Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan, a self-proclaimed bibliophile, gladly joined in the college's new campuswide book reading project, called HCC Book Connection.
After picking up a copy of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," by Anne Fadiman, she plunged into the detailed struggle between California doctors and Hmong parents, who would not follow instructions for treating their beloved, severely epileptic infant daughter. The Hmong are a tribal people from the mountains of Laos who came to the United States after the Vietnam War.
"I wanted to strangle these people," said Duncan, who was shocked by the parents' insistence on adhering to their animistic interpretations of their daughter's condition and on discontinuing medications despite doctors' strenuous warnings. Suddenly, however, Duncan realized she was making a cultural judgment not unlike the kind that made treating Lia Lee, the Hmong child, a calamity.
"I am exactly the person this author was talking about," Duncan said.
Organizers of the reading project hope there are people besides Duncan who find the book just as enlightening. "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" is the first selection of the Book Connection, incorporating it into English, health science and even math classes. It also is the topic of faculty and staff reading groups and the focus of talks and videos on campus through April.
"I love to read, and I love for people to come together around a book," said Kate Hetherington, the college's vice president for student services, who started the project. "You can look at it from so many different perspectives."
Some of those perspectives will be examined tonight at 7, when the author is scheduled to speak in Room 100 of the Instructional Lab Building on campus. Fadiman, whose book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, said in an e-mail that she keeps in touch with the Lee family, who continue to care for Lia, 22. She has remained in a vegetative state since early childhood.
Although younger Hmong may blend western medicine and Hmong healing methods, older ones, such as Lia's mother, Foua, remain very traditional, Fadiman said. For western medical practitioners, "there's still a long way to go" in dealing with different cultures, she said.
"It never occurred to me that 'Spirit' would become a medical text," Fadiman said. "So it has come as a great surprise that it's assigned in so many medical schools and residency programs."
Other community book projects have been organized by city governments in Seattle and Baltimore, with churches, libraries and businesses recruited to distribute copies of books and hold brown-bag lunches.
At Prince George's Community College, English professor Mary Brown said the school's Book Bridge Project, started seven years ago as a joint effort between the college and community, draws about 3,000 participants a year to discuss books such as "The Color of Water," by James McBride. "It has fostered greater understanding between the college and community," Brown said. "People open up, and it gives them a safe haven to discuss issues across cultural, racial lines, gender lines."
At HCC, where there are nearly 900 international students from 90 countries, it seemed appropriate to promote discussion on issues of cultural assimilation raised by Fadiman's book.
"It goes back to the most basic function of a liberal arts education," said English professor C. B. Lovell. "We're always trying to help students see the connection between what they read and the real world."
Mathematics professor Brian Gray even devised symmetry exercises based on intricate Hmong embroidery. He also wrote computation problems, which analyze wages paid by the United States to its clandestine Hmong recruits who fought during the Vietnam War.
"What we want is a discussion across the entire community," he said.
The book is assigned reading for Beverly Dash, a student who said she had never heard of the Hmong people. Dash, who is returning to school for her associate degree after working for years in the medical technology field, described the book as both exciting and disturbing, particularly in its depiction of the medical community's response to Lia's seizures.
"I spoke with another classmate this evening, and she said she couldn't put it down," she said.