Main Image

A Conversation with Michelle Kuo

It was only fitting that Michelle Kuo gave her Cambridge reading at the Cambridge Public Library. College ’03 and Law School ’09, and now a professor at the American University of Paris, Kuo spent two years after college in Helena, Arkansas with Teach for America. Her memoir, Reading With Patrick, documents and reflects on her time working with Patrick Browning, a quiet and introspective student in her classroom whom she returned to Arkansas to see upon learning he had been placed in jail for killing another man. While awaiting Patrick’s trial, in which the unintentional death was ultimately charged as manslaughter, Patrick and Kuo read and wrote together every day.

I sat down with Michelle to talk about the complex process of writing and discussing the memoir, the questions we ask ourselves as progressives and young people, and, of course, books. Kuo almost reflexively followed every answer, as she had at the reading, with “Does that makes sense?” or “Does that help?”—an incorrigible teacher.

EZ: How have you thought about writing since college until now?

MK: I think when I was in college I thought of myself as an activist. I worked many nights at the homeless shelter and had a binary idea of what it meant to live meaningfully. Everything else was being selfish. And I put creative pursuits in the selfish category. This is because I also met some creative people who were really pretentious and didn’t seem to care about the world, and I was just like, “Who are you? There’s like, people starving out there.” But I’m sure I was pretentious with my moral claims, so that’s fine.

I always loved reading, loved literature. Ever since I was a kid, books were my refuge. And having Taiwanese parents who wanted me to study math, they abstractly understood books were good, but they didn’t know what to recommend. Books were the one place where I felt like I could have control over my education. I read so much. Throughout my 20s, I was always pursuing social justice professions. I did legal aid for Mexican immigrants and I taught in Arkansas. But there was a way in which I was really suppressing my desire to write. I think if you are a writer by constitution, even if you’re not writing you find yourself compulsively forming sentences in your head, trying to make sense of things that happen that confuse you or break your heart or that collapse your sense of yourself. And that’s what happened in the story that I wrote about Patrick, the student that I had in Arkansas who was so quiet and introspective. After I left Arkansas, I found out he had gotten in a fight and killed someone. It wasn’t just about writing, but about getting down the story.

I think you’re always trying to live meaningfully, but you’re also trying to permit yourself to be selfish, and life is a constant negotiation between those two impulses. Even now, with Patrick, I try to stay in touch and be present, but I also have to live my own life. It’s hard to do both well.

EZ: How is Patrick doing? (As much as you and he would be comfortable discussing.)

MK: Well, the end of the book is basically where he is now. Not a great place—he’s still looking for a job. The hard thing about looking for a job that isn’t totally intuitive for people who haven’t been jobless is that not only is rural Arkansas a hard place to find a job—and if you have a felony conviction it’s incredibly hard—but if you keep on getting turned away you do lose motivation. It’s just a fact. You get ashamed of asking. So then part of the cycle is that you have a little self-loathing because part of you knows you’ve given up. It’s all very complex and in some ways impenetrable, the degree of “personal fault” that conservatives like to point to, and the actual, incredibly deep structural limitations.

EZ: What was hard about writing Reading With Patrick?

MK: The hardest thing for me was when I was writing these scenes where Patrick’s writing was improving, where he was becoming mesmerized by certain lines of poetry—in real life I knew he was already out of prison and struggling to find a job. That disconnect was really painful because you’re recording this indisputable progress that this person made, this increased confidence he has in himself, this stunning quality of his own reading and writing—but in real life, three years later, in some ways he’s regressed again. And the purpose of writing also becomes more clear: you’re trying to capture this moment that otherwise might be lost, but it also seems your writing doesn’t change where he is now. It’s a constant struggle with writing: you just want to put down the pen and go out into the world and do something. And that’s a constant negotiation, too, of being of the world, and yet also giving yourself the kindness to make sense of the world separately. Closing the door, opening the door; it’s always about how often you’re closing, how often you’re opening.

EZ: When you published your first piece of writing about Patrick in the New York Times Magazine, having Patrick read it made you realize the piece was for you, not him, that in some way you had taken his story for your own means. How did you reconsider or navigate this while writing your memoir? How did you / have you dialogued with Patrick during the process?

