Michelle Kuo’s ‘Reading with Patrick’ captures experience teaching in Arkansas Delta

Posted on Sep 28 2017 - 8:00am by Asia Harden

Author Michelle Kuo will discuss her latest book, “Reading With Patrick,” at 6 p.m. Thursday on Thacker Mountain Radio.

The book is a memoir about Kuo’s experience going to the Arkansas Delta to teach at an alternative school.

michelle kuo

Michelle Kuo with Patrick Browning. (Photo courtesy: The Times)

As a 22-year-old English teacher, she found herself drawn in particular to Patrick, one of her students. She strongly recalls the 15-year-old’s thoughtfulness and desire to read among the many students in Helena who “craved having books and quiet reading time.”

Not soon after bonding with Patrick, outside pressures and expectations emerged. Kuo found herself faced with the decision of whether to leave the Arkansas Delta for the life of structure and financial security that was expected of her. When making this decision, Kuo found herself wondering what would happen to kids like Patrick, who had limited opportunities and were desperately “craving knowledge.”

Ultimately, she left, only to later return to Arkansas after hearing the news that her beloved student Patrick had been arrested and imprisoned for murder.

The Arkansas Delta is a focal point in the novel not only for its role as the setting but also because of its rich history surrounding race and literacy and what that means in America today.

Kuo said the book is  “about a lot of issues that are really timely today, race and literacy.”

“The heart of the book is really about coming back to the Delta,” she said.

In regards to writing the novel, Kuo said, “I think I felt really scared about writing about a community that I’m not from. You don’t want to portray the community wrongly or tell other people’s stories.”

Despite these reservations, Kuo said she found it within herself to tell a story she felt was worthy of sharing. She recalled the story being very emotional for her to write, and she stressed the importance of “putting Helena on the map.”

“If I could capture the history and give people a sense of humanity and dignity, then maybe it’s not bad that I’m not from there,” she said.

Kuo’s love for books goes beyond the town of Helena. She has found herself on the shelves of Square Books many times and is excited to be returning for today’s event.

“I’m really excited about coming to Oxford. When I was teaching in Helena, every once in a while, I would make it a special treat to go to Oxford to go to Square Books,” Kuo said. “It was like a haven for me because it was so beautiful and quiet, and there was no bookstore in Helena. I longed for a bookstore in Helena, so I’m really excited.”

Kuo is not the only one excited for her arrival. The staff of Square Books is also delighted to have her coming to discuss “Reading with Patrick.”

“We are very excited to have her here, and we’re looking forward to having her on Thacker Mountain Radio,” Lyn Roberts, manager of Square Books, said.

Through her excitement, Kuo expressed the importance of writing a meaningful story with which both she and her readers can connect. 

“Figuring out what stories you want to tell is also a significant part of your writing journey,” she said. “I hope that when people read the book, they think of the idea that anybody is capable of committing an act of violence if they are put in a different situation.”

In her strides to convey empathy and love, Kuo explained that “Reading with Patrick” is ultimately a story about hope.