“Cultural broker” engages students, adds new dimension to Summer Read Program

May Ying Ly

The Summer Read Program, a Whitman tradition for more than a decade, is more than just a way to spark intellectual debate among first-year students. Reading a book like Anne Fadiman’s “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” about the struggle of a Hmong immigrant family with an epileptic daughter, also provides Whitman students with a window into another culture.

Each Summer Read author visits campus in the fall to speak to students and answer their questions. This year, the author was joined by an interpreter and “cultural broker” – someone who does more than just translate a language but also translates aspects of a certain culture that can be lost in translation.

The addition this year of May Ying Ly, Fadiman’s interpreter and cultural broker opened the window of learning even wider.  

“I’m thrilled that the Summer Read Program broadened its scope with May Ying Ly’s visit,” said Mara Sorkin, events coordinator in the President’s Office. “One of the program’s key goals is for students to understand alternate points of view, so I feel especially pleased that May Ying’s class visits were so well received.”

Ly, a community activist and organizer who founded the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association in Sacramento, Calif., worked with Fadiman during the research stage of her book, which centers on the culture clash between the Lee family and the California health care system. Her visit to Whitman at the end of October, which coincided with Fadiman’s presentation in Cordiner Hall, provided Whitman students with yet another perspective on the complicated and multi-dimensional book. In addition to giving a presentation of her own about Hmong culture, Ly visited Assistant Professor of Anthropology Suzanne Morrissey’s cultural anthropology course to engage with students in a more intimate setting.

“Hearing May Ying was really interesting because it gave me a perspective on the Hmong culture that wasn’t touched on in 'The Spirit Catches You,' because Anne Fadiman couldn’t possibly cover everything,” said Caroline Rensel, a first-year student in the class. “Her descriptions of the interactions within families, and especially how women are treated within the Hmong community, added a different side to the story.”

For Morrissey, having the opportunity for her classroom to host Ly was the perfect complement to the material she was already covering. She said the class syllabus contained an excerpt from “The Spirit Catches You” even before the book was chosen as the 2011 Summer Read selection, and students also watched a film by a well-known ethnographer of the Hmong in preparation for Ly’s visit. 

“May Ying Ly brought to life an appreciation for an unessentialized view of the Hmong,” Morrissey said. “She was adamant when she came to my class that this is not a uniform culture and you can’t essentialize about it. So I think what they took away from it was the point I wanted them to get.”

Students prepared questions in advance and were enthusiastic about learning Ly’s side of the story. After hearing her personal account of arriving in the U.S. as a refugee with her family, some of the students decided to attend her evening lecture, Morrissey said.

“I really enjoyed having May Ying come to class, and it absolutely gave me a deeper interest and understanding of the text and the issues it addressed,” said first-year student Nevé Baker. “One of my favorite aspects of Whitman is the multitude of speakers, because I feel like I learn so much more from hearing someone talk than by reading a book.”

Jennifer Mouat, language learning center coordinator, attended the classroom visit and thought the experience was mutually enjoyable for the students and Ly. “I believe she was as impressed with them as they were with her,” Mouat said.

“Their questions were so thoughtful, insightful, and they really wanted information that I thought was so appropriate,” said Ly. “And it shows that they actually were very into this book. I enjoyed myself tremendously.”

—Gillian Frew '11