MK: This question is really important and weighs on me. Patrick has been extremely generous about letting me share his story; he told me that he believes in God and that this is testimony. But that was three years ago when he had a job. Now I think he is also anxious, and his feelings about the book have changed according to how he’s feeling about his life. Which makes perfect sense: whenever we feel good about where we are in life, we care less about people knowing things in our past; and when we feel bad about where we are in life, we don’t like being exposed. So he has a mixture of emotions depending on his situation, and I also try to share with him my own feelings about the book, stressing to him that people will have a warm and humane picture of him. And I have shared with him the book. He’s read some parts—he didn’t read the plea bargain and criminal justice parts, because it’s traumatic to remember. But he’s read the parts about his mother, and I read aloud sections to him. I think the parts about his mother mean the most to him, because she’s passed away and not around anymore. What really got him was the part where she says it’s not like him to hurt a person, that’s not who he is, made him cry. He said he needed to hear that again.

I’ve also told him that the story is not just about him, but about me, about how I grew up differently from him, and the kinds of things I experienced as being Asian in western Michigan, and how my parents had such love for me and where they come from, Taiwan. He really loved hearing that, because he’s a curious person and, more generally, kids in the Delta are cut off from the world and are thirsty to hear about other ways that people live and come up.

I’m glad that this question was asked, even though it’s a very painful question for me. I have tried to talk to him about this process in an open, generous and ethical way. Money is always uncomfortable, and I have shared the advance with him as well as donated to the Boys & Girls Club in Arkansas and created a college fund for his daughter.

EZ: The charge you were answering in going to the Delta was, in many ways, a James Baldwin quote you include in the memoir: “He may stand with you through thin, but not thick,” Baldwin wrote, at the time of white liberals; they have “all the proper attitudes—but they have no real convictions. And when the chips are down and you expect them to deliver on what you thought they felt, they somehow are not there.”

It is easy and gratifying for affluent people with progressive ideals to read and say and think the right things, but rarer to see them out in action when and where it is needed. How do you feel about the way you answered Baldwin's charge—and how have you continued to think about it in terms of your decisions, especially in an era where the accusations of liberal hypocrisy have become ever more pointed?

MK: That Baldwin quote about hypocrisy is constantly on my mind. He writes that liberals read all the right things and have all the proper attitudes, but when the chips are down, they somehow are not there. I took that phrase literally: the Delta is a place where few liberals go today. I wanted to place myself in daily relationships with people from different backgrounds, and attempt meaningful and mutual connections. And I wanted to acknowledge when I failed, understanding that a self should be built out of a person’s relationships and actions.

It’s a very polarized political climate now, and each person tries to outdo the other by being more moral, more leftist, more uncompromising. I feel a bit sick at escalating nature of moral grandstanding, and take a lot of inspiration from the language of leftist Christian and Jewish traditions, which are more gentle and open in their language. Often they are humble about the worlds that they don’t know; are quick to suspect themselves of arrogance; and don’t take any thrill in condemning others. They tend to embrace talking about their own human limitations, and I think that also opens up others. We got a little bit of that humility from progressives the day after the election—the mea culpa, self-searching—but it disappeared because, well, Trump is crazy and angering, and we are creatures of habit, and also, we have to fight. But we must not forget the intimate long game, which demands placing our own senses of self at risk, in relationships and places where people are of different backgrounds. (And policy-wise, building institutions in rural areas that need help.)

Even the common mistake of thinking “rural” means “white”—one out of five rural people are people of color, and they are the poorest in the country—suggests how cut off urban progressives are from rural areas.

I also think that “service” is a concept that is not ironic or questioned in religious communities, and, relatedly, that is central to traditions in African American and Latino communities. I remember in college how some of the secular activists I hung out with in college tended to have a distaste for “service”—tutoring, teaching, mentoring—and acted as if service was “feel good” and what they did, organizing, was gritty and more important. I did both, and I don’t see why the two have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they shouldn’t be. We know that some of the most prominent activists in Black Lives Matter, for instance, came to the movement through experiences as teachers. And they were able to organize because vulnerable communities know teachers intimately, as people who show up every day to work with and learn from them.

