Michelle Kuo is the author of Reading with Patrick, a memoir of her literary friendship with a student in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and had worked as an immigrants’ rights lawyer in the Fruitvale District of Oakland, California.
Following is the full transcript of her TED Talk titled “The Healing Power of Reading”. This talk was given at a TEDxTaipei event in September 2018.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Healing Power of Reading by Michelle Kuo
Michelle Kuo – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
I want to talk today about how reading can change our lives and about the limits of that change.
I want to talk to you about how reading can give us a shareable world of powerful human connection but also about how that connection is always partial, how reading is ultimately a lonely idiosyncratic undertaking.
The writer who changed my life was the great African American novelist James Baldwin. When I was growing up in Western Michigan in the 1980s, there weren’t many Asian American writers interested in social change. And so I think I turned to James Baldwin as a way to fill this void, as a way to feel racially conscious.
But perhaps because I knew I wasn’t myself African American, I also felt challenged and indicted by his words, especially these words.
“There are liberals who have all the proper attitudes but no real convictions. When the chips are down and you somehow expect them to deliver they’re somehow not there.”
They’re somehow not there.
I took those words very literally: Where should I put myself?
I went to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of the United States. This is a place shaped by a powerful history. In the 1960s, African Americans risked their lives to fight for education, to fight for their right to vote. I wanted to be a part of that change to help young teenagers graduate and go to college.
When I got to the Mississippi Delta, it was a place that was still poor, still segregated, still dramatically in need of change. My school, where I was placed, had no library, no guidance counselor but it did have a police officer. Half the teachers were substitutes. And when students got into fights, the school would send them to the local County Jail.
This is a school where I met Patrick. He was 15 and held back twice. He was in the eighth grade. He was quiet, introspective like he was always in deep thought. And he hated seeing other people fight. I saw him once jumped between two girls when they got into a fight and he got himself knocked to the ground.
Patrick had just one problem: he wouldn’t come to school. He said that sometimes school was just too depressing because people were always fighting and teachers were quitting. And also his mother worked two jobs and was just too tired to make him come.
So I made it my job to get him to come to school. And because I was crazy and 22 and zealously optimistic, my strategy was just to show up at his house and say, “Hey, why don’t you come to school?”
And the strategy actually worked. He started to come to school every day. And he started to flourish in my class. He was writing poetry. He was reading books. He was coming to school every day.
Around the same time that I had figured out how to connect to Patrick, I got into law school at Harvard. I once again faced this question: where should I put myself? Where do I put my body?
And I thought to myself that the Mississippi Delta was a place where people with money, people with opportunity, those people leave. And the people who stay behind are the people who don’t have the chance to leave. I didn’t want to be a person who left. I wanted to be a person who stayed.
On the other hand, I was lonely and tired. And so I convinced myself that I could do more change on a larger scale if I had a prestigious law degree. Still I left.
Three years later, when I was about to graduate from law school, my friend called me and told me that Patrick had got into a fight and killed someone. I was devastated. Part of me didn’t believe it, but part of me also knew that it was true.
I flew down to see Patrick. I visited him in jail. And he told me that it was true that he had killed someone and he didn’t want to talk more about it.
I asked him what had happened with school. And he said he had dropped out the year after I left. And then he wanted to tell me something else. He looked down and he said that he had had a baby daughter who was just born and he felt like he had let her down.
That was it. Our conversation was rushed and awkward.
When I stepped outside the jail, a voice inside me said “Come back. If you don’t come back now, you’ll never come back.”
So I graduated from law school and I went back and went back to see Patrick and went back to see if I could help him with his legal case. And this time when I saw him a second time, I had — I thought I had this great idea. I said “Hey Patrick, why don’t you write a letter to your daughter so that you can keep her on your mind.”
And I handed him a pen and a piece of paper and he started to write. But what I saw at the paper that he handed back to me, I was shocked. I didn’t recognize his handwriting. He had made simple spelling mistakes and I thought to myself that as a teacher I knew that a student could dramatically improve in a very quick amount of time. But I never thought that a student could dramatically regress.
What even pained me more was seeing what he had written to his daughter. He had written “I’m sorry for my mistakes. I’m sorry for not being there for you.” And this was all he felt he had to say to her.
And I asked myself: How can I convince him that he has more to say, parts of himself that he doesn’t need to apologize for? I wanted him to feel that he had something worthwhile to share with his daughter.
For every day, the next seven months I visited and brought books. My tote bag became a little library. I brought James Baldwin. I brought Walt Whitman, CS Lewis. I brought guidebooks to trees, to birds and what would become his favorite book: the dictionary.
On some days, we would sit in ours for silence, both of us reading and on other days, we would read together. We would read poetry. We started by reading haikus — hundreds of haikus, a deceptively simple masterpiece. And I would ask him share with me your favorite haikus and here — some of them are quite funny.
So there’s this — Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually.
And this — Napped half the day; no one punished me!
