My goal is to create a safe space where honest conversation, intellectual risk and personal discovery happen.

Mai-Linh Hong

Before Mai-Linh Hong became a professor of English, she practiced law. So perhaps it's not surprising that she asks her students to examine thorny legal issues in the works they read, which often focus on ethnicity and justice. Her interests lie in the legal, historical and political context behind American literature, particularly how minority groups experience the dominant culture.

Hong's class reading lists include books like Louise Erdrich's The Round House, which examines the rape of a Native American woman that may have taken place on a reservation. "The fact that the location cannot be pinpointed is critical because, due to limitations of Native sovereignty, a non-Indian cannot be tried in an Indian court for a crime that took place on tribal land," she explains.

The mechanisms of the state and the misuse of state power are also revealed through the works of Japanese-Americans held in WWII internment camps, says Hong. "For example, Kaiko haiku is a freestyle form that evolved in the internment camps into a form of social protest," she says. "When my students read literature from the camps, watch a film like The Cats of Mirikitani, or experience the artwork of Roger Shimomura, they get an understanding of what it meant to be an American held in an internment camp simply due to race." She makes a point of including poetry, film, art, news, law, policy and social protest as well as literature in her classes: "I want to give my students the tools to critically analyze anything they encounter."

Literature written by members of minority groups often shows that feelings of personal identity transcend geographical borders, Hong notes. Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club depicts a bar in a border town where many lives and identities intersect. "The stories spark discussions about complicated issues, including issues of race, class and sexual identity," she says.

Hong's students also examine the Harlem Renaissance through the poetry of Jamaican-born Claude McKay, "Some of McKay's work expressed his social and political concerns as a black man and an immigrant living in the United States," she explains, noting that many of his concerns are just as relevant today as they were a century ago.

"I challenge my students to openly discuss uncomfortable issues such as racial inequality, rape and political injustice," she says. "My goal is to create a safe space where honest conversation, intellectual risk and personal discovery happen."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015