EZ: Reading With Patrick’s subtitle is “A Teacher, A Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship.” When I saw the word “life-changing” I think I had a gut reaction of worry that it would make people read it as a certain kind of feel-good narrative. How would you hope for people to critically engage with the memoir as they read it? To talk to it?

MK: One of the hardest questions about the book is what really happened. Things seem to be happening really fast when we’re reading together, right. And it’s really different from our common idea of education, which is: You gain skills; you’re able to uplift yourself from one class to the next. When Patrick is able to see himself in another character, or alternatively, when he reads Frederick Douglass and doesn’t see himself in Douglass—there are these really intangible moments happening that are hard to place in terms of, “he was able to use his literacy to fill out a job application.” Rather, there’s an inner life changing in a way you can’t pin down. I hope a liberal with really strong ideas of how social change should happen is thinking about these smaller, seemingly tiny moments where a person has this flicker of warmth toward himself. That those are the moments when people grow—these individual, silent interactions.

That’s also the most difficult thing about the book: did this change his life? And that’s the pain of the book; I think his literacy regresses again at the end. He just hits the wall, has bad luck as well as a felony conviction and living in Arkansas. One thing I didn’t put in the book because it happens later on: there’s just so much child support debt that piles up while you’re in prison and that makes it impossible to open up a bank account, so there’s a criminalization of poverty that’s happening where you’re punished for being poor. And all of those things are counter to our desires, right, for a happy ending? I think the reader will be challenged by the lack of a happy ending. In some ways, that’s how it kind of defies any savior genre.

It’s interesting you mentioned that subtitle. The publicist proposed that, and at first I thought, “but I didn’t change his life.” And then Albert [my husband] said to me, “you didn’t change his life in a way you wanted. But you changed how he experienced himself when he was incarcerated, and that matters. That has a tangible effect.” And the other part of reading that word is, “Did he change my life?” Yes. It’s stupid to think that I would matter, but it’s also stupid to think I don’t matter. He changed my idea of what I think about literacy and how important it is, my idea of how you create actively engaged, human people. Through reading and writing is one way. He changed the way I think about the “violent young offender”—not as somebody innately dangerous but a person who is a product of debilitating poverty. I guess we know that, but now I know that’s the message that you really have to double down on if you’re a progressive. Progressives tend to avoid it when they talk about mass incarceration, focusing on nonviolent drug offenses, but violent offenders make up 50 percent of our state prison population. Conservatives love the opportunity to talk about it.

But I also winced a little at the word [“life-changing”], and then I tried to understand my wincing. It’s because our generation has been raised to be really cynical of earnest stories. There’s a certain ironic tone that writers take, and that’s probably why I was alienated from writers in college. It’s like, “you haven’t earned the right to be cynical.” You haven’t. A lot of people haven’t. You have to earn the right to be cynical, and that comes from showing up to places that need people or yourself growing up in circumstances that are deeply challenging. I haven’t earned the right to be cynical either, so I’m like, “Fine! I’ll just keep being earnest and people will laugh at me.”

EZ: How has your teaching in the Delta continued to influence your teaching at the university level?

MK: It’s shaped my teaching in profound ways. A lot of college pedagogy is decades behind high school pedagogy, and yet professors tend to snub their noses at new, research-tested techniques. There’s this idea that when a kid becomes 18, she magically becomes an adult and if she can’t do it the professor’s way, she just can’t hack it. I just don’t agree with that kind of philosophy. It basically caters to the students who have a particular kind of intelligence and discipline. But most students, whether motivated or not, do crave something from education, and a teacher needs to try a variety of techniques to meet them where they’re at. Teaching in the Delta taught me that if a classroom feels like a community, that can be very motivating. I also think teaching in the Delta helped me understand that a student is above all a person, with needs and desires and a life outside the classroom.

