“Would we try to find out excuses for books such as this that twisted the history in Europe, certainly we wouldn’t. … In order to make survival story better it completely alters history seems to be a good reason to not use the book as an example of good fiction.”
It is the words of James Nehring, a professor of education at Umass Lowell, during a panel debate on whether the novel, “So far away from the bamboo groves” is suitable to be used in required reading list.
University officials, current professors, graduate students, and teachers participated in the debate that took place on the past 23rd of last month in Umass Lowell, located northwest of Boston.
The panel, made up of professors of education department agreed unanimously that the novel distorted historical facts and addressed the inappropriateness of the novel to be used as supporting textbook material. However they were not able to take a clear position on imposing how much restriction to place on the novel.
The details and outcome of the panel debate will be organized by university English education department professor Min Jeong Kim and will be submitted along with recommendation letter containing signatures to the state board of education. Department of education still has Yoko Kawashima Watkins on the recommended reading list and several public schools in Massachusetts have adopted “So far from the Bamboo groves” as an reading requirement of the fifth and sixth grade.
Dr.Agnes Ahn participated as a speaker during the debate. She shared her story of how she came to reading “So far from the bamboo groves” after her son came to her and asked, “Why did the Koreans mistreat the Japanese so?”, which prompted for her to make an effort against teaching young children with distorted historical facts by revealing the novel’s historical truths.
In Dover-Sherborn district where teaching “So far from the bamboo groves” became a problem originally, after fifteen years Dr.Ahn and student-parent Sheila Jang explained the story behind successfully petitioning for removal of the novel from reading requirement and showed a video containing the progress of the California board of education removal of the novel” from its reading lists.
One of the panel members Jay Simmons of English department pointed out, “My major concern with the book is that it would be, as history, is too overtly fiction.” and stated, “Question that is unresolved in my mind which would be interest to other panel members to discuss is whether difference between removing the book from a recommended list be different in kind or degree from the removal of a book from a library. And frankly I’m undecided.”
Professor James Nehring added, “If I were to teach it I would have to have a fairly sophisticated class in which I could ask them the question of why would the author do that? And to give them other examples of places where things have been changed and that would take a good deal longer than simply presenting some historical background.
It might be a worthy thing. I think it sounds more like a college writing course than for a fifth grader.”
Professor Patricia Fontaine of the English education department, hesitated at first to take part in the debate because she was concerned it may turn out to be a witch hunt for writer Yoko Watkins. She commented “This is definitely not a book for middle school children. The violence that is portrayed in this book should not be middle school reading… Even if we tell them it’s not true they’re going to say ‘I believe it’ because it is a kid and that’s what’s been great about historical fiction is there is a plethora of children actors in history which hooks them… Therefore historical fiction actually rewrites history and we don’t need to rewrite history.”
As an instructor teaching fifth grade children, Michaela Colombo says, any material containing survival stories from times of war and also be able to teach history should be welcome but that “the reality of a historically distorted novel being taught as fact is astonishing,” and added she was disturbed on the level of violence in the story.
As for Doctor Minjeong Kim, who has successfully organized the panel debate on the issue went on to share, “I kept asking if I looked like an angry Korean professor because I am Korean…and I’m doing this because I’m Korean. I tried to stay away from my personal experience. … It’s really all about responsibility. If we want to teach this book then we have to be responsible whether they’re learning accurate history.”
Professor Jay Simmons compared Professor Catherine Peterson’s historical novel (Lyddie) with “So far from the bamboo grove”, pointing out the depiction of a sexually promiscuous female union chairwoman Lyddie was problematic however went on to shed some light on union labor works and racial slavery while not distorting historical facts at all.
Virginia Disarcina of Westford school district who taught “So far from the bamboo grove” revealed, “We taught ‘So far from the bamboo grove’ along with plenty of background history with help from our social studies teacher. We should be able to address all the problems within Yoko’s novel of distorting historical facts as well as all novels,” and raised questions about continuing to teach it in her classrooms.