#108 Michelle Kuo
Michelle Kuo got a call one day, telling her that her favorite student had been arrested.
After college, Michelle Kuo joined Teach for America and moved to the Arkansas Delta. She taught in a school that focused on teaching underserved youth who had been expelled from other schools. Her time there was transformative, both for Michelle and her students. But at the end of her term at Teach for America, she moved away to attend Harvard. Several years later, she got the call that Patrick, one of her most transformed students, had gotten in a fight outside his home and someone had been killed in the fray.
Michelle set aside a new job to return to Arkansas and spend time with Patrick during visitation hours and continue teaching him as he awaited trial. She wrote Reading With Patrick about this experience.
This book is moving, riveting, and essential all at once. It kept me up at night and I'm still thinking about it months after reading Michelle and Patrick's story. There is still so much work to be done in the American South to improve the lives of so many who live there. Writing about big issues takes courage and integrity, qualities Michelle exemplifies. But beyond these issues that need to be top of mind for everyone, there is the process of writing about issues, writing about real people, and writing about actual lives. We grapple with these topics in this conversation and, while I know there is so much more to say on these topics, anyone who is considering writing a book relating to social justice or about people in their lives will get a healthy primer on both topics in this episode. It's one I know I will return to again for inspiration and guidance from Michelle, who is a total rock star and a philosopher all wrapped up in one.
You're going to love her. Happy listening!
Transcript of Episode 108 with Michelle Kuo:
Caroline: 00:00 Hi Michelle, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Michelle: 00:03 Thank you, Caroline. I'm totally honored. I've been listening to your show to get ready and I really love your conversations.
Caroline: 00:13 Thank you so much. That's, that's amazing. I think we'll have a mutual love fest here because I was up really late the other night. I could not stop reading your book. I was determined. I'm finishing it tonight. My husband asked, "how late were you up last night?" I was like, I could not stop reading this book.
Michelle: 00:33 That's the nicest thing you can say to a writer, thank you. We're always worried that somebody just couldn't finish it, you know, but they're too polite to tell you.
Caroline: 00:42 Oh no, no, no. I was in it. I was in it to win it with this one. I think maybe what we could start with is that this is not a nonfiction book that was written in six months. This book was clearly a chronicle of your relationship with Patrick. Did you have a sense at the beginning, when you wrote an article for the New York Times opinion page, a good chunk of the way through of your time teaching in the delta and then came back to it later that it would be a book. From the beginning of your teaching experience, did you imagine that you'd write a book about the process?
Michelle: 01:25 Never. I never thought I would write a book about it. Not the first time I was in Arkansas when I was 22 and I'm really glad that I didn't. I think there's something about knowing that you're writing or that you're a writer, that sometimes distances distances you from the experience because you interrupt the emotional experience with, "I need to write this down" or "I need to remember this" and I'm grateful that I just was in it as you put it. I just felt called to be there and it was much later, when I found out that this very beloved student of mine had gotten arrested and had killed somebody, that I felt called to write just because I think you write when you feel confused, when you feel disordered, when you don't have a sense of why something happened. And as I wrote, I thought to myself, why was I writing about this student as if he had died – as if he doesn't exist anymore? I need to be a part of his life again. And so in that sense, writing did exactly the most moral thing it can do, which is to make you more alert and more ethical. I think ethical questions are raised later on when the person is alive and you're writing. But in those first two moments of teaching, no, I wasn't aware that I was going to write about it and I think I'm glad about that.
Speaker 1: 03:06 Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it really does change things to think, "this might be a big deal." I find myself sometimes having this experience – like if you've seen the movie Stranger than Fiction where Emma Thompson is narrating– I feel like it starts out "and that was the point when she knew it was all different" and I think, no, God, not that the narration voice, it's going to screw everything up.
Michelle: 03:32 You're totally right. There's something about that narration voice that interrupts the experience. It has this inescapable falsity. Yeah. I think you want people when they go into intense experiences to not have any expectations of doing anything except being fully present in the moment. That's why sometimes we have to take walks without our notebooks and that's why we come up with ideas in the shower.
Caroline: 03:32 Yes.
Michelle: 04:04 Because we're unselfconscious we're not, we're not trying to, we're not grasping at anything. We're just kind of relaxing into our unconscious selves.
