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Writing letters about literature

January 3, 2009 | 12:00 pm


The National Center for the Book in the Library of Congress holds an annual school-based competition, Letters About Literature, in which students write letters to authors. The intended author can be living or dead, and have written fiction or nonfiction or anything else; the key is to include "how that author's work changed the student's way of thinking about the world or themselves." The students compete in three grade-based categories; this year, one of the two high school winners, Ayesha Usmani, read "The Joy Luck Club" and wrote to Amy Tan:

My mother asks, in her not-so-perfect English, if there is a sale. The clerk mumbles an answer, and my mother is confused. I quietly whisper to her in Urda that the sale was last week. My mother responds to me loudly in Urda, and I feel embarrassed. I distance myself  from her as we head towards the car. People turn and look at us, muffling their giggles. I am imagining, but I am not imagining the shame....

I strive to find the connection with mother. A connection that will balance independence and loyalty to my heritage. A balance of Pakistani values of love, obedience, and humility in harmony with American values of independence, free speech, and self-esteem. A journey that will always be difficult but worth the effort. I desired that connection with your guidance Amy Tan. A connection that I have now found.

It's lovely that the mother-daughter relationships of "The Joy Luck Club," published 20 years ago, can speak to a second-generation immigrant today from an entirely different culture.

But not all of the entries are so serious. Over the last two years, more than 100,000 students have participated nationwide, and a few of the amusing lines are posted on another site for the project. "Initially this book showed me nothing of interest, but then I reached page three," wrote Kyle to Caral Maras, author of "Daniel's Story." And Lance told Lemony Snicket, author of "Hostile Hospital," "I think you should write more books. But that's just my opinion. Think about it." Maybe Snicket, a.k.a. Daniel Handler, got his letter -- he went on to write five more books in the Series of Unfortunate Events.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Caitlinator via Flickr