One Book Read Discussion Guide | WKCTC

One Book Read Discussion Guide

Early in the introduction Freeman notes that a previous book he published contained some important essays that were written by walkers. He realized getting out of the car and walking neighborhoods provided a different view. Think of two very different neighborhoods in your area. Can you walk the two and note the differences you see? What can you learn about the neighborhoods by walking them that you can’t learn from a car? Or can you live in that area and never enter one or both of those neighborhoods? Do the lives there stay unknown to the broader area population?

Freeman says, “In America today we have come to view inequality as a problem that afflicts only the needy. What a mistake. For it is in sharing that we can alleviate a situation that pains us all.” What are your thoughts on this idea that inequality is not just an issue that affects the needy? Do you agree or disagree? What examples can you think of that illustrate this?

For further reading about Tales of Two Americas:

“A Tale of Two Literary Americas: What a Brilliant Anthology on Inequality Accidentally Reveals about Inequality.” Salon.

Solnit states, “Gentrification can be fatal” (p. 12). How does Solnit’s telling of Nieto’s death illustrate the argument she is making about the impact of gentrification? The subtitle of this book is “Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation.” What is the divide in gentrification? How does it relate to inequality?

Solnit spoke with Nieto’s friend Ely Flores, who had been studying to become a police officer but after Nieto’s killing changed his career path. Flores suggested that Nieto “didn’t see the police as adversaries and thought he [Flores] might instead not have understood that they [the police] were coming for him…not acted according to the rules for men who are considered suspects and menaces in everyday life.” Think about this idea of rules for ways people are supposed to act in certain situations. Do you agree with Flores that there are rules for ways that people are to act, particularly around police? Do rules for how to act exist in other situations? Where/when? Who makes these rules? How do people learn the rules? How does this idea of rules governing how we are to act relate to gentrification?

For further reading on gentrification:

“Health Effects of Gentrification.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Gentrification.” National Geographic.

Consider the numerous images Smith presents in this poem from the narrator’s portrayal of whites to the narrator’s perspective of self and the world: “on the best days, I don’t remember their skin / the kingdom & doom of it,” “band-aids are the color of the ones who make the wound,” “if it was that easy? To just say / i’m done & all the scars turn to ravens,” “America / began when the white people demanded their freedom / from the other white people,” “southern coast of a has been empire,” and “the dust that use to rule us.” How do these images make you feel? Why?

Read the poem “American Arithmetic” by Natalie Diaz (pp. 305-306). Diaz presents a Native American perspective. Both Diaz and Smith capture the impact of being a part of a minoritized group on the human experience in the US. How are the perspectives captured in “American Arithmetic” and “i’m sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think” similar? How are they different?  

For further reading about Danez Smith:

Danez.Smith.Poet., includes videos of Danez sharing other poems.

“Visiting Poets: Danez Smith.” Smith College.

Cisneros captures her youth in Chicago and a sense of not belonging deriving from her keen awareness of the inequality that existed. She writes: “Father said, pointing around our house, ‘Why would you want to leave? You have everything here?’ How could I tell him this was not the everything I’d asked for? I longed for a space all my own to think. Quiet enough to hear my pen move across paper. Affordable but safe. Serene and clean…No mice, or rats, or crispy bugs allowed, ever. A lock on the door. A door, please.” Think about what she longed for. How does that image compare/contrast to what you identify as a standard expectation? What shapes your expectations? What shapes what you actually experience? Does what you want and what you have access to match? What influences the differences?

Cisneros ends the essay with: “For home to be a home, you have to feel that you belong.” What about Chicago made Cisneros feel that she didn’t belong?

For further reading about Cisneros and her essay “Notes of a Native Daughter”:

“Why Sandra Cisneros Split from Chicago.” Chicago

Danticat focuses “Dosas” on Elsie and her complex relationships with her ex-husband Blaise and his girlfriend Olivia—the three creating a love triangle. Ultimately, the story is about caring for other people and capturing the loneliness of living as an immigrant. Elsie must face life’s problems alone in the US as a Haitian immigrant. What does Danticat show readers about the immigrant experience?

