Photo: Ginny
Photo: Ginny

Lorraine M. López’s Six Writers on Social Class

When asked to compose a list of women who write about social class, a parade of female authors marched through my head. The table of contents of An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots, a collection I edited a few years back, presents an estimable directory of such women, including Dorothy Allison, Joy Harjo, and Sandra Cisneros. The invitation to participate helped me hone my list for this project by asking me to name emerging authors, which I interpret to mean women who are now establishing their reputations through newly released or forthcoming work, and this enabled me to winnow down my names to meet the suggested limit, though regrettably I must leave out many, many women who write about social class, and especially about social class inequity.

Poverty is a feminist issue. Despite our profound desire to wish sexism, like racism, away in the twenty-first century, gender discrepancy persists in the country, a discrepancy in earning between men and women and the resultant impoverishment of significantly more women than men defines the “feminization of poverty.” According to Action Aid sources, women perform approximately 66 percent of the world’s work, for which they are paid about five percent of its income. By blaming women for leaving the workforce at intervals for childbirth or for being poor negotiators, we ignore sex discrimination as the real culprit behind unequal pay and social class difference. As is the case with racism, denying sexism does not magically cause it to vanish. It just makes it harder to see. Small wonder that women writers return to the subject of social class repeatedly, in the way in which the tongue seeks out a sore spot in the mouth.

Below are the names of just a handful of emerging writers and writers with new or forthcoming work that features social class and especially the feminization of poverty. Their words move readers to reconsider comfortable assumptions, to alter their perceptions, and, as a consequence, to experience fundamental change in ways that can produce social change. It is my privilege to introduce such women here.

1. Joy Castro

Unforgettably, Joy Castro once held aloft an empty water glass at the start of a reading and then asked audience members if they drank from such a thing in their hotel rooms. “I don’t drink from this,” she said, “and neither should you.” She told of an investigation that revealed hotel housekeepers using toxic cleaners on drinking vessels. Dismissing the idea that such maids are stupid or unable to read warning labels, Joy Castro raised the glass a bit higher, as if making a toast. “That’s class rage,” she said. Castro’s The Truth Book, a memoir, and Island of Bones, a collection of personal essays, describe her experiences growing up in an impoverished home dominated by an abusive stepfather. Her work interrogates social class and gender privilege as intertwined, even inextricable. In an essay collected in An Island of Bones, Castro articulates how she transformed her outsider status into a call to action, one that can jumpstart conversations among gifted and now-empowered women writers. Motivated by her experience of growing up in poverty, Castro suggests ways for sharing resources, ideas, and actions:

As women coming from the condition of poverty, we bring an immediacy, an urgency to the table. We cannot falsely imagine that, because our suffering has ended, it does not go on and on. As accustomed as we might become to the presence of sufficient food, we cannot forget, as Toni Morrison writes, that ‘the function of freedom is to free someone else.’

Castro’s novels (Hell or High Water and Nearer Home) likewise examine social class from the lens of a formerly poor and vulnerable female protagonist, and her forthcoming short story collection, How Winter Began (due out October 1st from the University of Nebraska Press), presents characters, like many women in this country, standing on one side of the social class divide and looking to the other with longing, anger and confusion.

2. Lisa D. Chavez

Poet and essayist Lisa D. Chavez writes of the effects of social class limitations that linger long after a woman attains professional success. When divorce resulted in the near-loss of her home, she resolved her financial problem as her single mother would when Chavez was growing up. She took a second job—as a phone-sex dominatrix. This solution allowed her to keep her home, but it jeopardized her hard-won academic position, causing her colleagues to regard her with suspicion and distaste. The experience brought Chavez new understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices her mother made to provide for her.

When I think of the conversations I’ve had with my mother in the past I cringe—I can hear my patronizing voice telling her that life is the way it is because of the choices she has made … I was proud of my own independence, and in lecturing her, I managed to ignore the parts of me that were not always strong … Now I am amazed and shamed by my own arrogance.

Chavez is the author of two collections of poetry (Destruction Bay and In an Angry Season) and several stunning personal essays, some of which are anthologized in Fourth Genre, The Other Latin@, and An Angle of Vision. She is now assembling her nonfiction pieces for a book-length collection titled Some of the Words for Snow that I am hoping will soon be available to read and teach.

3. Daisy Hernández

Journalist and essayist Daisy Hernández’s memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, released just last year, is a rich tapestry of memoir on growing into womanhood in a working-class family. In it, Hernández writes of her parents’ insistence that she avoid the manual labor that circumscribes their lives by completing college and working with her head instead of her hands. One contemplative piece explores Hernández’s reflexive antipathy to a young mother she observes having a public argument:

She pushes a baby stroller up and down Anderson Avenue. She stands outside our local library, screaming into the pay phone’s receiver. She doesn’t care who knows her business. She is angry with her man. She carries a beeper on her jeans, the little black machine like a piece of dynamite strapped to her hip … I look at this girl, and her life feels so empty to me that sometimes I think I will cry. But instead I grow angry. I don’t understand yet that I don’t hate the girl. I don’t hate anyone on welfare. I don’t even hate poverty. What I rail against is someone else making decisions about our lives, about where the good schools are placed, where the bus lines will run, who the health clinic can treat, and the shame shoved onto to us, how it crawls inside of our lives and eats away at us until all we can do is scream, and it doesn’t matter who hears us. In fact, we want everyone on Anderson Avenue to hear. We want to matter.

