A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Ideas for Group Discussions
by Robert Olen Butler

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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While in popular discussion of immigration many people speak of "assimilation" of immigrants into American culture, specialists in social and linguistic sciences differentiate between "assimilation" and "acculturation." The difference is significant. An immigrant can adopt a new language, adopt new customs, values and habits, adopt new styles of clothing, and new hairstyles, and become very much like the perceived "average American." If the "average American" is perceived to be middle-class Euro-American, and if the immigrant has similar physical features — such as skin color — to Euro-Americans, then he or she may genuinely "assimilate" or become like the perceived target group.

If an immigrant has features that differ from the Euro-American stereotype, however, the specialist would say it is more accurate to say the immigrant "acculturates" because behaviors may change, but the basic features such as skin color and facial structure do not change — unless the individual chooses to undergo surgery or other medical procedures to alter the physical appearance.

The fifteen stories which compose A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain offer good opportunities to discuss the ways in which immigrants in general and Vietnamese immigrants in particular deal with the realities of war in the homeland that led to their being visibly different "new Americans" in the United States. The changes they make, the joys and sorrows they find in the "new life" offer insight into the human capacity for enduring suffering and rebuilding life after significant losses. At times, citizens of the U.S. whose grandparents or earlier ancestors endured many of the same trials, exclusions and barriers when they first arrived as immigrants in this nation are quick to forget the human faces of their own heritage and are tempted to redefine "real American" in ways that would have kept their own forbears out of the country in past eras. Butler's individual portraits of people in this collection serve to remind the reader how similar, how human, how "real" every person who walks the earth actually is.

1. For many Americans, the name of the country, "Vietnam," brings forth some association with political controversy and guerilla warfare. How many of the stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain actually include scenes from the war? In how many stories are there scenes of combat? In how many stories are military settings or military actions simply briefly mentioned in passing by the narrator?

2. Several of the narrators in the collection specify ways in which they consider themselves different from Americans. What characteristics, traditions or attitudes do they mention as marking themselves as different from what they consider the norm for Americans? What have Americans done with them or to them to make them feel welcome or to make them feel still "alien?"

3. Some critics will contend that a writer who is a white American exercises a form of "cultural imperialism" or "intellectual colonialism" whenever assuming the voice or creating a literary persona of any character who is not of the same ethnicity. Such critics imply, then, that a writer should only write about his or her "own kind." By extending that premise, one might say that men and women writers should, respectively, only write about characters of their own gender, ethnic group, social class, age, and so on. Obviously, literature composed by men and women over the centuries has shown that, while biases and limited perceptions of "the other" do appear repeatedly in stories, plays, songs and poems, writers often do a creditable job of representing the experience of people who are quite unlike themselves. Butler has posed seven female narrators in this collection. How successful has he been in rendering each female personality? Are there any stories in which the narrator seems to come across more as "a man's idea of a woman" rather than a "woman's idea" of that same character?

4. Compare Miss Noi, the bar girl...

(The entire section is 1,282 words.)