For further reading about Edwidge Danticat:

Edwidge Danticat

Russo’s essay asserts his understanding of America’s working class and their feeling of being devalued by people with power in both politics and media. Who is the audience for his essay and what is his purpose? Does this essay demonstrate his understanding of working-class America? Why or why not?

For further reading about Richard Russo:

“An Open Door: A Profile of Richard Russo.” Poets and Writers

“Richard Russo: Acclaimed Novelist & Screenwriter Discusses His Latest Essay on Divisions between People.” Maine Public Radio

This essay captures the experiences of Mexican immigrants working in the fields of the southwest U.S. In this brief essay, Munoz illustrates an immigrant’s experience – from the impact of language barriers to the concept of home. He ends the essay with this idea: “No place is the end if you don’t want it to be. If they work hard, they can leave and go home.” How does this idea capture what Munoz illustrates as the immigrant experience?


Munoz explores his identity by seeking to understand his father’s two generations of experiencing immigrant life. It seems much of the exploration centers on work until Munoz asks his father why he recalled a particular story about a man who knocked on their door when he had nowhere else to go. Munoz says that his father responded, “that the man was afraid and now he [Munoz’s father] was afraid.” Munoz adds, “I had never known my father to be afraid, to be a fearful man, and I told him so.” How does this exchange add another layer to the immigrant experience?

For further reading on Manuel Munoz:

“Manuel Munoz Reads College Students Their Bedtime Story.” The Bradley Scout: Bradley University’s Student Newspaper.

Herrera was the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States and served in this role from 2015-2017.  Discuss the impact of anaphora (For the ones…) at the start of this poem. Who is Herrera potentially referring to at the start of the poem (whose names are on the wall) and at    the end of the poem (who searches for a way out)? Herrera introduces bird imagery into the poem, most heavily in the second half. Examine the use of connotation in this poem—where do you see contrasts? Why? What is the feeling you have after reading this short piece? 

For further reading about Juan Felipe Herrera: 

“The Pen Ten: An Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera” 

“Juan Felipe Herrera Discusses Border Walls and Poetry”

In his 2017 interview with New Limestone Review, literary journal of the University of Kentucky Department of English Master of Fine Arts Program, Offutt notes: “If you’re writing about rural people who don’t have a lot of money, it’s even harder to get in print because the world doesn’t care about those people. I always knew I had to work really hard to make the quality of my  prose strong to offset the bias against my subject matter, my people.” Discuss what we learn about Offutt and “his people” in “Trash Food” that shapes the writer’s approach to the essay and being asked to write it in the first place. Think about the food you eat, have eaten, would prefer to eat. How does food bring people together or separate us? In this essay, Offutt explores  the “deeply flawed way of thinking” at the heart of terms like “white trash.” What do you think he means by “It’s a method of thinking preferred by politicians, preachers, and bigots as a means of social control.”? Later Offutt states, “When the white elite take an interest in the food poor people eat, the price goes up.” Can you think of current examples where you see this happening? Near the end of the essay, Offutt comments, “In the hills of Kentucky we all looked  alike—scruffy white people with squinty eyes and cowlicks…  Even our enemy was  mutual: people who lived on the blacktop.” By failing to include African American and other non-white citizens of Appalachia (see Affrilachian Poets), is Offutt, too, perpetuating a limited view of people of the region? 
For further reading about Chris Offutt and “Trash Food”:

“An Interview with Chris Offutt” by Austyn Gaffney, New Limestone Review, 2017

“Chris Offutt: Trash Food, 2014 Fall Symposium; Southern Foodways Alliance” (Author reads this essay)

“It’s Time to Ditch the Shame Surrounding ‘Trash Foods’” by Ashlie D. Stevens, 2019

“Local Restaurant Promotes Asian Carp” by Jana Weirsema, The Paducah Sun, 2018

Examine the structure of this essay. How do we learn about the author through these “houses” and what might she have meant by “various stages of dissolve”? Why do you think “Mom” is a subtitle, while the other subtitles are conceivable as names of houses, schools, cities, or roads/lanes? “Tecopa House” gets two entries, “Barney Road” gets two entries, and “Navajo House” gets four entries; compare multiple entries with the same subtitle—what do you notice and why might the author have revisited these in particular several times in the essay? 