In addition to reflecting on social class with exigency and vitality, Hernández’s memoir contemplates the sense of otherness she experiences due to language and sexuality. The author is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism and the former editor of ColorLines. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms. Magazine, Fourth Genre, and on NPR’s All Things Considered.

4. Bich Minh Nguyen

Memoirist and novelist Bich Minh Nguyen writes of growing up in an immigrant household where the television, a telling class marker, became the portal through which the dream of belonging in a new and alien culture enters into her childhood home. Nguyen reveals her working-class family’s unabashed ardor for TV, an enthusiasm that mutates into shame when the author enters academia and discovers that “not to have a television, not to need a television, was to know true privilege.” Nguyen’s memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, celebrates her unselfconscious obsession with TV and junk foods after emigrating from Vietnam to live in Michigan when she was a child. In it, she describes her family’s absorption of U.S. culture:

We had to put together the pieces of America that came to us through the television, song lyrics, Meijer Thrifty Acres, and our father, coming home from work each day with a new kind of candy in his pocket. We couldn’t get enough Luden’s wild-cherry-flavored cough drops or Pringles stacked in their shiny red canister, a mille-feuille of promises … Mr. Pringles was like Santa Claus …—a big white man, gentle of manner, whose face signaled a bounty of provisions.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s novels Short Girls and Pioneer Girl also explore the impact of social class difference on immigrant characters who realize that part of fitting into the fabric of American life is enmeshed with attaining material wealth. She’s currently compiling essays on high school, music, and the Midwest.

5. Teresa Dovalpage

In a personal essay titled “Another Frigidaire Sketch,” Cuban novelist and short story author Teresa Dovalpage writes of the regular power outages and lack of food that characterized post-revolutionary Cuba for her. The limited food supply during the “special period” caused Dovalpage to regard the family’s ancient Frigidaire as the sacred keeper of the few, often unappealing, edible items that were available in her youth. “Another Frigidaire Sketch” describes Dovalpage’s uneasy awareness of privileges enjoyed beyond the island when she was a student of American literature in Cuba.

It is difficult to read The Great Gatsby and write essays about the roaring twenties by candlelight in the middle of an apagón (a blackout), but somehow I managed to graduate. One day, when I complained about being hungry, my beloved professor, who was a hardnosed communist with a sweet personality, scolded me. “Teresita, in Cuba, we are not hungry,” she said. “That’s what the Yankees want to hear. We are only in need of food. We have to be stoic, like the Spartans.”

A bilingual author of books in both Spanish and English, Dovalpage is also a newspaper columnist and blogger. In her English-language novels, A Girl Like Che Guevara and Habanera, and short story collection, The Astral Plane, Dovalpage puts into perspective the deprivations experienced by the lower and working classes in this country by showing the ways in which want routinely forces compromises and life-changing choices made by her characters in Cuba. Best of all, Dovalpage writes with tremendous warmth and wit. Her characters demonstrate resilience through the humor they find in their day-to-day experiences of being in need of.

6. Lenore Myka

I have been honored by the opportunity to blurb Lenore Myka’s first collection of short stories, King of the Gypsies (out in the fall of 2015), and in reading the work, I am moved by the way the stories drive home the hard truth that the feminization of poverty has a global impact that is quite different than what is experienced in this country. Many of Myka’s stories are set in Romania, where the author worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. Like Dovalpage’s characters in post-revolutionary Cuba, Myka’s protagonists are pushed to the brink by the ravages of poverty. Such women make life-altering choices that result in consequences they are far too young and hopeful to understand. The sequencing of linked stories about “palace girls,” impoverished teens–lured away from home to work as prostitutes in a defunct luxury hotel in Bucharest–renders the narratives more poignant and affecting, sharpening the edge of our helpless grief. In “Palace Girls,” Irina, a character who appears repeatedly in the collection, is forced to cut down the body of a girl who has hanged herself.

She thinks of a girl she used to know, a thirteen-year-old Russian who was en route to Germany. She’d get high on paint, stealing it from the nearby hardware store, inhaling it in plastic bags so that her mouth would be ringed with silver … Irina wishes she had some right now. She’d never taken to drugs the way some girls had, but now she wishes she had something to deaden her insides …

This emerging author’s stories have appeared in the New England Review, Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and many other venues. Clearly, Myka is an author invested in social class difference, particularly poverty and its distinctive manifestations in international contexts. For readers interested in social class difference or for anyone who seeks unforgettably powerful stories, this is definitely a writer to watch.

So there it is, my short list of women who write about social class. I wish time and circumstances had allowed me greater opportunity to expand this list, as I know I am leaving out many extraordinary women writers. Still, those I’ve named are the women whose writing first occurred to me when I embarked on this project. They are all emerging writers to watch as their careers develop in stunning ways, and as they bring social class and social class inequity to the forefront of the literary conversation.

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