Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Michelle Kuo

Michelle Kuo was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan to immigrants from Taiwan. After graduating with a degree in Social Studies and Gender Studies from Harvard College, she joined Teach for America and moved to the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Kuo’s memoir, Reading with Patrick, is about her time teaching in Helena and, later, returning to the Delta to help one of her students after he is imprisoned for murder. Kuo teaches in the History, Law, and Society program at the American University of Paris on issues related to race, punishment, immigration, and the law. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the LA Review of Books, Poets & Writers magazine, and Literary Hub, among others. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kuokuomich.

EB: What drew you to writing nonfiction?

MK: In college, I didn’t think of myself as a writer. All I wanted was to do social justice work. I was a bit of an annoyingly moralistic person. But that moralistic self got broken when I started working as a teacher in rural Arkansas. When I found out that one of my favorite students had ended up in jail on murder charges, I turned to the essay. I wanted to understand why this part of myself had collapsed. One of my teachers would always talk about the “eloquence of fact”—and that’s something you can only do in nonfiction.

EB: I often think about that. There is definitely something about labeling something as real or true that can change its power. Like if you had written Reading with Patrick as a novel, I’m sure some people would have dismissed things you said or described as exaggeration, or oh, it can’t be that bad, she’s making it up.

MK: I think that’s right. Fiction wouldn’t do justice to Patrick, nor to the unimaginable stuff my students faced. I had a sixteen-year-old with a mental disability who got regularly paddled. I saw girls get sent to jail for fighting. You can’t make that stuff up. But I also wanted to have a nonfiction portrayal of a person wrestling with her privilege, with her ethics, with her desire to do good. You would think there would be more stories like this, but people are almost always more interested in defending their humanity rather than questioning it.

EB: I admired how you portrayed yourself and your privilege in your book—showing when you made mistakes or when you were unaware or naïve about something. It’s so hard to write honestly about one’s self and flaws, but I think you did it really well.

MK: Thank you.

EB: This may be a silly question, because I feel like Reading with Patrick couldn’t exist without you as a character, but did you ever consider writing the book without you in it? Like a Katherine Boo-style account of life in the Mississippi Delta?

MK: That’s what I originally wanted to do. I love how Katherine Boo does it. I love how Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Larissa MacFarquhar do it. They are my models. But I tried that and felt like I was hiding myself. For most of my adult life I thought of myself as a teacher and activist, not as a writer, so it felt unnatural to act as if I were an observer or journalist or writer. And I realized that a big part of the story was about wrestling with my own perceptions and illusions about my power to create change. At that point I accepted that I had to be in the book. I realized that the book was not just about portraying the poverty of the Delta or the story of Patrick’s life, but about the humility you need to do meaningful work in rural areas.

EB: That’s what I really loved about your book—how it wasn’t just the story of Patrick and the Delta, but how it was also a critical analysis of Teach For America and the state of education in rural and poor areas in America. I was an AmeriCorps teaching fellow for two years after college—

MK: Oh! You were?

EB: Yeah, in Boston. And I always think about the racial dynamics of how all the teaching fellows were almost all twenty-something white women from the suburbs, and all of our students were black and Latina girls from the city, and how we were just dropped in that community for two years and then, when the time was up, we just left. It’s jarring—for the students, and for the teachers—and totally unsustainable.

MK: Yeah. I didn’t want Reading with Patrick to be a self-celebratory story of doing a great and noble thing. I wanted it to capture all those things you said—how it’s unsustainable, how it’s inequitable. But I also get frustrated with people who are so cynical about organizations that do this work, or who assume some self-interested motives. I have friends from Teach for America from thirteen years ago who are still in Mississippi and Arkansas, still doing the good work, embedded in their communities, and I admire them. They are so much more authentic than some of the liberals who get off on attacking these organizations. I agree about some of the difficult racial dynamics, but I should also note that fifty percent of Teach for America teachers now are people of color.

EB: Well, I admire you trying to capture that complexity. And also of showing so candidly how you wrestled with your decision to leave or stay in the Delta.

MK: Thank you.

EB: Kind of going off that, you mention in your book how your parents had such a strong influence on your life, convincing you to go to law school instead of staying in the Delta to keep teaching. You say that “few of my friends in the Delta understood the power my parents had over me… one can never overestimate the extent to which many Asian parents make their disappointment unbearable,” but then fifty pages later, you say that, as a writer, you “had the power to situate [your] parents in the world, to write them down,” that you had control over their portrayal and their story. Considering all that, how did you manage to write about your parents so honestly? In general, how do you handle writing about people you are close to?