And this gorgeous one which is about the first day of snow falling: Deer licking. First frost. From each other’s coats.
There’s something mysterious and gorgeous just about the way a poem looks. The empty space is as important as the words themselves.
We read this poem by W. S. Merwin which he wrote after he saw his wife working in the garden and realized that they would spend the rest of their lives together:
“Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself”
I asked Patrick what his favorite line was, and he said we will be no older than we ever were. He said I reminded him of a place where time just stops, where time doesn’t matter anymore. And I asked him if he had a place like that where time lasts forever. And he said my mother.
When you read up home alongside someone else, the poem changes in meaning, because it becomes personal to that person; it becomes personal to you.
We then read books — we read so many books. We read the memoir of Frederick Douglass, an American slave who taught himself to read and write and who escaped to freedom, because of his literacy. I had grown up thinking of Frederick Douglass as a hero and I thought of this story as one of uplift and hope.
But this book put Patrick in a kind of panic. He fixated on a story Douglass told of how over Christmas, masters give slaves gin as a way to prove to them that they can’t handle freedom, because slaves would be stumbling on the fields.
Patrick said he related to this. He said that there are people in jail who like slaves don’t want to think about their condition, because it’s too painful, too painful to think about their past, too painful to think about how far we have to go.
His favorite line was this line: “Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.”
Patrick said that Douglass was brave to right to keep thinking, but Patrick would never know how much he seemed like Douglass to me, how he kept reading even though it put him in a panic. He finished the book before I did. Reading it in a concrete stairway with no light.
And then we went on to read one of my favorite books: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which is an extended letter from a father to his son. He loved this line: “I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.”
Something about this language: its love, its longing, its voice rekindled Patrick’s desire to write and he would fill notebooks upon notebooks of letter — with letters to his daughter. And these beautiful intricate letters he would imagine, him and his daughter going canoeing down the Mississippi River. He would imagine them finding a mountain stream with perfectly clear water.
As I watched Patrick write, I thought to myself, and I now ask all of you how many of you have written a letter to somebody you feel you have let down? It is just much easier to put those people out of your mind. But Patrick showed up every day facing his daughter, holding himself accountable her, word by word with intense concentration.
I wanted in my own life to put myself at risk in that way, because that risk reveals the strength of one’s heart.
Let me take a step back and just ask an uncomfortable question: Who am I to tell this story? Isn’t this Patrick story? Patrick is the one who lived with this pain and I have never been hungry a day in my life.
I thought about this question a lot but I what I want to say is that the story is not just about Patrick. It’s about us. It’s about the inequality between us, the world of plenty that Patrick and his parents and his grandparents have been shut out of. In this story, I represent that world of plenty, and in telling this story I didn’t want to hide myself, hide the power that I do have.
And telling the story, I wanted to expose that power and then to ask how do we diminish the distance between us? Reading is one way to close that distance. It gives us a quiet universe that we can share together, that we can share in equally.
You’re probably wondering now what happened to Patrick? Did reading save his life? It did and it didn’t.
When Patrick got out of prison, his journey was excruciating. Employers turned him away because of his record. His best friend, his mother, died at age 43 from heart disease and diabetes. He’s been homeless; he’s been hungry.
So people say a lot of things about reading that feel exaggerated to me. Being literate didn’t stop him for being discriminated against. It didn’t stop his mother from dying.
So what can reading do? I have a few answers to end with today.
Reading charged his inner life with mystery, with imagination, with beauty. Reading gave him images; they gave him joy – mountain, ocean, deer, frost – words that taste of a free natural world.
Reading gave him a language for what he had lost, how precious are these lines from the poet Derek Walcott. Patrick memorized this poem:
“Days I have held,
days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.”
Reading taught him his own courage. Remember that he kept reading Frederick Douglass even though it was painful. He kept being conscious even though being conscious hurts.
Reading is a form of thinking. That’s why it’s difficult to read, because we have to think. And Patrick chose to think rather than to not think.
And last, reading gave him a language to speak to his daughter. Reading inspired him to want to write. The link between reading and writing is so powerful. When we begin to read, we begin to find the words and he found the words to imagine the two of them together. He found the words to tell her how much he loved her.
Reading also changed our relationship with each other. It gave us an occasion for intimacy to see beyond our points of view. And reading took an unequal relationship and gave us a momentary equality.
When you meet somebody as a reader, you meet him for the first time newly, freshly. There is no way you can know what his favorite line will be, what memories and private griefs he has. And you face the ultimate privacy of his inner life and then you start to wonder well what is my inner life made of? What do I have that’s worthwhile to share with another?
I want to close on some of my favorite lines from Patrick’s letters to his daughter:
The river is shadowy in some places
but the light shines through the cracks of trees.
On some branches hang plenty of mulberries.
You stretch your arm straight out to grab some.
And this lovely letter where he writes: Close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the words. I know this poem by heart and I would like you to know it too.
Thank you so much everyone.