Caroline: 04:14 So you started out wanting to teach, so you went to the Delta to do Teach for teach for America and then ended up going to law school because you wanted to work to change and help change the system. And you're still working as a lawyer, correct?
Michelle: 04:29 Yes. Well I'm teaching law and society classes at college, so I'm not practicing right now, but I feel like I'm living in the law all the time.
Caroline: 04:41 I love this kind of trajectory because I think a lot of people think that the way you have to write –more so in fiction than nonfiction– is that you have to get some sort of degree in writing specifically in order to end up with a published book. And I love stories that bust that myth and there are a disproportionate number I think of lawyers who end up writing books. And I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how that happens, because in this case you are writing about something that's dear to you and it has informed your law career. But what do you think it is about being a lawyer and going through that kind of training that that prepares you for writing a book?
Michelle: 05:17 That's a great question. First of all, I totally agree with what you just said about how people do think they have to have some kind of degree in writing and I don't. I didn't get an MFA. I have a lot of friends who did and had incredible experiences, but I didn't get an MFA. I didn't major in writing creative writing and I didn't think of myself as a writer until I started really writing this book, which took many, many years. Legal training I think made me hyper-aware of how important it was to have a really precise grasp of the facts. Legal writing itself outside of the fact sections and opinions sections in legal briefs is usually painful to read. Tt's rare that you have a legal opinion where the judge is a clear writer who intends to reach a larger audience. Sometimes you feel that lawyers and judges even revel in being difficult and technical and obscure as if to say "Stay out of my profession, unless you can pay for $100,000 and be in debt from your law school tuition." So I always told my students: remember, remember that poor people couldn't read the decisions and Latin. Remember that it's purposely written tactically to keep you out. And I think maybe the desire to write about incarceration, about crime, about things related to law was a desire to make it very accessible and common sensical and not scary for the average person who might think, "oh, I can't understand any of this legal stuff unless I go to law school." So, I guess my answer is twofold: One is that I think legal stuff is really well written when they write about the facts. Like what happened one day. There's never an unsentimental word. But on the other hand, when it's explaining why it came to its legal result, usually it's written in this really exclusive difficult way that I think is meant to keep out the ordinary person. And maybe I was wanting to write for the ordinary person.
Caroline: 07:52 I think also the whole story, something that you illustrated really, really beautifully was this Frederick Douglass narrative of people leaving the South as soon as they had the opportunity to, and that you wanted to highlight the fact that this was in some ways a position of privilege. That anyone who had the opportunity to leave was able to do so and maybe have a different story, but there were a lot of people for whom that was impossible and that what we're seeing today with people's situations is that it's generations of not having the ability to move past what happened and how that has really impacted society. And it's not something that we can just say, "oh yeah, that was a long time ago." There's still impact now. And I think that that's an important part of the narrative. I'm wondering if you can speak to that a little bit?
Michelle: 08:45 Yes. I think one of the most devastating things to me about living in the rural south is how clearly there is a divide between those who can leave and those who stay behind. You see that in 2018, the people who leave town leave for jobs go to the city – to Little Rock, Memphis, Dallas, Atlanta. They go to college outside the small towns of Helena, where I was. And the students who were my students are the descendants of people who couldn't leave, who didn't leave. And that's really devastating to me because migration is a form of freedom. To be able to leave, to search for better circumstances. That is one definition of freedom. I think what a lot of our narrative is of the South today, of the civil rights narrative primarily is, it's one of progress where we used to have Jim Crow, but we no longer do. We used to have black and white water fountains, but we no longer do. We used to have violence of white mobs against black people in the south. We no longer do. And I think that's the kind of narrative that had drawn me to the South. And what shook me when I was there was how poisonous that narrative is, that assumption that things have gotten better, that things must get better. I think we have to have hope. You have to have belief in the possibility of change, but we also have to have a very clear picture that half of African American children in the Mississippi Delta are food insecure, which is a euphemism for they're hungry. We have to be really clear eyed about the fact that the majority of kids are not reading at their school level. And yet Frederick Douglass talked about literacy as being the most clear form of freedom. And when we think about the rural South today, we tend not to look to confront squarely the limitations of the successes of the civil rights movement right now.
