This fall Xavier's first-year students are reading Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories tied together thematically and with some common characters. The stories deal with the experiences of Vietnamese people during what America calls the Vietnam War, in the 1960's and 70's, as well during the immediate aftermath, in the 1980's, when children orphaned by the war (and often fathered by American soldiers) attempted to forge lives in southern California.
The students read this book as part of the Freshman Seminar course, a required, one-credit-hour course, whose objectives include introducing first-year students to Xavier's mission of contributing to a more just and humane society. The course has much in common with other required, first-year seminars at other schools around the country, including many other liberal arts schools and HBCUs. But with Xavier being the nation's only historically black, Catholic school, Xavier's version may be more particularly tied to the school's historical mission.
The common reading is a major feature of the course, and the course also includes a service-learning component, in which students are asked to consider the meaning and relevance of the mission through engaging in community actions and addressing social needs, needs that fairness and justice might otherwise negate. Thus, students are asked to consider the meanings of justice, fairness, humanity, through multiple perspectives, including their own, those their various communities, and, perhaps most difficultly, those of the characters in the short stories.
While in the past the common readings have been works of nonfiction, some memoir and some third-person, last year was the first time a novel was offered as a common reading (Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones) and this year marks the first time a collection of short stories has been used. Drawing thematic connections between the readings and community needs addressed by service-learning is always a challenge in the course, both for the students and the teachers. But drawing connections between our experiences in, and perceptions of, our communities and the experiences of fictional characters in short stories set in and around the Vietnam War proves exceptionally challenging.
The first, and maybe most basic, common theme to point to is the shared humanity of us all, which gets neglected, overlooked, devalued in both war-torn times and places, and in communities where systemic unfairness and injustice exists. The characters in the book are marginalized, segregated, cast away, thought of as "others" and as not our problem, much in the way Americans living in pockets of deep, multigenerational poverty are. Both groups are seen at times as hopeless and irredeemable, without inherent worthiness, and in some cases individual actions confirm and reinforce these perceptions. The book's presentation of a young, male character in Los Angeles, Vinh, as a mostly unrepentant violent criminal is especially complicating for readers as they attempt to situate him within a highly oppressive and marginalizing context.
But these same aspects of the text, which make it so challenging for readers, and for students and teachers in this course, also prove its biggest strengths. The characters are absolutely other-ized, seen as outsiders, rejected not just by American society but within traditional Vietnamese culture as well. Their individual actions do not and cannot change that. Their actions cannot be completely removed from the characters' segregated contexts, nor can the characters be excused from, or relieved of, all personal responsibility, life choices, accountability.
In other words, the characters cannot be put into an easy box, or used to simplistically support some ideological bent or political agenda. The issues are more complex. The problems are more complex. In this way these fictional characters are made real, as their complexity, and the complexity of their situations, mirrors that of the people in our communities and the problems they face.
There is unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity in our society. Those at the bottom of our socioeconomic systems face oppression that must be met and fought against by all those who wish to live in a more just and humane society. Recognizing the humanity of others is a beginning, whether in fictional characters of a foreign culture or in our own backyards. A beginning, but certainly not an end.