It is with distinct agility that Kate Gadbow, director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana, navigates the murky waters of displacement and cultural identity in her new novel, Pushed to Shore. The university town of Missoula provides the turf for a surprising intersection between the lives of Hmong and Vietnamese refugees and their American high school ESL (English as a second language) teacher, Janet Hunter. Brought here by an obscure clause in immigration policy, the newcomers attempt to bridge the gap between their native culture and the ever-changing culture of modern American life—a culture of brand names and celebrity. Similarly, their divorced teacher hovers in an ambiguous state between her own needs and yearnings, uncertain of herself in many ways. Yet her deep feeling for her students, whom she recognizes she can never fully understand, buoys many of their lives, so much at sea in a foreign land. To several of them, her sincere concern is, no doubt, a lifeline
In the course of her teaching, Janet Hunter often contemplates the seemingly inscrutable faces of her students. She ruminates upon the importance of familial ties to those young students, some already married at age fifteen or sixteen and with small children at home, looked after by relatives while they attend school. She is aware that many of her students were forced to leave their countries alone and running for their lives; how some undoubtedly fought and killed out of necessity; how they might have been willing to do all manner of things in order to survive the refugee camps and finally arrive in America; how the scars of war, visible and otherwise, must become imbedded in a person’s being; how scars remain long after a wound has healed, always a reminder.
Janet Hunter is aware that facts alone say little about the actual effect of traumatic events on individuals. She sees that, despite a willingness to reflect on her students’ choices and circumstances, she remains the outsider here. Her ability to understand her students is determined by and proportional to the degree to which she is able view herself clearly. This changes from day to day. Similarly, her awkwardness with her students reflects the general tenor of ambiguity that characterizes the student’s interactions with the world at large.
One student, Vinh Le, attracts his teacher’s attention with a poetic account of escape by fishing boat from Vietnam. Four boys, all of them twelve at the time, fled without telling their families. All were beaten by pirates, all narrowly escaped death. The school makes a dress-code exception for Vinh so that he may wear a baseball cap at all times, one that covers the ribbons of scars around his head, a result of the beatings. Janet Hunter would like to see his essay published in the school journal, thinking it would bring further understanding of what her students have endured in their short lives. She also thinks it would be good for Vinh to see his writing appreciated in that way. But when she speaks with him about it, his response leads her to question not only her judgement but even her motivation.
The importance of identity is central to the truths revealed in Pushed to Shore. The novel asks what it means to say: I am a woman; I am a refugee; I am divorced; I am a child of the sexual revolution; I am a teacher; I am a student; I am alive; I am in love. Janet Hunter asks these questions of herself and of her students. In each case, there is no clear answer—only a hint at several possibilities, a suggestion in the broadest sense.
Many of Janet Hunter’s interactions with her students call her choices and attitudes into question, largely in her personal life. She questions her relationship with her former husband and the ensuing seven years in which she has lived alone. She examines her need to live for a cause that improves the lives of others while standing on the sidelines of her own life. Throughout the novel, she makes poignant, unsentimental observations about the struggles of her students, the high school faculty’s cultural biases, and her own seeming inability to make clear assessments.
Every aspect of Pushed to Shore is viewed through this lens of uncertainty, affording the reader a rigorous and thorough exploration of cultural dynamics. Gadbow succinctly presents the clash of cultures played out daily in the lives of the students and their teacher. The story suggests that such conflicts cannot ultimately be resolved, but may be accepted. The way Gadbow presents Hunter’s alienation from her own culture, that of her family and her generation, suggests that while understanding is multilayered and fleeting, individuals may possess within them personal points of reference that float free of cultural identity and can act as bridges to span oceans of difference.
Pushed to Shore author Kate Gadbow will read and sign books at Fact & Fiction, Friday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m.