Caroline: 11:25 I think that's really important. I think that was something that really struck me in the book is that it's this sort of – I like how you call it a poisonous narrative– that is almost like a bedtime story that we tell ourselves. "We're in a better situation now. Everything is so much better." But yet these things are happening and there's so much more to a story, like Patrick's: of being confused, of trying to protect his sister. There's so much more in that story of what happened to him on a bad night. I loved how you at one point fantasize about how things might have gone completely differently with a very minor shift in circumstances. In some ways it looks to me like a question of norms, like what people think is normal to happen. When people are in such difficult circumstances and don't see other options, how difficult it is to even imagine your way out of that kind of situation.
Michelle: 12:44 I think that's how to imagine yourself out – that's what hope is right? To be able to imagine yourself out. So what you're really saying is that there is a norm of hopelessness. A norm of not expecting to be in a different situation. To live in a city that has jobs, to complete high school, complete college, to own your own business, which is what Patrick wanted. That's pretty devastating. And yes, I think it is about norms. I think it's about the low, low expectations you have for your own success. You need to have people in your life who have made it, I think, to have that expectation. And certainly Patrick didn't have anybody in his family who had the kind of life that he did occasionally dare to dream about, which would be to own his own mechanic business or to have his own house or to complete college. He didn't know one person who looked like him who had that.
Caroline: 14:01 Right. And yet I think the thing that is powerful about the book is the transformation that was able to happen in your relationship with him. That even someone who was dealing with profound challenges in his life and was in a prison was able to completely transform his relationship to reading and was memorizing poems and had completely different handwriting. All of these things just based on time that you spent with him. The question I was left with is how can we create systems where more people are able to spend time with people in these circumstances in such a way that those transformations can be available?
Michelle: 14:46 I think you just nailed it. This is the heart of everything. How do we get more time between people trained to help, whether it's mental health therapists, teachers, social workers, coaches, guidance counselors... How do we get them to be spending more time with those who are most at risk? Those who have experienced trauma, who are at risk of dropping out? There are models for change in school systems and in prisons of targeting those students with increasing instruction, small group instruction, time in schools, increasing resources to get those people – the professional helpers – into the classroom so that it's not one teacher helping 30 people or one program in a prison for 500 people. But all of those things are possible. But you have to have really intentional design on the part of the people in charge and you have to have people in charge who are really listening to community members about what they need. I was just reading, rereading The Prize by Dale Rusikoff, which is just an amazing book. I recommend it to anybody interested in writing and journalism and in education. She was documenting the failure of these higher-ups to really listen to community members about programs that they needed more money for that were working, but they needed more money for and more support and more integration. It's precisely programs that you're talking about. Programs that, for instance, identify children who had parents who were addicts and these counselors were just spending time with them after school and making sure that they had somebody to talk to and it seems so simple. It seems so small, but it means so much to those families, and to those kids.
Caroline: 16:51 That's the real tragedy to me is that it is possible to make such a big difference with such simple assistance and yet in so many circumstances, we, the country as a whole have failed to provide that to so many.
Michelle: 17:21 Yeah. It's just a failure. It's just unforgivable to me. Just how children are screwed over from even before they step into school because the school itself isn't equipped to help them.
Caroline: 17:29 I encourage everybody to read the book because you will get a really good grounding in the sort of issues that we're talking about. And then I will provide links to The Prize in the show notes. I want to ask another question from another angle about the process of creating the book, which is that I hear from writers all the time that a big fear of theirs is writing about the people in their lives. You write about friendships you have, but in particular you write about your relationship with your parents and also your relationship with Patrick, both of which are very charged and meaningful relationships in your life. And so I wondered how you handled the process? You talk a little bit about how Patrick gave permission for you to write about it and how important it was for you to show him the article in the New York Times even before you began the book. But I'm wondering also how it impacted your relationship with your parents to write about that relationship in the book.