EZ: There’s this (maybe falsely strict) line between public and private sectors that you’ve zigzagged across: Harvard College, then Teach for America, then Harvard Law School, then legal aid and back to the Delta, now at American University in Paris. I think that line is a thing a lot of students at Harvard struggle with, like: do I have to doublethink myself into doing both, or being one kind of person and feeling like I’m on the wrong side of the line? How has it been as you move between those worlds? What questions have you asked yourself? What’s brought you to some kind of equilibrium?

MK: (Before I answer that, make sure you ask me about Teach for America, just because I feel like there’s such a contingent of people who are very skeptical of Teach for America.)

Yeah, I think there’s so much anxiety in Harvard students to want to be really successful. And I try to—I wish, I hope, that I can acquire a kind of spiritual happiness that disavows any of those worldly desires. I don’t think I’ve achieved that; I think few people have who have gone through Harvard have. I was really indecisive about a lot of things, and I think that’s partly from being Asian American, having parents whose way of communication is to make you doubt yourself. One thing I’ve noticed about Asian American writers is how vulnerable they tend to be, and I wonder whether they’ve internalized their parents’ voices, like: “Who are you to think you can do this? How could you do this? How could you do this to me?”… that’s partially where the indecisiveness comes from.

At Harvard, when I found out I couldn’t hack it in Math 21a I didn’t want to do it anymore. That’s really screwed up. That’s not how most of the world works, where hobbies are hobbies and you can do things even though you’re at the bottom of whatever ranking would exist. I started recently taking a singing class last year. I’ve never been a singer, I’ve always been like “I’m a horrible singer!” And I thought, I’m just going to do it. And it is so joyful to do something without expecting to perform. It’s not about being good at it, it’s just the pure joy of being able to hit the right note… it’s taken me a long time to get to that point.

In terms of my career choices…because of my tendency to think in moral absolutes, I always chose the profession that paid the least. That was sort of my way of retaining my moral badge, but that’s kind of screwed up, too! “I don’t know how to choose, so I’ll just choose the thing that definitely won’t bring me any monetary benefit.” I’m being a bit self-deprecating, I’m not that stupid about choosing my jobs. I’ve chosen the work that gets me closest to people. When you’re doing legal aid, you can help somebody who’s being evicted. You can help a dishwasher who hasn’t been paid because his employer knows he’s undocumented and won’t speak up. It just happens that that work is the least paid of any legal profession. I think some Asian Americans are slower in figuring out what they want because they’ve internalized their parents’ voices so deeply that they’re confused. Even now, I’m still sad I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know whether that’s because I actually realized that doctors can help people and it’s a portable skill, or that it’s just like my mom speaking to me when I was five years old. But… you have to be patient with yourself to figure out what you like.

EZ: And you wanted to say something about Teach for America (TFA)?

MK: So there’s a range of critiques of Teach for America, and I think it’s good that they raise consciousness of corporate collaboration and the rights of workers, especially in urban contexts. I’m a workers’ rights lawyer so I’m really sympathetic. But I wish many would be more open to the fact that their critiques generally don’t apply to rural areas—especially after Trump was elected, we’re all thinking about rural areas and how the divide between urban and rural worlds is growing. Teachers from Teach for America go to these rural regions; it’s the only national institution besides AmeriCorps that sends graduates to these areas and facilitates movements between urban and local areas. We’re talking about Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Southern Louisiana, South Dakota, North Carolina, Appalachia, areas with shortages—and we need institutions that create more intimacy between these areas where, increasingly, the rural kids who graduate from high school leave and don’t come back. There is devastating out-population. If you want to criticize Teach for America, do it locally. Go to a rural area and figure out whether Teach for America teachers are collaborating with civic and political organizations. Figure out how many of them stay and what they do when they stay. Figure out if there’s any particular local history projects or local arts that get stressed by those teachers. That would be more interesting and based in locally grounded research.

The other thing that I find revealing is the idea TFA teachers as white elitists, which is not true anymore. Prominent Black Lives Matter leaders came out of Teach for America. 50% of TFA-ers are people of color. Some of the most inspiring people I know are African American teachers from Teach for America who are not from Mississippi and Arkansas but traveled there to teach, and 15 years later, are still there. They have stories to tell and are part of a DuBoisian tradition of teaching in rural black communities. If you say TFA is white and elitist, you’re part of the problem. You’re making invisible these leaders who are teaching in communities and leading political movements.

