New students engage in ‘Three Books Chats’

Three Books
The three books of this year’s summer reading for incoming undergraduates share a theme of globality and migration.

During a recent online discussion about Signs Preceding the End of the World, incoming Stanford students posed questions, discussed themes and shared favorite passages from the novel, which they read over the summer under the Three Books program.

Signs, written by contemporary Mexican author Yuri Herrera, tells the apocalyptic story of a young woman, Makina, and her journey from Mexico into the United States. Makina, who was raised in an environment that taught her how to survive a violent, macho-driven society, is smuggled across the border to find her brother. She carries two secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld that facilitated her crossing.

Through the online forum, students talked to each other about the novel:

“When I hear the word ‘epic,’ I associate stories about Oedipus, Hercules or Jason and the Golden Fleece,” one student wrote. “Each of those men were sent on quests in ancient times to foreign lands where they encountered mythical and surreal phenomena. I hadn’t realized until now that Makina faces a similar situation, but in a different part of the world, a different identity and a different time.”

“I would love to hear Herrera’s personal take on how one’s identity is affected by the culture or language they speak,” another student wrote. “Throughout the book, but particularly in the last two chapters, Makina’s ‘transformation’ as a character seems to show that it is incredibly difficult to hold on to one’s former or original self after being in a new environment.”

Alexis Marie Pearce, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, moderated the chat, posing questions, sharing insights and guiding the conversation. Responding to one student post, she wrote:

“I found your reflections on Makina’s seeming lack of emotion to be very interesting. You are right – she seems to be just moving forward with her journey with a definite sense of self-assuredness that might even be considered hubris! Could the novel be considered a tragedy, and if so, would this be her tragic flaw?”

A family memoir and a spy thriller

Signs was the subject of the first Three Books Chat for Three Books, a signature Stanford program that introduces incoming undergraduate students – first-year and transfer students – to intellectual life on the Farm through the shared experience of reading, thinking about and discussing the same three books.

Stanford mailed the books to students across the nation and around the world in late spring, along with a letter from José David Saldívar, the Leon Sloss Jr. Professor of Comparative Literature, the faculty member who selected the books.

In addition to Signs, the students received Brother, I’m Dying, an award-winning family memoir by Edwidge Danticat, who emigrated from Haiti to the United States when she was 12; and Native Speaker, a corporate spy thriller by Chang-rae Lee, an acclaimed author and the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the English Department and Creative Writing Program of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford.

In coming weeks, Paula Moya, the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities, will moderate a Three Books Chat about Brother, I’m Dying, and Saldívar will lead a discussion of Native Speaker and the other two books.

Engaging on challenging topics

In his letter, Saldívar told the incoming students they would find peers, mentors and teachers who are passionate about – and expert in – the full range of human endeavor at Stanford, people who would expand their perspective and challenge their preconceptions.

“Like many topics that you will encounter at Stanford, the subjects addressed in these books are complex, and none of them has an easy, self-evident solution,” he wrote. “As an incoming student, Three Books will initiate you to the experience of engaging with peers and instructors around challenging topics, critically and respectfully, with an open mind.

Saldívar said the three books share a common theme: globality and migration.

“Twenty-first century migration has not only been driven by processes of decolonization set in motion after World War II, but also by possibilities set in motion by technological advance and new phases of late capitalism that we are now living in,” he said.

“Illustrating the impact of such diverse, linked processes over time, the United Nations reports that there are now some 213 million migrants who have been forced to leave their homes: refugees, exiles and immigrants.”

He said the books pose universal questions:

“Why is staying at home so much harder to do? Why is there a terrible abyss forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home? Why is there a new aesthetics of aquí [here] and allá [there] in world literature? Our three books can answer these questions and more.”

Saldívar will welcome the authors of the books to campus to participate in a panel during New Student Orientation. The four-day event introduces incoming students to the wide array of academic, intellectual, leadership, cultural and social experiences available at Stanford.