Michelle: 18:30 Yeah. Oh Man. Oh my God. I would wake up in a panic every morning because I was writing about real people. So I sympathize with anybody who is just torn about the question, should I write that? Should I write about real people? Should I expose them? And I have no words of comfort. You know, I think the moment you try to rationalize it, you try to defend yourself, just stop, just accept that there is going to be something problematic and morally compromised about it. But I think once you embrace that, you embrace that complexity. You don't try to forgive yourself or exculpate yourself, you can actually relax. It's really contradictory, right? Because we're always seeking to forgive ourselves. And this is a case where I think there was just something wrong. There's something wrong about exposing somebody else to their page. Even if legally they give consent, even if personally you're portraying them as warmly as possible, even if in fact as I did do, I protected some of their secrets, you know, some stuff that I knew they truly wouldn't want out there. And I think also the key is to write as if nobody will see it. As if it will never be published and then to revise and cut later on because it's still a journey to see what you will say to honestly confront yourself through others. And there is no question that, as I wrote about my parents over seven years, I became more forgiving and less hardened towards them. More understanding, more curious of their past, more alert to them, more alert to my own selfishness with them. You know, when you write a scene where you're narrating the flight and you think, "Well, they're obviously wrong," after the end of the three hours. writing you think "oh, okay, maybe I was wrong." Or maybe I was hard or maybe I was actually the arrogant one. It's this contradictory thing where you're guilty for exposing them. But if you're doing it right, if you're truly facing yourself on that page, they will come out of it looking better than you. That's, that's the hope. That's the hope behind writing. And even as I look at older drafts of mine from five years ago that I ditched, I ditched them because the narrator was whiny and self-absorbed and thought that her parents had wronged her. It's not how I justify writing about them, but it's how I understand the writing process. That it is this perpetual kind of cleansing of one's flaws or through exposure of them, through being vulnerable to the idea that you are flawed as a person, you know?
Caroline: 21:56 I think it's, it's interesting because writing about personal experience, it's hard to say which came first. Did the relationship change because you got older or did the relationship change because you were writing about it and then had different insight about it and therefore were able to participate in a different way and then write about it some more in a different way?
Michelle: 22:18 I totally relate, yes. I couldn't have said that better and I don't know which one it is.
Caroline: 22:24 I don't think there's any way to know. It's probably both at the same time because there's no way to do it over without writing about it and see how it was different. We don't have like the Hermione time turner from Harry Potter to do things in parallel and see how they play out differently.
Michelle: 22:24 Oh, Hermione.
Caroline: 22:42 I know. I love her. She's the best.
Michelle: 22:42 She's my favorite.
Caroline: 22:45 Yeah. She's my spirit animal.
Michelle: 22:45 And Neville.
Caroline: 22:45 Oh yes. Neville!
Michelle: 22:45 Hard not to love Neville.
Caroline: 22:54 The thoughtful, nerdy ones are always the best. I think that's something that's, that fascinates me because I think that most people think that "if I write about these people, it's going to hurt them." If I write about the people in my life, they're going to be exposed and feel vulnerable and I think that's what we all worry about. Like almost like writing is a weapon. Whereas I love the way you've just described it, which is that in many ways it may have made your relationship with your parents stronger and it may have given perspective that wouldn't have been available had you not written about them.
Michelle: 23:28 Yeah, I definitely think it gave me perspective on them because I realized as I was writing how little I knew about Taiwan, which is where they're from, how little I knew about their motives for wanting me to get out of Arkansas. I had to find out in order to write it. In terms of like how they actually reacted to the book, my dad read the book – he liked it. His English is pretty good so he could read it. My mother couldn't finish it because she was really sensitive about what I said about her. It's funny, I'm just thinking about it while I'm talking to you. My Dad is a less vulnerable person and he finished it. My mother has always been a vulnerable person. She couldn't finish it. It's like the book didn't change – I don't know what I'm trying to say. The book reflected their reading practices reflected back who they were, but I don't think it changed the relationship as much as I feared that it would. You know, what really happened was that it changed my idea of them through my writing of them.
Caroline: 24:59 I think that's comforting too for anyone thinking about writing about people that the most profound change happened within yourself. I mean, you have to do this with integrity. You can't just smear somebody in a book and then think everything's going to be the same. But I think if you, like you said, if you do this the right way, you're going to take more of the brunt yourself as the writer. If it's a charged relationship, that may transform your relationship to it in the process of writing more so than it changes anything about them.