Who is the “you” Watkins includes and how does this impact the essay? The last two sections of the essay are not signaled by subtitles, but by small blocks—what happens here at the end? Discuss what you think Watkins means by “through all of these memories which were once moments, real and felt even if forgotten.” What does Watkins mean by “There was not enough to go around”? Such a handy phrase to describe mean circumstances. Here is another: “I was born at a good time.”

For further reading about Claire Vaye Watkins

“Claire Vaye Watkins: Some Houses (Various Stages of Dissolve” (online version of the essay) 

“On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins, essay published in Tin House 2015; could work in conversation with other essays in Tales of Two Americas

Discuss the different applications of “mobility” in this essay. Who has the greatest mobility and who appears to have the least agency in terms of their mobility here? If you’ve been to an airport, what do you remember about the people who work there? Have you ever been stranded while travelling and how do you remember feeling? Alvarez spends part of the essay on airport food—and people watching at the food court—what conclusions does she come to here? Examine the different airport workers Alvarez focused on in this essay—what do you notice, how does she present each? What causes Alvarez to be “fed up with the airlines”? How is Estela’s mobility impacted and how does Alvarez try to navigate these areas? When Alvarez wakes up, she feels different than she’d imagined—she feels “a resurrection of hope”—where does this feeling come from? What experiences have you had with other people that resulted in a resurrection of your hope? 

For further reading about Julia Alvarez 

Author’s website

“’All-American’ writer Julia Alvarez talks immigrant experience, red pickup before Gifford Lecture”, by Melinda Johnson,, 2015

“How Many People Does it Take To Run an Airport?” by Harriet Baskas, 2016

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are buzzwords across sectors of our culture. The title of this essay, “Youth from Every Quarter,” captures diversity as it is generally seen.  Quade acknowledges it as “a worthy, essential aim,” but as the story illustrates, diversifying simply isn’t enough. Ana provided her life experience to the Elliot campus, but what did Elliot not provide Ana? Was she included? Did she experience equity in and outside the classroom? What is the impact of seeking diversity without inclusion and equitable experiences for all?

Ana was said to feel “isolated” by the narrator’s boyfriend; Ana herself is quoted as saying “I can’t do Elliot.” And the dean implied Ana did not belong when she responded to the narrator: “And you’re nice to show concern. But not everyone belongs at Elliot.” When have you experienced a sense of not belonging because you were in a setting that was very different from any setting you’d experienced before? What about the experience that made you feel you didn’t belong? Did anything happen or change that made you feel more included and valued?  

For further reading on Kirstin Valdez Quade:

Kirstin Valdez Quade

Laymon titles this essay “Outside.” What does “outside” refer to – being outside of what? Why is being outside significant in this essay?

Laymon quotes Dave Melton as the last line of the essay: “It’s hard to get right when the free folks out there are more trapped than the criminal folks in jail. I just want to be free.” What does he mean by the “free folks out there are more trapped than the criminal folks in jail”? What are they trapped by? And is his desire to be free just from jail or does he mean something more?

For further reading on Kiese Laymon:

Kiese Laymon

“Keise Laymon.” Amanpour and Company, PBS

Biss writes, “For me, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem.” Earlier in the essay she explains that Caucasian deriving from “the Caucasus region of Europe, meaning contemporary Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Outside of this context, the term Caucasian is a flimsy and fairly meaningless product of the eighteenth-century pseudoscience that helped invent a white race.” How does this essay challenge your concept of race and whiteness in particular?

