coming semester is Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, which I just finished reading. I'm torn.
On the one hand, it's a really interesting book, and I learned a lot about Hmong experience in Laos, Thailand, and the US. So that's good. I can imagine most of our students learning a lot by reading it, and that's also good.
I was troubled trying to think of how to teach writing using the text, but one of my colleagues has generously offered help, and I think she'll be a great help. So I think I can do that.
But, well, the end of the text involves a funeral thing, and is very sad. It's really sad. It's hard to teach sad stuff that's close to home. Every semester, it seems, I have some student whose parent, close friend, or sibling has died within the past year. And this book is going to be hard for those students, I think. (I'm really lousy at touchy-feely teaching. My idea of touch-feely is to pass out recipes for the end of Titus.)
On the other hand, the funeral thing and ending of the book strike me as overly simplified in some ways, not in terms of the rites or whatever, but in terms of the family relationships. Everything seems so clear and untroubled. Now maybe that's the case, but that's sure not anything like my family relationships.
I'm not talking about people being on their best behavior for a funeral; my family can pull that off. I'm talking about the way Yang talks about her relationship with her grandmother, parents, and siblings. She acknowledges that her father is growing older and less well in the epilogue, where she talks about working on this memoir. And the conflicts of the teen years are hinted at, but barely. She talks about worrying that her parents will treat her differently once her baby brother is born, but then says, nope, it's all the same, yay. But there's something I'm just not getting about the relationships.
Maybe I'm totally screwed up and most people feel totally unconflicted about family relationships. Maybe most people don't resent things from the past, and I'm totally immature and in need of some sort of intervention.
Or maybe there's a sort of model minority set up at work here? Or the author is really young, and so hasn't sorted through the conflicts enough to write about them? Maybe they got edited out?
And the more I think about it, the less I get a real sense from the book of the people she's talking about. It's more and more this happened and then this happened and then this happened. But I'm not getting a sense of how people develop or change. And it feels like she's minimalizing the difficulties of racism in some ways (she mentions some incidents, but I don't get a real sense of living the life). Contrast this with something such as Warriors Don't Cry, where I did really get a sense of real experiences of difficulty. I guess I'm trying to say that maybe she's being less fully critical of US culture than she might be, maybe in hopes of not alienating a white audience that she wants to reach?
I'm not really articulating my response well yet because I've just finished the text and need to think about how it works as a text and teaching it.