Michelle: 25:33 Absolutely.I think that's definitely true with my parents. I will say that with Patrick it's a little more loaded because there is a history of a teacher-savior narrative and of the outsider reading about the African American community, so I was super conscious and I'm still anxious about it. I try to resolve this in several ways. For the advance for the book, I've donated it to charity and shared it with his family. I've talked to them about the book. I do think that there is the question of protecting him. Like I didn't use his last name. I use a different last name, but like I said before, I think there is some level of uncomfortable aspect of a writer writing about a subject who is more poor and has fewer resources. I don't have a defense to that. I think we have to look in the mirror at the end of the day and that's it. That's it. I think a person knows if they've done it with financial and moral integrity in terms of how they share the advance and in terms of how they write about the person. But there are no rules. I don't know if that makes sense.
Caroline: 27:19 I think that's both the blessing and the curse of it too, is that there isn't any sort of rule book to follow except your best intentions.Tthat's another thing too, is that in some ways I think that you're somewhat protected from the beginning in terms of writing a book because it's not like making a film where the potential for income is much higher. I don't know anybody who's gotten a $10,000,000 book advance and then has to worry about the ramifications of that, but it is money and you are rewarded for it in other ways. So I think that's a tricky thing to wrestle with.
Michelle: 27:59 Yeah, absolutely.
Caroline: 27:59 Did Patrick read the book?
Michelle: 28:03 He has read parts of the book about his mom. I read a lot of those parts to him, he was really moved by those because he didn't know that his mother had said things about him. Like "I hope he does come home." "I think he was just protecting his sister." "I think he was trying to impress his dad." I think he didn't know his mother and said all that stuff and he also just wanted to hear her voice, which I hope I captured a little bit. So that, that for me was a relief that he liked those parts. He didn't read parts about being in jail too much. I think that felt that a little traumatic, so I didn't force that on him.
Caroline: 28:49 Yeah, you probably don't want to relive that.
Michelle: 28:50 Yeah, exactly.
Caroline: 28:56 What his relationship to the book now? Are you staying in contact with him about it? is, Is there anything you're working on together or what is he doing?
Michelle: 29:05 I know right now he just moved to Little Rock and he's been trying to find work. He joined this formerly incarcerated church group, I think, which has been a source of happiness for him, and I think he sees his daughter regularly who's still in Helena and she's doing really well at the charter school. There is some hope. I try to moderate my own emotions to not get too excited or too dispairing because I went through that rollercoaster and it's not healthy. I try to just go with wherever he is, but he's still searching I think for his place in the world and that's it. That's all.
Caroline: 30:04 Yeah. I think that was really well conveyed that it isn't an easy solution. It's not like one of these movies where the tough, smart spoken teacher comes into the difficult school situation and makes some moving speeches and jumps up on the desk and then everybody is suddenly running their own multimillion dollar businesses coming out of that school. As much as we want it to work that way, we don't get that kind of easy solution to generations of destabilization in a community.
Michelle: 30:43 I know I wanted to write that ending, but that's not the ending. The ending is not finished. It's a story also about how brutal we are to people who come out of prison, we don't have a plan for them. We don't welcome them in. It's a story also about the lack of social services and state services. He has debt from healthcare because he doesn't have healthcare and debt from child support in jail, which just piles up pointlessly. And so he can't open a bank account. I mean it's a story about the failure of society in so many ways. And then it's also a story about a person who is still dealing with his past and is alone and dealing with it, you know.
Caroline: 31:32 If you as a lawyer who have access to thinking about the system could rewrite any portion of the way our social structure works, what do you think would make the biggest difference? If we could change one thing?
Michelle: 31:32 Wow. Well...
Caroline: 31:52 I know just one is tough.
Michelle: 31:55 Just one is really tough, but since I'm really passionate about how to reintegrate prisoners back into society and truly give them the chance that they deserve, they're served their time. I would require all prisons to have education programs and direct connections to employers a year before they're let out. Mm. I would condition the pay of wardens on the recidivism rates of the prisoners so that wardens knew their job was to create prisoners who wouldn't come back, who had a stable life outside. It would be on them to connect employers to prisoners long before the prisoners aren't even going to come out. That's what I would do. I guess that puts a lot of pressure on the prison system and less pressure on the employers. So I guess you would additionally have to incentivize employers to be good citizens. I think just shifting the burden to the actual systems that are supposed to rehabilitate, that are supposed to teach, that are supposed to offer some kind of change would be a huge shift in how we think about crime.
