Many Voices Tell Stories of Inequality in America

Book review: Tales of Two Americas, edited by John Freeman

Editor John Freeman of Freeman’s (a literary biannual showcasing new writing) and executive editor of LitHub edits this new collection of essays, short stories, and poetry on inequality and by extension, the divisions of races, classes, origins and backgrounds, income divides, and other divisive groupings in contemporary America.

The majority of these selections are nonfiction essays, but I read most of the fictional stories too. I recognized the writers and in several cases, I love their nonfiction or used to read their fiction. They’re powerful, although even a brief return to the genre reminded me that I prefer true stories. Still, Roxane Gay writes as compellingly and emotionally in her fiction, I felt nostalgic reading the familiar tone of Joyce Carol Oates, and I love Edwidge Danticat’s writing voice as much as I did in Krik? Krak!, her early short story collection.

But even with those inclusions and my own preference, I do think the essays were the standouts here. Fiction can be a useful and exceptionally powerful tool to tell gripping stories while making subtle, emotionally impacting statements: the kind that hit you in the gut, as opposed to trying to absorb the massiveness of statistics or reeled-off facts that end up seeming cold and distant. But memoir can do that too, and such selections here were stellar.

In his introduction, Freeman writes:

“America is broken. You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this. You just need eyes and ears and stories. Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself. There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all…The soaring cost of living in these cities – which have become meccas for luxury and creative economy work, but depend on service labor to run their dream machines – has a lot to do with this state of affairs.

Each one of us in America could have grown up someone else had the universe’s mysterious finger touched a different key. Later in life, when both of my brothers were briefly homeless at separate times, I discovered how even with comfortable upbringings the ladder of society can slip from right beneath you.”

Essayist Rebecca Solnit (my review of her collection Men Explain Things to Meopens with “Death By Gentrification: The Killing of Alex Nieto and the Savaging of San Francisco” which I considered one of the book’s highlights. “Nieto died because a series of white men saw him as a menacing intruder in the place he had spent his whole life.” That is, he was shot while eating chips in a park because someone thought he looked menacing. Responding police got trigger happy, perhaps mistaking security guard Nieto’s Taser for a gun, but that’s a long shot.

It’s especially poignant in light of past weeks’ recent news; that DACA has been repealed and Dreamers’ futures are uncertain. Why is it so easy to strike at people for things beyond their choice or control, like skin color, appearance, or their parents’ decisions, and strip them of their homes, or worse, like in Nieto’s heartbreaking case, their lives?

I’m not wondering from a moral standpoint, what’s right should be clear if you’ve any interior moral compass, I’m asking why it’s simply so easy, both to do and to get away with, in modern-day America. I think the pieces collected here ask that in a variety of ways, from the current status of Native Americans to Black Lives Matter to rampant poverty in a country where some have so, so much. The issues raised here are complex and consuming.

To reiterate Freeman’s introduction, America is broken.

In novelist Richard Russo’s “American Work”, he excellently pinpoints and distills some of the complex sociological problems surrounding Trump and his appeal to his voters, writing:

One can be sympathetic to Trump voters without giving them a free pass. Feeling angry, undervalued, and ignored, they don’t seem to grasp that these are not new feelings. They’re just new to them. American blacks and Latinos and LGBT folks have been feeling the same way for a long time. And I want to be clear about the man himself. Donald Trump is a despicable human being – a full-blown narcissist, a pathological liar, a vulgarian, a groper of women and girls. He’s completely unfit to be president of the United States. As regards the working class, however, he did what Dickens did. He held a mirror up to a whole class of people who were too often ignored. Because Dickens was both a good man and a great artist, what people saw in that mirror was their best selves. And because Trump is neither good nor great, his distorted mirror reflects little but his supporters’ bigotry and anger. 

In “Trash Food”, Chris Offutt explains that because he writes “about class”, naturally he must be interested in writing about the trashy foods eaten by the trashy classes. He’s horrified, by the topic and the language casually used. “The term ‘white trash’ is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage.” He’s embarrassed, despite his work accomplishments and personal relationship to the person requesting he write this, and meditates on what this derogatory terminology means and its history.

In Timothy Egan’s “We Share the Rain, and Not Much Else”, he recounts his time working temporarily in Seattle as a longshoreman, when he felt rich, financially and personally. It’s work that’s become rare, but he argues nostalgia over this kind of past can’t be compared to today:

To lament the past is a perilous thing. Revisionism is only half right, at best. The easy mistake is to think it was always better back then, the past that brushes out racial segregation, closeted sexual lives, no cure for polio. Life was harder, surely, when women washed clothes on scruffy boards. And life is easier, surely, when most people have all the world’s knowledge in the palm of their hand, at the swipe of a screen. But the past in Seattle – which is really nothing in the scheme of things, considering that the city is not even two centuries old – had a golden postwar period when people without college degrees, or GIs returning home after defeating Hitler, could live well, in the same neighborhoods as the swells. That past cannot be restored.

So when I walk the streets of the town where I was born, wading through the Amazon.com jungle that has replaced body shops and antique stores and affordable brick apartments, I try to restrain the nostalgic impulse.

Eula Biss (who I want to read more of thanks to this) writes “White Debt” comparing the weight of debt with guilt (their relationship always intertwined: they’re the same word in German) and how there are parallels in white responsibility to understand certain truths about past treatment and subsequent inequalities of people of color. She gracefully makes the common-sense argument that white people must automatically accept that even if we disavow racism now and personally always have, we still owe a debt for what came before, and it can’t be cancelled out by merely saying we’re starting to even out the balance sheet here and now. This piece enunciated so much that I didn’t know how to put into words.

Ann Patchett writes in “The Worthless Servant” about a priest who practiced what he preached. He told her, “All you have to do is give a little bit of understanding to the possibility that life might not have been fair.”

Patchett muses, “The trouble with good fortune is that people tend to equate it with personal goodness, so that if things are going well for us and less well for others, we think they must have done something to have brought it on themselves. We speak of ourselves as being blessed, but what can that mean except that others are not blessed, and that God has picked out a few of us to love more?”

I don’t think it even has anything to do with God; it’s chance, it’s the luck of the draw – I hate the declarations of being “blessed” for exactly the reasons she describes. Not meaning to rain on anyone’s parade, but the inherent assumptions there boggle the mind.

Back to Freeman:

“The way systems of oppression have entrenched themselves in the United States calls out for a new framework for writing about inequality. We need to look beyond statistics and numbers and wage rates. We need to create a framework that accounts for what it feels like to live in this America, a framework that can give space to the stories that reveal how many forces outside of wages lead to income inequality, which is a symptom of a network of inequalities.”

Other contributing essayists include Sandra Cisneros, Kiese Laymon, Annie Dillard, Anthony Doerr, and Karen Russell, not to mention the excellent poetry interspersed throughout.

It’s an incredibly smart and illuminating work, fostering awareness and impossible to read without being moved to action and further education on these topics. Must-read .

Tales of Two Americas:
Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

edited by John Freeman
published September 5, 2017 by Penguin

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