The last thing, which I think is an important historical point: let’s think about the assumption that an outsider is intrinsically bad. Recall that we valorize outsiders, college students from all over the country, who traveled to the South in the 1960s to desegregate public areas, register voters, and start schools. It was the Southern segregationists who labeled these students as “outside agitators” in order to delegitimize them. The term “outsider” is always changing in terms of its valence. Let’s be careful of becoming so paralyzed by our consciousness of being perceived as outsiders that we don’t learn anymore, don’t go anywhere at all.

EZ: What do you wish people asked you?

MK: Being asked about the Asian American part is really important to me, because I feel like it explains so much of the hyper-uncertainty of the book, which I think can be really off-putting for readers who don’t know how much uncertainty exists in our lives because of our parents. Not all Asian Americans, but most. Often we feel a constant desire to want them to feel like they can be proud and also to place ourselves in America in some way that feels meaningful. And these desires are often at odds because part of what our parents want is for us to blend in so much that we’re totally anonymous. That’s why my parents wanted me to go into science and be a doctor, because they’re like, “It’s safer there. There are more Asians there. It’s not subjective in terms of how your work is evaluated. Once you pass the test, they can’t change your grade.” This thinking is such a product of the competitive education system in Taiwan that’s modernizing, similar to China, Korea, and Japan. I was trying to grapple with the uncertainty and risk aversion that you develop both at an elite institution, and also from parents who are immigrants.

EZ: Do you have any writing projects on the horizon?

MK: I’m really interested in a [W.G. Sebald]-esque style, and I love Rachel Cusk, but maybe I’ll experiment. But I don’t know, I’m so drained from writing this book. I feel that it’s all about taking it really slowly. I’m happy that I didn’t come out too early. My writing’s gotten better, it’s changed. Even though I wish I had finished this earlier, like two years ago, if you gave it to me now I would know where to revise. Time is such a healer. Time is your best friend—and at the same time it’s best to get one thing done so you can get to the next thing.

EZ: What are things you like to do or read that make you want to write?

MK: Rachel Cusk makes me want to write; she’s so smart. I love Middlemarch, I like to read that over and over again. I read that whenever I want to get inspired. Henry James… And then Tolstoy.

EZ: What about non-literary things? I’ve heard Haruki Murakami just runs and runs like a fiend….

MK: …Wow, do I not have any hobbies? You know, it’s funny when you start seriously wanting to finish a book. I wrote a really short piece about what I do when I’m stuck. You started becoming really superstitious and disciplined. You think, if I don’t wake up and write for two hours the whole day will feel crappy. And then there’s this moment that comes when you realize you’ve just been obeying a ritual without remembering the origin of that ritual, which is presence, contrition, love for people and the world and its creatures. And this happens to me in cycles—but I never predict the cycles, which is good—where I’ll just stop obeying these rituals of writing and going out, taking walks, calling old friends.

Reading poetry always helps a lot—memorizing poetry, not just reading it, and feeling the sounds. That it’s meant to be unmediated, the sounds of the words are meant to be unmediated, just as the voice is unmediated, which is why I love singing more. Hearing the sounds of animals is unmediated. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s more like this break where you’re totally present with the spiritual connectedness of things. And I wish I had more things to bring me that. Every year, my new year’s resolution is to become better a meditating and being more spiritually present. Maybe this will be my year.

EZ: How is it being on book tour right now?

MK: The thing I’ve tried to figure out this year is, as with being a person, being a writer is learning to forgive yourself and saying, “There will be more sentences that you write.” The book is a lot about my own failures and having that exposed is very hard for me. I feel like I can be open with people in conversations, but having it out in print is really scary. But you know, the thing that emboldens me is knowing that Asian Americans and African Americans have a real divide, real disconnect. I wanted to make that bridge. And I wanted to place the children of immigrants in a rural place that is majority black.