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Lingering thoughts on the Three Books

This year, all Stanford freshmen read novels focusing on the themes of globality and migration (courtesy of L.A. Cicero).

In honor of the Three Books for 2018 — Chang-rae Lee’s “Native Speaker,” Edwidge Danticat’s “Brother, I’m Dying” and Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World” — Reads beat writers from the Class of 2022 offer their personal reflections from their reading experiences.

Olivia Manes, Contributing Writer (omanes ‘at’ stanford.edu)

There are few experiences in this world that can unite people as intimately as sharing a book can. Through the Three Books Program, Stanford has created a shared community of readers in the Class of 2022 who have come into contact with some of the same ideas, struggles and experiences.

That’s not to say we all interpreted them the same way. The immense diversity represented in this year’s class is also demonstrative of our ability to generate discourse on complex issues of issues of race and identity.

In “Signs Preceding the End of the World,” “Native Speaker”and “Brother, I’m Dying,” the characters are all trapped in a purgatory of sorts between two worlds. They all bring into question the validity of the “American Dream,” and they certainly made me consider my own position of privilege in not having to hide or trade off certain aspects of my identity in order to fit into my community.

And as we transition into life at Stanford, the Three Books serve as reminders of the conflict that often arises from our varying origins. I think they should at the very least humble us into recognizing the reality that no one’s story is ever truly linear — and no migration, transition or journey is ever truly absolute.

Sofia Schlozman, Contributing Writer (sschloz ‘at’ stanford.edu)

When I mentioned the Three Books program to friends attending different colleges, many of them thought that reading three books over the summer would be too much work. I remember considering the theme of this year’s readings — Globality and Migration — and thinking that I would need to read one hundred stories before I could begin to understand the complex issues at hand.

I spent the entirety of my childhood in one town. I have never questioned where to call home, and I have never felt unwelcome in the place I am living. I know that most people are not so lucky, but in my hometown, discussions about immigrant experience just didn’t exist.

The three narratives presented in this year’s books offered me a powerful glimpse into the challenges of straddling two cultures: the pain of family separation, the insecurity of assimilating with an unfamiliar culture and the guilt of potentially abandoning one’s heritage.  The books were heavy and emotional, and at times I struggled to get through each page, questioning how I could relate to characters whose lives were profoundly different from my own. When I walked out of the Three Books discussion, I was reminded that literature is as much about education as it is about entertainment.

These books were not easy or fun for me to read, but they introduced me to diversity that I had not before experienced, and, ultimately, I think that’s far more powerful.

Sarah Kim, Contributing Writer (Sarah Kim at skim22 ‘at’ stanford.edu)

Here’s a concept: summer homework that’s actually enjoyable. When my Three Books arrived in the mail, I eagerly tore open the heavy package, reveling in the feel of the pristine covers and that new book smell. I half-expected worksheets or a test date to go along with the books, but they arrived with no strings attached, a token of good faith. I was even more surprised to see a man who looked suspiciously like my uncle on the cover of “Native Speaker” by Chang-rae Lee. As I stared at the cover, it struck me that I had never before read a book featuring a South Korean protagonist. It was like a quiet message from Stanford saying, “You belong.” Although I don’t speak much Korean, I enjoyed picking up certain phrases throughout the book; admittedly, they were mostly just the names of food.

Likewise, “Brother, I’m Dying” and “Signs Preceding the End of the World” were both as heartbreaking and intriguing as their titles suggest. As a whole set, the Three Books gave me a glimpse of the diversity at Stanford and reassured me that I had a place there. I’ll fondly remember reading them as my favorite summer homework and as one of the rare instances of reading a book from Stanford and not having to worry about the subsequent midterm.

Eyup Eren Yurek, Contributing Writer (eeyurek ‘at’ stanford.edu)

The Three Books have guided me in my transition from Istanbul to the United States. While reading them in Istanbul, they reminded me of what to carry, what to leave behind and what awaits me. “Signs Preceding the End of the World” told me to look back at Istanbul and carry the stories of thousands of years of culture in my heart even as I journeyed to the United States. The intimate portrayal of Danticat and her family’s life in “Brother, I’m Dying” whispered to me that I shouldn’t forget my family. Via Henry Park, Chang-Rae Lee reminded me of the struggles that awaited, and still await me, in my interactions at Stanford and in the United States.

Even though I don’t identify with any of the specific nationalities or ethnicities of these writers and their characters, their stories still reached me. In this way, the stories transcend the identities of the authors and characters and become universal. The portrayal of the immigrant as an individual human being, rather than as a statistic in a large-numbered and diverse group, allows such universality.

Ekalan Hou, Contributing Writer (ekalan ‘at’ stanford.edu)

When I read Chang-Rae Lee’s “Native Speaker,” I could not help but notice the parallelism between the novel and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Henry Park, like Nick Carraway, is an explorer of a world foreign to him and a witness to the downfall of John Kwang. Similarly, John Kwang, like Jay Gatsby, is a charismatic and successful man whose roots ultimately render him an “Other” in society. The intertextuality speaks to immigrants’ tragic pursuit of the American dream: they will always remain strangers in their country and “false speakers” of their “mother” tongue.

However, as a reader, I am compelled to contemplate my complicity with the colonialist attitude in literary analysis. When I examine the novel through a strictly Western lens and compare it to the American literary canon, I strip “Native Speaker” of its originality and liberty, which betrays the American spirit itself. I am confronted with the limitations of my readings and have come to realize the significance of establishing immigrant literature as a freestanding genre.

Lee’s “Native Speaker,” Danticat’s “Brother, I’m Dying,” and Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World” all combine elements from the authors’ ethnic origins and the place that they currently call home — the United States. These stories voice the complex identities that come from combining two cultures and manifest the literary manifestations of the ambiguities associated with border crossing. Their works give flight to the writings of future generations of immigrants, whose words of estrangement or belonging will radiate from them, phosphorescent.

Carly Taylor, Contributing Writer (carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu)

Through my transition to life at Stanford, I carry with me ideas from the Three Books, which resonate freshly and immediately in my own experience.

I think back to Makina’s bicultural and bilingualism, and how this left her self-perception fractured. I too feel like I’ve entered into a new world and left my old one behind, and it’s a challenge to overcome feeling like an outsider in this new place.

I think back to Henry Park’s cultural and emotional alienation from his family and his society. I feel a disconnect from the culture I left behind in my own state, but I’m also still trying to find the balance of retaining the parts from both worlds that define me.

I think back to how Danticat’s life was shaped by familial and historical forces out of her control, and the way she managed to retrospectively distill them into a deeply powerful narrative. Among my new peers, I look back on where I came from, and wonder how I can also piece my story together into something at once cohesive, interesting and genuine.

The Three Books extend Globality and Migration to universally important reflections upon the human experience itself – about self-perception, identity and, ultimately, being.

Contact Reads beat desk editor Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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