Friday, June 19, 2009

Conflicted, or, It's All About Me

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.


  1. Anonymous2:00 PM

    my experience with Hmongs--and I do have more than you might think...oddly enough there was a strong Hmong contingent at the otherwise completely white college I attended--is that they form incredibly tight-knit communities. I wonder if there isn't a sense of not wanting to let outsiders in, which is why she's glossing over some things? And with her family, perhaps of not wanting to shame them? Just thinking out loud about possible cultural differences. I don't think it's probably the case that most people experience family relationships as unconflicted. It may not be appropriate in all cultures and subcultures to dwell on or discuss those difficulties publicly and at length.

  2. Anonymous2:11 PM

    I hate the whole "shared text" thing. It's a nice idea in theory, looks good on paper, rarely seem to work in real life.

    I haven't read this book, but one thing I seem to have noticed about memoirs is that a lot of them end in this pat way, like we've worked through the problem/conflict/whatever and now everything is good. A lot of students like to end their papers that way, too -- like they have to end their paper with a resolution, a "lesson learned" instead of admitting it's not over, or it was harder than they thought. I think it could be really cool to interrogate the book on those terms -- the students could maybe learn something about how writing can start off well and end up flat if you try to resolve things too much. (?)

  3. Anonymous2:14 PM

    PS: Your idea of her not wanting to be too critical of the audience she was writing to is really interesting as well. I discussed this very thing with students reading Phyllis Wheatley's poetry, and they really got it.

  4. don't you want your students to be talking and thinking about the same kinds of questions? i don't know if you use discussion groups normally in this kind of class, but think it would be wonderful to raise some of the questions you mention, and others that come up, and break the class into working discussion groups before they begin writing.

    good writing depends in part on critical thinking, and the sharing of ideas. you have a lot to draw upon, having more experience; your students might use some ways to jump-start looking at texts from different angles.

  5. We have a 1st year book prog. at my uni that's quite a big deal (and we bring the author each year). I'd say that 2 years of the past 6 it's been really great, and those years, the first word you'd use to describe the book was not DEPRESSING. Not that those two books weren't serious, or that they didn't deal with things that made students emotional or angry or thoughtful. But, primarily, students didn't come away sad from these books.

    In contrast, the books about the holocaust, contemporary slavery, the environment, the war in Iraq.... Um, yeah. Faculty didn't talk to each other about them because it was just too exhausting, and students didn't want to talk about them because it was all so bleak. And I think teaching that kind of stuff in a writing class is especially tough. You see a lot of students' pain and personal stuff in their writing anyway in freshmen comp - adding a common text that's profoundly sad only makes it more intense, which is not always a good thing.

  6. I've not read this book, so I can't comment on that. However, I agree with Kathy. I think students need to learn that just because something written is a published book that doesn't mean that it's a perfect text. In fact, using a flawed text might teach them more about their own writing than reading something "classic" might. Especially since this is a memoir, you can ask the students to ponder what is missing from the whole picture. Ask them what else they would like to know as a reader. Where are they finding themselves asking questions about the, as you call it, simplicity of the resolutions of conflict? How do these resolutions gel (or, likely, not) with their own experience? Etc., etc. There are a lot of ways that using a flawed text can help young writers see the need for hard work, detailed explanations, reader awareness, and revision in their own writing.

    Of course, that isn't easy to pull off. Most students want to get so immersed in the content of a book that they don't really want to see a book as a model for their own writing - or a negative model for their own writing. Most literary folks don't read that way, but I think people who are writers read both for content and as "writing sponges." People who consider themselves to be writers are always paying attention to HOW the text is written in addition to what is said. Encouraging the students to read as writers is extremely valuable to them. It doesn't always sink in for them, though.

    Just another reason why teaching writing is the best impossible task on the planet.

  7. richard10:37 AM

    I'll be interested to hear how this goes. We're using Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and I for one am glad that I'm not teaching first-year students next year. I think the book might be relevant for one or two days out of my usual intro course (which is not at all a comp course).