MK: I love that juxtaposition—I never thought about that. That’s really smart.

EB: Oh, jeez, thanks.

MK: Honestly, this is why part of me doesn’t want to write nonfiction, or at least this kind of nonfiction, anymore.

EB: You don’t?

MK: No, not now. I would wake up in a panic every morning at the idea of writing about my parents and Patrick. I was constantly rationalizing it to myself and wondering if I even could write about them. Writing about people in general is always a betrayal, no matter how humane the text is. With my parents, and also with Patrick, I made sure not to put all of their personal stuff in it.

I wrote a Lit Hub piece about recording my audio book where I mention parts about my parents that I took out because they seemed too harsh. Writing that piece helped me work through some of my anxieties about memoir: even if we are not protecting ourselves—even if our very aim is to expose the very worst parts of ourselves—we are often trying to protect other people in our lives. That desire to protect others may seem like a hindrance in the writing process, but it also reminds us of our love. Which every piece of writing needs.

EB: Did your parents read the book?

MK: My mom didn’t, because she was scared. But my dad did, and he liked the book a lot, though he said, “I have one critique: I’m more complex than how you portrayed me.” He was laughing when he said it, but I think he meant it. He said, “I did more than teach you math.”

EB: Ha! That’s so hard though. You always have to flatten people to make them fit in a piece of nonfiction. If you had tried to write about every thing about your parents and about Patrick, your book would have been thousands of pages long. It’s never the full story.

MK: Nope. Never the full story. What you said about power is interesting, because I think those two scenes you mentioned mark a progression. In the first, my parents have the power—they have this persistent control over my self-worth. I think loving them means obeying them, because that’s the equation they’ve taught me. But by the second scene, once my parents have started to lose control—and once I realize I can observe them clearly—I gain power.

EB: What about writing about Patrick? When you publish that first essay about him in The New York Times Magazine, the essay that inspired the whole book, you describe that experience by saying there was “a strange, sudden, unexpected opposition between writing and caring… my act of publishing seemed to have undermined my sincerity.” Can you talk more about that?

MK: It was a hard transition to think of myself as a writer. Self-righteous activists tend to think writers are useless, and I tended towards that binary. But as I grew older, I started to understand that having a binary like that is not useful—a person can be engaged in many different ways. But writing about Patrick especially was hard to think about, because it doesn’t seem right to try to rationalize it.

EB: Because you were his teacher? Because you were supposed to protect him?

MK: I don’t know. I really don’t know what gives a person a right to write about personal details about another’s life. There are obvious utilitarian justifications—this story will get people to view a “violent offender” in a human way, it will make them take an interest in teaching, in building relationships with different people. But I don’t know how to weigh all that against a person feeling that their privacy is being intruded on. Patrick is a really private person. He has repeatedly said he wants to share his story, and I want to take that on face value, but I also know that he feels so indebted to me—for teaching him, for taking interest in him—that he would never refuse me permission.

I was listening to a Longform podcast where Alex Kotlowitz was talking about sharing royalties with subjects. He mentioned that he called up three people—two writers and a filmmaker—to ask them what they thought. And they all gave totally different answers. One writer said no—he never shares royalties. The filmmaker said yes, compensating is part of the doc world. And the third said something like, “You’ve got to wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, and do what you’re comfortable with.” I think that’s right; I couldn’t imagine not sharing, since I tell his story. I shared my royalties with Patrick and also used them to set up a college fund for his family.

EB: Wow. I had never even considered how to handle advances and royalties. Writing about other people is so complicated. Is that what you find most challenging about nonfiction?

MK: Oh, gosh. Definitely that the person exists and might read it and that you have to honor and do justice to that person. I’m really jealous of fiction writers and poets and historians—because the people they write about are hidden or dead. My husband is a historian, and I always think how great, no one will talk back to you!

I also find it hard to define myself exclusively as a writer. So many of the themes of my work are about living ethically, being out in life, creating relationships—and writing demands the opposite. It requires you to be able to close the door. And there is something profound about how if you are writing nonfiction about poverty and inequality and ethics, your door shouldn’t be closed. It feels confusing to me. I’m sure there are writers out there who are also activists who have figured out the balance, but I haven’t yet.