There is plenty of evidence of racial inequities across facets of life in this country. Biss writes that Sherman Alexie proposes that white people “have the political power to make change exactly because they are white.” Based on the argument in this essay, what does Biss think white people need to do about white debt to address racial inequities?

For further reading on Eula Biss:

“On Being with Krista Tippett: Eula Biss Talking about Whiteness.” The On Being Project.

“In ‘Having and Being Had,’ Eula Biss Maps Capitalist Game Rules without Breaking Them.” NPR.

Oates seeks to capture the perspective of a white woman named Jessalyn trying to cross racial divides to support an activist group seeking social justice for African Americans. Jessalyn is awkward and overly analytical as she navigates the event at Hope Baptist Church across town from where she lives, debating how much money to donate. She questioned to herself how much is “too much” and how much is “too little” while imagining being sneered at. Later she wonders if she should give the young African-American boy Leander “something” for walking her to her car. Oates writes, “How easily she might have given Leander a twenty-dollar bill.” The next day and days after the name “Leander” comes to her, Oates noting, “a mysterious name… beautiful and strange and yet tinged with regret, reproach. She had to think for a moment, before recalling why.” What does Oates mean by regret and reproach? Why does it take Jessalyn a moment to recall why the name conjures regret and reproach? What does this story say about white people’s efforts to support social justice for African Americans?

What connections can you draw between ­­“Leander” and “White Debt­” by Eula Biss (pp. 112+)?

For further reading on Joyce Carol Oates:

“Author Q & A: Joyce Carol Oates.” Big Issue North

Freeman explores the different and intertwining lives of three women: Mira, Iris, and Gabriella. Mira’s life is told from the first-person perspective and focuses on Mira’s feelings about being the token “(fill in your chosen blank) friend” among her friend group as she is approached by a stranger and asked to become a nanny. Mira struggles to fit into her suburban life and the assumptions that come with the color of her skin.  Iris takes care of children who live near Mira and they frequently pass each other as Iris takes the children with whom she “shares no facial features” to the library daily. Her story is told in third person and explores the life she leads as she cares for the children of other people while struggling to care for her own as well. Gabriella “Gabby” is a young woman who has “beaten the odds and broken the family tradition” of getting pregnant before 15. Her story is told in second person as she navigates high school, babysits for Mira, and worries for Iris's son.

Why does the author write from different points of view (first, second, and third)? How does this point of view shape each character for the reader? How is each woman’s socioeconomic status important in how they interact with each other? What cultural aspects come into play with their given interactions? The chapter ends with the observation that “Each woman dreams of purchases none of them will ever make.” What might those dream purchases be for each woman? How do their dream purchases indicate their status in life? How do dream purchases play into the American Dream? Which woman, if any, is living the American Dream?

For further reading on Ru Freeman:

More about "Fault Lines"           

Author's website

In this personal essay, Egan reflects on how Seattle has changed in his lifetime, but he cautions against the feeling that the past is better. Egan states, “To lament the past is a perilous thing…The past cannot be restored.” Why does he say this? What examples does he provide to support this caution against thinking things were better “back then”? What changes have you seen in your neighborhood or community? How does it seem better back then? How is it not better than the past?

For further reading on Timothy Egan:

“An Interview with Timothy Egan.” BookBrowse

Smarsh chooses to call this essay “Blood Brother.” Why does she choose this title and the use of second person point of view (“you”)?

Smarsh shares that plasma does rebuild, but it does take time. The FDA regulates the frequency of donations to no more than twice a week. Smarsh points out, “The United States is the only Western country that allows even that frequency, though. Lenient regulations regarding donor wellness and financial desperation amid historic wealth inequality mean American plasma accounts for about 70 percent of collections worldwide.” What does this essay about a “blood brother” and plasma donation illustrate about inequality in America?

