Michelle Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, was an avid young reader, and writes in her new memoir that she felt “summoned” when she read these words from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”
Later, as an idealist recently graduated from Harvard, Ms. Kuo went to rural Arkansas as a Teach for America volunteer. There she became a mentor to Patrick Browning, a struggling 15-year-old student. After two years, Ms. Kuo left Arkansas for law school. Three years after that, she learned that Patrick had been arrested and charged with murder. Feeling both alarmed and guilty, Ms. Kuo returned to continue teaching Patrick while he was in jail, spending seven months visiting him to read literature, poetry and history.
Below, Kuo discusses how letters to a friend put her on track toward writing “Reading With Patrick,” how her role in the book changed over time, how a professional basketball player inspired her and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
When I found out Patrick had been arrested, I was totally shocked and devastated, and flew from Boston to Arkansas to visit him in jail. I started writing these really long letters to my friend. They were my way of sorting out whether I had let Patrick down. Patrick was a student I had poured all these hopes into. I had even made this promise to him — and I’m probably more careful now about the promises I make — that I would stay in Arkansas to watch him graduate. I motivated him, and he started coming to school every day and doing really well. So then I decided to leave Arkansas, which is a place that outsiders who have come in tend to leave. Only the heroes tend to stay.
I have this really spiritual poet friend who told me that all writing has to be contrition. It’s totally worthless if it doesn’t prepare you to embrace and love the world again. That’s really intense, but I think it was true for me. Those letters were really contrition.
I was always anxious about calling it a book, because that makes it feel instrumental, and I didn’t want it to feel like that. So I don’t think I acknowledged that it was a book until now. It’s uncomfortable that there’s a price on it. I don’t want to say defensively to everyone that I’m sharing the royalties with Patrick and his daughter, but I do. Trying to transform these feelings of guilt was all selfishly part of my own spiritual thing — “journey” sounds cheesy, but it was. The book feels too much like an object to capture that journey. It’s just a vessel for contrition. It could have been a song, except I can’t sing.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I really didn’t expect how quick and extraordinary Patrick’s growth would be, without much help at all. I gave him pen and paper, and a lot of books, and a lot of personal attention. When he first started out, his letters to his daughter were just a repeated apology: “I’m sorry I’m not there for you. I’m sorry I messed up.” But by the end of those seven months, he was writing these intricate and complex poems to her. They became prose poems, where he’s picturing her listening to the sound of trees and canoeing down the Mississippi. He would tell her lines of poems he really loved.