Cultures in a Common Land

Jan 18, 2021

Hey, you all! It’s 2021—finally!! And HPPR’s Radio Readers is back with a spring read for all of us!  What with all the lessons offered by 2020 (may it rest in peace), we’ve opted for a series of books to help us explore Cultures in a Common Land, as a way to talk about how to live alongside others whose beliefs and ways of being seem not to align with our own.  Know what I mean?

To frame our conversations, we’ve chosen a trio of titles – classic titles from the 1990’s culled from archived book lists from Radio Readers throughout our region—and…our choices are -- could I have a drum roll, please? -- Barbara Kingsolver’s 1999 controversial novel The Poisonwood Bible, Anne Fadiman’s 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and Kent Nerburn’s genre-bending 1994 Neither Wolf Nor Dog.   These works relay in turn the experiences of American missionaries in the African Congo, of immigrant Hmong seeking health care in California, and of the genocide of American native peoples and their cultures.  Are you ready?

Our spring read begins with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  Spanning several decades from 1959 through the 1990’s, this novel depicts the ways that an American missionary family is woefully unprepared for life in the African Congo, despite their belief in their own cultural superiority.  Fortified by their patriarch’s conviction to convert the local population to Christianity, the family is baffled when the population prefers not to. The family’s failed efforts to continue their mid-century American lifestyles – replete with seed packets and Betty Crocker cake mixes – are just a foreshadowing of the ways that the daughters in the family will adapt to challenges and opportunities offered in the post-colonial Congo.  There might not be a more clear exposition of the clash of conflicting cultures of belief than this that Kingsolver creates for us.   But it’s the telling of the story through the distinctive voices of the women of the family – the wife and the daughters—that brings yet another powerful dimension to Kingsolver’s critique of religious demagoguery. 

Next up is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.   In the early 1980’s when Fadiman was first introduced to the family of a unique ethnic immigrant group who are featured in her book, the Hmong, an Asian group from China and southeast Asia, were a fairly recent immigrant population in California’s central valley, where the events of Fadiman’s book take place.  Local hospitals were unprepared – lacking translators in Hmong language and culture—to meet the needs and expectations of the Hmong seeking medical treatment, specifically the Lees and their infant daughter presenting with epilepsy. The collision of two cultures – one focused on cure through modern pharma and the other directed to care of spirit and soul – includes legal battles over the care of the child and the parents’ ability to provide appropriate care.  Fadiman’s approach in telling the story is profoundly judicious. It’s been described as the most widely read book on the Hmong experience in America and is cited as a definitive work in cultural competence, especially for health practitioners. 

Rounding off the Spring Read is Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder.   In his introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition, Nerburn, a non-native author noted for his respectful attempts to narrow the distance between native and Anglo cultures—wrote that he “had never met an Indian person who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and [he had] never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited this continent before us.”  Nerburn’s way is to approach these feelings through memory, honesty, and dialogue, dialogue which includes space for silence and for listening.  

So here we have it –I hope you’re in for HPPR Radio Readers’ 2021 Spring Read: Cultures in a Common Land.  Join our Book Byte contributors returning faves like Mike Strong, Nicole English, Valerie Mendoza and Freddie Gipp along with some new voices and perspectives.  It all happens here on HPPR and on Facebook at HPPR Radio Readers’ Book Club. 

For Radio Readers, and from Dodge City, Kansas, I’m Jane Holwerda.