For further reading on Sarah Smarsh:

“Sarah Smarsh Challenges Narratives about America’s Heartland.” Sojorners

Tobar writes powerfully about the division of LA suburbs in the mid-1990's and the gun violence that ravaged some of them. He notes that his own Mount Washington neighborhood was quite safe and that at “725 feet above sea level, and about 300 feet above the Latino barrio below,” which gave him a completely different lifestyle as his neighbors below. He describes his own son, safely swaddled in his crib and well-fed in comparison with the death of a 9-year-old boy from another neighborhood. In his job as a reporter, Tobar was sent to cover the story of the boy and he can’t help but to feel for the parents as he feels his own powerlessness to protect his son in every way.

Why might the difference in altitude mean a difference in socioeconomic status in LA? Was the difference intentional or did it happen over time? What can be done about gang and gun violence in places where it is high? How might social and educational programs such as Americorps, magnet schools, or foodbanks change the socioeconomic status of some people living in LA? How does gang violence affect those who live in the area but do not want to be part of a gang? How does income (or lack of), skin color, cultural and racial backgrounds, or geographic location contribute to socioeconomic status? How does Tobar’s own past give him insight into the reporting he does for work? What factors led Tobar to be able to “rise above” his past?         

For further reading on Hector Tobar:

Author's website

As the only graphic/illustration piece in the anthology, how does Ruliffson’s use of this sequential art form convey important elements of former Staff Sergeant David Mansfield’s veteran experience? How do the details featured in Ruliffson’s piece help her create a specific idea for the reader/viewer of who Mansfield is? What is Ruliffson showing by spending one page on tea making? What does Mansfield mean when he says, “For the purpose of raising awareness about wounded soldiers, I can’t offer much help?” What comes to mind when you think of disabled veterans, or of people with disabilities who aren’t necessarily veterans? Spend a few minutes reflecting on where your mind built these ideas and discuss what “invisible” disabilities might include. 

For further reading on Jess Ruliffson 

Author website; “portfolio” page has other examples of her work that could be discussed in tandem 

“Playing D &D in a bunker with the geeks of war” Words by Sgt. Paul Mansfield, An Interview Comic by Jess Ruliffson 

PTSD: National Center for PTSD (Website with resources) 

Invisible Disability Project (Website with resources)

In a 2017 interview with Vogue, Gay notes that “Men write dark stories all the time, and rarely is that darkness obsessed over.” “But when women write dark, all of a sudden it’s a thing. It’s like: Why so dark? I mean, have you seen the world? It’s an appropriate response.” How is Gay responding to the world in this story? Where do you see “darkness” in this piece and where do you see light? Discuss Gay’s use of “How…” as the start of each subtitle within the story? Who is seeking to understand ‘how’ each of these elements or life choices came into being? Why is the story one long explanation and is this successful? What role does the setting play in this story? Describe how it also impacts Hanna and the choices she makes. 

For further reading about Roxane Gay

Author website

“Short Story Magic Tricks” “How” by Roxane Gay

“Roxane Gay on Writing Difficult Women and her Outlook on 2017” by Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, 2017

Deeran relays the story of a young couple trying to “get ahead” and buy a house in order to begin having children. As the story unfolds, the audience learns the ins and outs of the main character’s day as a lawn mowing specialist. The main character interacts with his coworker, Rid. Through their interactions, the audience learns the main character mourns the loss of the child he gave up for adoption as a teenager. While the main character isn’t sure he wants to become a father, his wife keeps insisting they are “ready,” and Rid sees no reason to wait for the purchase of a house.


 What was the economic slum of 2008 like? What caused it? Why did so many families lose homes and struggle to maintain a fair standard of living? How were those who had always struggled affected in 2008? Why might the main character be hesitant to become a father during that time? Why might he see buying a house as an important step before having a child? How does the adoption seem to play into his hesitance? The main character’s wife is selling Wrap-it, which is an MLM (multi-level marketing) company. How might MLMs take advantage of those who are struggling to make ends meet? What is the importance of the interaction between the lawn mowing team and the man who was “waiting on the bank” to come through as they mowed the lawn of the house he didn’t yet own?

