Bound by Raw Survival: Working Class Women Writers

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire wrote, “Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever the state of their struggle for liberation…Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.” Because I believe dialogue is a critical component in working toward radical social change, I have quite a bit of love for conducting interviews–and thus, do so with some frequency.

Last week, my interview with Lorraine M. López, the editor of the newly published collection An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots, was published in WireTap Magazine. Since my conversation with López was more lengthy than the allotted space would allow, I was given permission to post a complimentary piece here. The two posts are intended to be read in tandem in order to experience the full scope of our conversation.

An Angle of Vision demonstrates the necessity of people from marginalized communities (particularly those who wind up in academia) to speak for themselves and present a version of their existence unfettered by stereotype and cliché. The contributors write about existing in a space of ubiquitous non-belonging; the precarious nature of juggling sadness, rage, shame, guilt, and a resolve to provide one’s life as an example for other women who currently find themselves in the places we’ve spent our entire lives trying to escape; and the conflicting blend of remorse and liberation that comes with jumping class.

What role has working in the ivory tower of academic played in bringing this book to fruition?

Teaching at Vanderbilt University, I interact regularly and predominantly with upper-middle and upper class colleagues and students. This experience makes me profoundly aware of class difference and the impact it has had on my life as a woman from the lower classes. Generally speaking, my colleagues and students are sensitive, respectful, even excruciatingly polite at times, but many are privileged in ways that render them oblivious to how most people in the world struggle.

In her piece for the collection, “Sex and the Inner City,” Mary Childers tells how her academic colleagues dissuaded her from speaking about her background because they felt implicated by what she has overcome and assumed she was asking for compensation from them. From a compromised or marginalized space, we are not encouraged to speak out and share our experiences. I felt it was time to broach this subject in a way that would connect through particular and specific narratives instead of abstracted generalities. I believe these kinds of narratives do much to counter the misapprehension of others and provide an opportunity to inscribe an extraordinarily challenging journey without indicting the reader.

Education is frequently put forth as a means to “escape” poverty, though it is and environment that is both hostile to and unrepresentative of lower classes. Given that many of the contributors to An Angle of Vision are or have been university professors, a love-hate relationship with academia is present throughout.

Childers explores this topic splendidly by pointing out that educational opportunities in this country are a privilege and not the right of every citizen, as they are purported to be. She cites her struggle to educate herself, only to find herself ensconced in academia, where she ultimately discovers she does not fit in. Many of the contributors to this collection made the same discovery after struggling heroically to compensate for limited educational opportunities as a means to cross the class divide.

By outlining the backgrounds of resilient women who went from working in a chicken factory to the New York Times bestseller list, there is an inspirational element to these works. However, that vibe is tempered with the reality that these women’s new reality is far from easy, and brings new burdens to bear.

The women writers in this book risk much in telling their stories. They are driven by generosity of spirit to provide the examples of their lives for others, and they are also impelled by conscience not only to admit hardships in the past, but to tell how these hardships have shaped and continue to shape the self. Feelings of shame, betrayal, alienation, and unworthiness don’t disappear, even with time, once the circumstances of living change. In fact, the privileges we now enjoy intensify such guilt to the point that we convince ourselves we do not deserve what we have achieved, that we are impostors who will be caught if we slip up.

I hope readers take away an understanding of the relentlessness of deprivation, of how “class jumping” is not a means to shut one door firmly before opening another, and of how this collection is an earnest attempt by these generous writers to swing both doors wide and report what they see on each side of the class divide.

“Dual class citizenship” is a theme that is present in each chapter, and the book itself represents this position in that it is published by a university press yet remains accessible to a lay audience. Was this “bi-location” intentional?

What a sharp insight! I cannot say this “bi-location” was deliberate on my part. However, this was the only approach for me. Though I teach at a research university and possess a doctoral degree, I am in no way an academic scholar; I am a fiction writer who teaches in the creative writing program. The writers represented in this collection, excepting a few, are also primarily creative writers. Our objective is to reach a wider, mainstream audience of women like ourselves who have the desire to change direction in life and readers who have little exposure to the particulars of class difference and the individual experience of deprivation. That a university press deemed this project a worthy, even necessary, one is a credit to University of Michigan Press managing editor LeAnn Fields’ initial vision and the subsequent support of a forward-looking and innovative board of directors.

Photos by Sally Mann

by Mandy Van Deven
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1 Comment Has Been Posted

I'm almost always surprised

I'm almost always surprised when I come across a book or documentary that tackles a topic nobody has appropriately broached. It's 2009, right? "There must already be books about this!" I think to myself.

This topic is huge, at least in my heart, even though I have been very privileged. And I believe this book will be of interest to many different types of people - and even if it weren't, who cares? We are here to express ourselves.

Keep speaking up, sisters!

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