EB: Closing the door is weird. In a class I’m teaching right now, someone asked recently about how, if you are writing memoir, but you’re also obviously still living your life, where do you cut the story off? How do you end it? Because your book has aesthetic closure, but also your readers know that you still exist, Patrick still exists, you’re both still living your lives and trying to make it and the story is still evolving and changing. It won’t actually end until one or both of you is, well, dead.

MK: That Patrick still exists is the most important part of the story. That’s what makes nonfiction so special. But also hard. I wanted to end the book on a note of both realism and hope. Once he got out of prison, it was excruciating for him to find a job, to readjust—the system makes it brutal. But I wanted also to emphasize this memory of what he could have, which speaks to who he could be.

I was so worried when I was writing that it seemed melodramatic, especially the parts about being torn about whether to leave Helena. But the actual sentiment turned out to be absolutely accurate. A person does so much more when they stay in a rural place, and so much of the story of the Delta is people with means leaving.

EB: Well, on the flip side, what do you find rewarding about writing nonfiction? Maybe nothing is rewarding because you don’t want to write nonfiction anymore?

MK: [laughing]

EB: Anything?

MK: I feel like writing has affected every step, every choice I’ve made. The law school writing class, where I first wrote an essay about Patrick, made me think about him and remember him. And if I hadn’t thought about and remembered him, I wouldn’t have gone back. Writing about people makes you more compassionate about them, and that’s rewarding. It pushes us to be more ethical, alert, active.

I went to Arkansas and Mississippi for a book tour, and the reactions to the book there were so different from on the East or West Coast. People there saw Reading with Patrick as a call to action. It inspired them to get into literacy work, or research how to become involved. Writing nonfiction gives you the sense that there are real, pulsing people out there.

EB: I like that. I like feeling that nonfiction is a web that connections people.

MK: That’s beautiful. Nonfiction helps people realize and become more aware of being part of a web of humanity, whereas with fiction, you feel a little safer. My mom says she doesn’t like to read nonfiction because it’s depressing; she doesn’t want to know about real “depressing things.” She says that fiction can be depressing, but it’s “made up.”

EB: I mean, in grad school, my nonfiction cohort and I used to be total jerks about how fiction writing seemed to safe and easy, to just hide behind the fact that this is all made up, that it takes more guts to say this really happened and these are the real names. But I don’t think that’s fair anymore, because fiction can examine real world issues too, and also, when I interviewed Virgie Tovar last year, she said how, for her, writing fiction actually feels more vulnerable, because it’s putting all her deepest thoughts and desires out there on the page, and you end up in your “weakest, scariest place.” In a way, with nonfiction, you can hide yourself behind the facts.

MK: I feel so much admiration for anyone who writes nonfiction about personal stuff, anyone who exposes themselves to criticism. Right now, with Reading with Patrick out, I feel so exposed. Everyone knows all this stuff about me, stuff I did. With memoir, you open yourself up to judgment.

EB: Yeah, so often critique of nonfiction feels like a critique of you as a person and your life choices.

MK: When I comment on people’s nonfiction, I am so careful about how I phrase criticism. Saying I know you’re not the type of person who would say this, but in this piece it might come across that…

EB: Right! “The narrator doesn’t seem to know what she wants in this piece” as opposed to “E.B. doesn’t seem to know what she wants in life.”

MK: The narrator! Exactly!

EB: Finally, do you have a favorite passage of nonfiction by a non-man?

Here’s Larissa MacFarquhar’s opening to her book Strangers Drowning. She’s a master of tone and clarity.

I started writing this book because I was troubled by something I didn’t understand: why don’t most of us give more than we do? It’s strange that we don’t, because, as everybody knows, giving makes you happy. Giving something away will often make you happier than keeping it. So why don’t we give more?

The usual answer is: we’re human. We’re weak-willed, we’re selfish, we like our stuff, we’re anxious, we feel we don’t have enough to spare for other people. All that is true, of course. But I don’t think it’s the whole story. Another reason is that the need of the world seems infinite, so to open your mind to it is overwhelming: it can seem hopeless to try to do anything about it, or that to make any kind of serious attempt would involve a frightening amount of sacrifice.

But some people do try to do something serious, something big, about that infinite need. They give their whole lives to a moral purpose. Why? And how? Are they different from the rest of us? Do they feel need more vividly or urgently? Or are they ordinary humans, just as we are, only somehow less constricted by the tangle of convention and uncertainty and inertia and optimism that confines most of us to familiar paths?

This book is about these people.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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