For further reading on RS Deeren:

“Five Short Stories Highlighting a Socioeconomic Divide.” The Sill of the World. 22 Jan. 2020

Doerr captures the night he came home to a parked car in the driveway with a man asleep at the wheel. The inside of the car was full of bags, suggesting the man could be homeless.  In the essay, Doerr explores why he decided to call the police when the man did not respond to Doerr tapping on the window. He notes how he has tried to be a good citizen, yet in this situation he feels fear and mistrust and ultimately calls the police. “Wouldn’t a better version of me have offered you something? A bed, a cup of tea, a pair of wool socks?” In the end he questions, “Did I?” Did he do the right thing? Do his actions match who he asserts himself to be? When have you experienced a time that fear, mistrust, or stereotypes led you to act contrary to who you assert yourself to be? What happened?

Doerr quotes Saint Augustine near the end of the essay: “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” Why does this quote come to Doerr in recalling the story of the man in his driveway?

For further reading on Anthony Doerr:

“US Book Show: Anthony Doerr Builds Worlds.” Publishers Weekly.

Discuss Dillard’s definition of “a good day’s work.” Would the writer, painter, and composer qualify as having had a good day’s work, by Dillard’s standard, if they were about to work in their artform? What does Dillard’s short piece emphasize about the value of each person in a society? Are there people who “add nothing”—if so, who might they be? Discuss the concept Dillard brings up of how we value work in our society—where is the most valued place and where is the least? 

For further reading about Annie Dillard

Author website

Poets and Writers fiction prompt based “Soup Kitchen” 

Richie Unterberger shares relevant background on the subject matter of Young’s poem, “In the late 40s, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax went to Parchman Farm in Mississippi to record African-American prisoners. This penitentiary was renowned for its anachronistically harsh conditions, and it's something of a miracle that Lomax was allowed in to document the music in the first place.” What are the ethical concerns about Lomax’s project of recording the music of imprisoned peoples? As Young writes, “How is this/ not hell being made/ to make music here where/ music only makes time/ go slow cloudy/ like blue / Depression glass?” 

Young’s poem seems to respond to a photograph, although we “hear” in the poem so perhaps a recording, and it works as an ekphrastic poem. What details stand out to you? Who do you see in the poem? What do you make of Young’s choice to add space to the center of most lines? Contrast the image of the singer at the end of the poem with the image of music maker at the beginning of the poem. 

For further reading about Kevin Young and Howlin’ Wolf: 

Author website

“Kevin Young wants to keep everyday struggles and triumphs at the center of the Blacksonian” by Soraya Nadia McDonald, The Undefeated, 2020

Howlin’ Wolf, Sun Records

“Prison Songs, Vol. 1: Murderous Home” review by Richie Unterberger 

“Poets on Mass Incarceration and a Special Week of Poem-a-Day”, 2019

Discuss Russell’s concept of “empathy suspension” and firsthand experiences you may have with this concept. What images stand out to you in this essay as Russell contrasts her joy at being a tenant with the realities of the people living around the shelter downstairs and across Portland? What do we learn about the history of Oregon and present state of Oregon when Russell includes “Most of these faces were white…” Describe some of what makes homelessness a “multidimensional problem.” 

When a state of emergency is declared to address homelessness in Portland in 2015, some Portlanders responded with “We are making it far too easy for people to be homeless.” What evidence does Russell include to refute this idea? Have you seen people react to similar, softer methods of approaching other problems (ex. needle exchanges), with the same attitude? Why? How can “Despair function as an analgesic…” and what does Russell mean by “Grammar can erect a false wall”? Discuss Dillard’s “Soup Kitchen” poem in conjunction with Russell’s experience at the St. Francis Dining Hall. How does Russell end this essay and how does that make you feel?  