Caroline: 33:28 Exactly. You also talk in the book about disproportionate sentencing given because of the desire to have a source of labor, which I think is something that people may be shocked by reading about, but is an important thing for people to know has happened.
Michelle: 33:28 Yeah, absolutely.
Caroline: 33:48 I think it's one of those things where you look at a system that has so many issues with it and then know, it took us a really long time to get into this mess. It's unfortunate that we can't just leap right out of it really quickly, that it takes longer. And that's the real tragedy as you see people whose lives are at stake as we figure this out.
Michelle: 34:16 And there is there is no intentional design on the part of anybody. Right? That's the public school that Patrick went to, the prison, the county jails that he was a part of. People don't have a plan to help him and support him.
Caroline: 34:36 Right. And he's not alone now. So you've just released this book. I always ask people this question and I always think that they might like throw up in their mouth a little bit. Do you have plans to write more books or is this sort of your book? It doesn't sound like you woke up to the age of five and announced, "one day I will write books. That is my dream." But having written one and written one really beautifully, I have to say, was this something that you felt you got out of your system or are other ideas creeping into your mind as well?
Michelle: 35:13 Okay. Well, I do want to throw up in my mouth.
Caroline: 35:13 I know. I'm sorry.
Michelle: 35:20 No, it's a good question. You know, I always loved reading. I always liked to write, but I always thought of myself as a "useful person". I was an activist, I was a social worker. I worked at a homeless shelter, I was a legal aid lawyer for tenants and workers. I mean, this sounds really morally stupid, but I really aspire to be a saint, like Dorothy Day or Mother Theresa and it's only recently as I've had to speak in public and be a writer-with-a-capital-w that I understood how gendered all of that was the past 10 years. Just like I wanted to be a really good woman. To be a writer was to be selfish or to be spending time with your door closed -on your own work. That's how I viewed that – as a luxury. I didn't give myself permission to do that and what has been amazing in the past three years is I finally forced myself to finish the book, to close my door, to turn in the draft, to accept that it was done to be proud of certain sentences. I understood that I hadn't been giving myself permission to write, you know, I wanted to be good, not to write. And it's a stupid binary – we can be good and write. But it is true that I think it is harder for women to close the door. It's harder for us to not say yes to showing up during an emergency for a friend or at a homeless shelter or just to feel permission to be selfish. And I think to write you do have to be a little selfish. You do have to decide that three hours on writing one sentence was three hours well spent. It is true that men, historically, have had permission to do that.
Caroline: 35:20 Or they haven't felt guilty about it.
Michelle: 37:42 Yeah- feeling guilty is the key thing here. Thanks. So that's a long winded way to say I do want to write more. The well is dry - the story came totally because I had to write it because I would have gone crazy if I didn't write it down. I had to record the extraordinary change that Patrick had made in jail. I had to write about literacy and how it changes your experience of incarceration. It makes you more human. I had to write about my own sense of moral failure, but also what it means to try to create relationships across class and race – that this is something we must do. But now that, that story is written, I want to write more but I don't want to write if I don't have anything to say. So yes, I do want to write, but I'll wait to see what it's about.
Caroline: 38:41 Yeah, I think it's true. When you've spent as many years in the relationship and writing about the relationship as you have with Patrick, I can imagine where you think, "I don't even know where to begin. Do I have to sort of go through a similarly intense experience to justify a book?"
Michelle: 39:02 Exactly. I guess that's the question – what justifies a book for anybody?
Caroline: 39:02 True.
Michelle: 39:07 Maybe we just have to sit down and show up every day and we always have things to say. I mean that's the other thing, especially for the listeners out there who want to write, are afraid to write. Maybe haven't had a degree in writing, you know, there's no wrong way to do that. I was just listening to Marilyn hackers speak about this. She was telling students – the poet, Marilyn Hacker– there is no wrong way to do it. You just start with a page and you have a conversation with yourself and you go from there and you try to do that every day and try to read every day and that's it. That's the formula, if there's any formula at all.
Caroline: 39:51 I love that.
Michelle: 39:52 Yeah.
Caroline: 39:53 Well, I want to thank you so, so much for, for taking time from your very busy schedule to talk about reading with Patrick and about your process of writing it. It's been really wonderful talking to you, Michelle.
Michelle: 40:05 Thank you so much. You've asked such insightful questions. It's such a pleasure.
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