For further reading about Karen Russell

Author website

“Looking for a Home: Karen Russell on America’s Housing Catastrophe” (online version of the essay), LitHub, 2017

“2020 State of the Nation’s Housing Report: 4 key takeaways for 2021”, Habitat for Humanity

“Let them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World” (essay) by Naomi Klein, London Review of Books, 2016

Perhaps referencing Italo Calvino’s 1972 book, Invisible Cities, Laurentiis’ poem presents the idea of multiple cities within New Orleans, calling for the city to be “seen.” What images of New Orleans are presented in the poem and how are they built by the poet? What do you think the poet means by “As a modern text, witnessed and revised by the light as radically / As by the water, which is history, which/ Slips through your hands?” What is Laurentiis trying to do with this poem? How is the city “a ghost” worn by the speaker? Discuss the use of long lines—noting that line breaks had to be imposed as Laurentiis signals the start of indented breaks by capitalizing the first word on the next line. Why use such long lines? 

For further reading on Rickey Laurentiis 

Author website 

“New Orleans” The History Channel includes photos of Katrina damage, 2010

The protagonist Arthur visited a friend in an asylum regularly where he met the Governor, who is not really a governor. Yet Arthur made an agreement with the Governor to take responsibility for poor decisions and broken promises the Governor said he made in office, and Arthur received compensation in return. Later in the story, Williams notes that someone in the asylum with the Governor said all the Governor wanted in life was “a competent portion.” Later Arthur while hungry sought a bit of “integrity-raised beef,” but “there was no last portion.” Wiliams chooses to call this story “Portion.” What do you think she is saying in these passages about a “competent portion” and “no last portion of integrity-raised beef” about Arthur? About mental and social welfare?

For further reading on Joy Williams:

“Analysis of Joy William’s Stories.” Literary Theory and Criticism. 25 June 2020

Mun weaves the story of Korean immigrant Hanju Lee and his wife as they navigate through making a life in the States. Hanju, in his pursuit of wealth, had always trusted and been intwined with the “wrong people.” As he went further into debt with each failed business, he became more and more desperate and pulled his wife into a nefarious life with him. It is finally revealed that his wife was the one who led the family course, and she did something unthinkable to keep the family in good graces with the criminals for whom they had been working.

Why are so many immigrants pulled to the States by the American dream? What is the American dream and how has it changed over the years? Why might someone attempt the American dream but get pulled into unseemly activity? Hanju vividly remembers a time in Korea when he saw a monk light himself on fire in protest. What was the monk protesting? Was the protest effective? Why is that memory so important to the story? How does the physical description of Hanju’s wife match her mental state or personality? In reference to the crime the Lees might have been a part of, Hanju’s wife says “No one will believe us. We’re immigrants. We’re nobodies.” How often is the plight of immigrants overlooked because they struggle to be believed? How might a language barrier cause immigrants to struggle?

For further reading on Nami Mun

Author's website

Interview with the author

“Happy” is a personal essay in which Watson reflects on his mother employing and later firing a maid for stealing underwear. He is struck by how poorly the maid was paid and feels bad that she was fired, yet he titles the essay “Happy.” Why do you think he selected “Happy” as the title?

For further reading on Brad Watson:

“Brad Watson.” Mississippi Writers and Musicians.

“Award-winning Fiction Writer Brad Waston Dies at 64.”

Terrell writes about a young neighbor named Terry, a young African-American man who lived nearby. Though they lived in the same neighborhood, the essay is about how different their lives were. Terrell helps Terry get into college and leave the neighborhood behind, which meant different things for Terrell and Terry. Terrell writes, “The term ‘white privilege’ wasn’t common yet in those days. Neither were the terms ‘institutional racism’ or ‘structural racism.’ I’m happy that these terms are in current use now. But as shorthand, they fail to convey the human feelings that Terry and I experienced when we drive forty minutes west of Kansas City to Lawrence, Kansas, for his campus visit to KU.” What does Terrell seek to capture in this essay about the differences between his and Terry’s experiences?

For further reading on Whitney Terrell:

“A Writer’s Personal Story about His Divided Kansas City Is One Tale in ‘Two Americas’.” KCUR 89.3: NPR in Kansas City.

Joseph writes of the changing and decline of Detroit, Michigan. A place that once thrived with money, business, and manufacturing is now broken and dysfunctional.

How can a business change the lives of community members for the better or worse? How does modern capitalism play into gentrification? How does modern capitalism devastate some communities while improving others? Who wins and who loses when a city or business thrives? Who wins and who loses when a city or business fails?

For further reading on Lawrence Joseph:

About the author

Inerview with the author

Watson ends the essay with “…maybe, just maybe, on the wind-swept, heat-blasted, blizzard-besieged northern Plains, once there was a spot…” What does he mean maybe there was once a spot? A spot for what? A spot where…?” What is Watson suggesting about how our society has changed in the last 50 or so years?

For further reading about Larry Watson:

Gilb writes of his early high school choice to join a trade class rather than a college bound class. He notes that everyone he knew had not been to college and that nobody had told him to go to college. To many, it just wasn’t part of a life plan. He observes that in his desire to do better or become an “elite” he would mark the college bound path on paperwork because he knew it was the “better” path. Gilb discusses the rampant stories of young success as a way of motivating students to attend college. He argues that those stories don’t always motivate but can cause people to compare themselves in their life trajectories and feel “less than” because they are not millionaires by 22. Finally, the author notes that he did go to college and eventually earned a master’s degree, but even with that he worked construction for more than a decade after.

How has the narrative around getting a college degree changed in the last few decades? Does one really need a college degree to be successful? How can learning a trade help one to be successful? Why are college degrees looked at as “better” and trades looked at as “lesser?” What is the importance of education in a society that values success? Why are early success stories so often touted as the norm? What is the importance of having a balance of trade and education within a person or a society? Why might a college degree be used as a screening tool in a competitive job market?    

For further reading about Dagoberto Gilb

About the author

Grove Atlantic Article

Engel writes about Miami and the different experiences one might have there. The story begins in third person and then moves into second person. In the beginning, the story focuses on the nannies of different nations and the women who hire them. Then the story moves to some of the more specific experiences that one can have in Miami. From seeing Cuban immigrants arrive on the beach sunburned and filthy to being a second-generation Cuban immigrant who struggles with identity.  

What is the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? What does it mean to repatriate? How can immigration be different for first and second generations? Why is integration into a new place so important to the immigration experience? Why might it be important to also hold on to culture, language, and identity that come with an immigrant? How might immigrants see Miami as the city of magic? Why might an immigrant do so illegally instead of within the law?  

For further reading on Patricia Engel

Author's website

Diaz’s poem captures a Native American experience. How would you describe the tone of this poem? What does this tone reveal about the Native American experience?

Both Diaz and Danez Smith (in their poem on pages 19-20) capture the impact of being a part of a minoritized group on the human experience in the US. How are the perspectives captured in “American Arithmetic” and “i’m sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think” similar? How are they different?

For further reading about Natalie Diaz:

Natalie Diaz, in Her Own Words

Patchett’s essay explores the plight of the homeless through Patchett’s experience with Charlie Stroebel who worked closely and selflessly with homeless people in Nashville. What does Patchett’s recounting of her experiences with Stroebel show readers about the plight of homeless people?

For further reading about Ann Patchett:

Ann Patchett: International Best-selling Author and Co-owner of Parnassus Books


Overarching Topics for Discussion of Tales of Two Americas

Who is this book for? Who is the intended audience? Why do you think this? Does this audience align with the purpose of the book?